A life rooted in melon growing
Growing watermelons is in Terry O’Leary’s blood.
Some of his earliest memories are of planting, picking and packing with his parents and his sisters on the family farm on Pelican Back Road, Chinchilla.
And, while his siblings pursued career paths outside the farm business, he swears his two younger sisters are so good they could still easily out-pack four backpackers – maybe even six.
Terry, 35, grew up in the golden days for melons, when Chinchilla was producing about a quarter of the nation’s melon tonnage and became known as the Watermelon Capital of Australia.
His father Darryl was inaugural president of the Australian Melon Growers Association, helped start the iconic Chinchilla Melon Festival and was the first grower in the nation to commercially produce seedless watermelons with any success.
It is little wonder Terry plans to eventually buy out his parents and keep the family farm, Paramagh Farming, going for generations to come.
The future of Paramagh Farming looks something like this.
There is Terry, his wife Aja, 36, a photographer from the Czech Republic who he met while he was working for John Deere in London more than a decade ago, and their daughters Evelyn, 9, Josie, 6, and Daisy, 2.
In some ways, their dream is not so different to the dream another young couple had back in the 1980s when Terry’s mother Janet brought her then boyfriend Darryl out to the family farm.
“I’m 57, and my father bought this place when I was born. When Darryl and I started dating, and we came out here and sat in this house – it was an old wreck then – we sat here and went, ‘We’re going to live here one day’,” Janet said.
“We never dreamed that we would, but we did.”
Fast forward 35 or so years, and the O’Learys – Darryl and Janet, Terry and Aja, farm a combined 3500 acres of land, between dry land melons, irrigated melons and purebred Angus cattle.
They sell and market through Select Melons Australia, and their melons go to the central markets and major supermarkets nationally.
Like most growers, they have had as many tough years as good ones in recent times. But, despite the hardships, the next generation of O’Learys is ready and willing to keep the dream alive.
Terry has just returned from a few weeks in the United States with some of the major seed companies to discuss trials and new varieties.
It was not Terry’s first trip over. In fact, his family – being at the forefront of Australia’s melon industry – has been making trips to the States since about 1996.
Seedless varieties have progressed significantly in Australia since 1994, when Terry’s parents first grew them from some Yates 1600 seeds which had been sitting with an agent in Brisbane for a while.
It was not an easy thing, growing seedless watermelons, but Darryl and Janet worked with what they had at the time to start what would become a national trend in melon production.
The O’Learys continued to lead the way, irrigating when everyone else was growing in dry land, and growing in dry land when everyone else swore by irrigating.
“Melons have been grown in Chinchilla since the 1930s, really, but it was dry land up until about 1993,” said Darryl.
“When we put the seedless in, we started irrigating and all these other growers said, ‘You’re mad. You can’t irrigate watermelons. You’re crazy – it won’t happen’. And now they all do it,” said Janet.
Of course, it all depends on water availability.
“Sometimes luck just goes your way, you get good rainfall and the dry land can out-perform the irrigated land,” said Darryl.
Luck has not gone the O’Learys way – or the way of many growers in the Chinchilla region – too much in the last seven years.
They were all pretty good years up until 2009, and then in 2010 they had the flood and that was it.
“We’ve been getting our backsides kicked ever since,” said Terry.
“Since 2010 we’ve had two record-breaking floods, four wipe-outs from hail and two of the driest years we’ve ever had – oh and disease, too.”
Last year was the first year in seven years the O’Learys have turned a profit from their melons. To top it off, a 264-hectare solar plant has been approved directly across the road from their farm and their homes.
They are grappling with the uncertainty of what the development – and the rise of such developments in the Western Downs – could mean for their farm business, their homes and the region’s identity.
“They want to become the power hub of Australia. So, they’re replacing watermelons with solar panels, but then again, I doubt 18,000 people will come to town for a festival on solar panels,” said Terry.
Chinchilla is now down to just five melon growers compared with about 23 growers in the late 1980s, and they would be lucky to be producing five per cent of the nation’s melons.
The O’Learys say environmental challenges aside, compliance obligations have stifled many of the smaller growers.
“It’s not as easy anymore as just growing a good melon and shipping it off,” said Terry.
“The drought knocked a lot on the head, but if you look at the average grower, no matter which horticultural industry you’re in, you look at the amount of certification you need to have to be able to sell your produce, it’s too much of a headache for the smaller growers.”
Darryl said there were also up-sides to increased certification requirements.
“The other side of that is it’s good that everybody’s certified and there are a lot of benefits,” said Darryl.
“Keeping records and spraying and all of that is important. Back in the early days we didn’t have to have all of that. We used to just plant them and pick them.”
So, what keeps the O’Learys farming watermelons, and why does Terry see a future in it for himself and his young family?
Darryl, with a sense of humour as dry as the dry watermelon-growing soil of Chinchilla, quips that they keep going because of debt – and everyone laughs a knowing laugh.
But Janet is quick to point out a deeper reason.
“These two love it. They love the challenge, and every day is different,” she said.
“Me personally? I could move to the coast and live there – not look at another watermelon. It’s been my life.”
Darryl, even after 47 years of picking and packing melons since his first job in the industry as a 12-year-old, is still lost for words when he tries to describe the satisfaction he gets from growing a good crop of melons.
“The challenge of growing a good crop of melons is…” he trails off.
Terry – with his career ahead of him, a life rooted in growing melons and a passion to take the farming business to the next level – is there to stay.
“It’s very satisfying. You can’t say it’s monotonous,” he said.
Terry O’Leary featured in the Septemeber 2017 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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By Susie Cunningham