Nothing but blue skies
Bright future in farming at Blue Sky Produce

They say eating avocados can be good for your heart, but what about growing them?

Whenever farm manager Matt Fealy is out and about for longer than expected, his wife Jess doesn’t have to look much further than the avocado orchard to find him.

It could be said his passion for growing avocados is just about on par with his devotion to raising their four kids. In fact, Jess often jokes that Matt’s avocados are like his babies.

And, just like Matt sees the obvious potential in each tiny, growing avocado, he and Jess fiercely believe there is a bright future for smart kids in agriculture.

That belief is a significant part of why they made a career change into horticulture and moved their young family to North Queensland to manage Blue Sky Produce.

Matt and Jess grow avocados, mangoes and Tahitian limes for the Australian and export markets on a 153 acre property at Paddys Green, about 10 minutes out of Mareeba.

This has been their life since 2013, when Johnson’s Kairi NQ – a farming enterprise owned by Matt’s uncle and grandmother – bought the place and asked them to manage it.

At the time Matt and Jess, both 37, were on an indefinite road trip around Australia with their kids.

They’d left their well-paid jobs (Jess was a chartered accountant and Matt ran Flight Centre’s international 24/7 emergency call centre) and rented out their metropolitan Brisbane home.

They had already been toying with the idea of buying their own farm, but their defining moment came when they were sitting on a beach in Broome and got a call.

“My uncle Ross said, ‘we’re interested in buying an orchard, would you come manage it?’, knowing we were interested in coming home and getting back to our family’s agricultural roots,” Matt said.

“We were only three months into our ‘indefinite’ trip, so our choice was whether we’d come manage the farm or keep sipping cocktails on the beach. Well, their purchase of the farm settled in September, and we were here to take it on within days of it being settled.”

When Matt and Jess arrived, the farm was so run down they just about got the bulldozers in and started again.

Now, four years later, they farm 2500 mature Shepard avocado trees, 1200 young Maluma Hass trees, 3000 mango trees (R2E2, Kensington Pride and Keitt) and 600 Tahitian limes.

They have doubled their production every year since they started, and Matt will plant another 1900 avocado trees in the next 12 months.

He also plans to trial tree architecture manipulation on a few rows of new avocados to make them ‘robot ready’. This will involve pruning the trees into narrower rows, as two dimensional as possible, to allow robotic harvesters through.

Matt’s intense interest in robotics – and in the future of horticulture – landed him a 2017 Nuffield Scholarship to investigate how the use of robotics can revolutionise the horticulture industry.

He is halfway through his global travel – integral to the Nuffield Scholarship experience – and recently rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s brightest minds in agriculture and technology at the invitation-only Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, California.

Jess, just as passionate and proactive about the future of the industry, was a finalist in the 2017 Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Rural Women’s Award.

Her passion and proficiency for using the digital world to connect consumers and farmers has come in handy well beyond boosting engagement on the Blue Sky Produce Facebook and Instagram pages.

She is a volunteer blog team director for Country to Canberra, which strives to empower young rural women to reach their leadership potential, and founder of Back Paddock Business which provides business and communications support to rural enterprises.

As if all of that and being a mum to four young children wasn’t enough, in her day job she works as a community engagement officer for the Tablelands Regional Council in the agriculturally rich Atherton Tablelands.

Matt and Jess were just five years old when they first met in Malanda, 45 minutes south of Mareeba.

Jess’s parents were dairy farmers, Matt’s mum ran the artificial insemination centre for dairy in Malanda and his dad was an electrician at the milk factory.

Both Matt and Jess ended up heading to the big smoke for uni, with Matt getting half a pharmacy degree and half an optometry degree and Jess studying accounting.

After doing a full circle and coming back to the country, their passion is to see the diversity of agricultural career opportunities promoted more in rural communities.

“So often the case has been that if you’re a rural kid and you’re a bright kid at school, you get sent off to go do something, say, in medicine – something where you’ll earn more money than ‘bloody agriculture’,” said Matt.

“Kids witness what their parents go through, and as kids you don’t need to be told, ‘oh there’s not much money in agriculture, so I better go do something else’ – you just know.

“So we went away to university, we disappeared to the city, but agriculture is in our blood and we came back. So we are the product of an education system that has not highlighted the benefits of being in agriculture.”

Now they have four kids of their own – Jack, 12, Toby, 10, Lexi, 8, and Kipp, 3, and their eye is on the future.

“Jess and I are really big believers in trying to provide leadership in a rural community and examples of how great and wonderful agriculture is and how diverse the career paths can be,” he said.

“There’ll be computer programmers required in agriculture, there’s social media, telling your provenance story, food safety, traceability. There’s enormous diversity and opportunity and there is no reason why kids who grow up in a rural community shouldn’t be able to stay there.”

Blue Sky Produce  was featured in the October 2017 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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By Susie Cunningham