Vines with a View
and a Passion for Farming

It was a chance encounter at the local post office that marked the start of a new career for John and Jane Richter who today grow passionfruit on their property at the base of Mount Beerwah in the Glass House Mountains.

When Jane arrived home from work one evening in 2014, she never expected to come home to be told she was going to be a passionfruit grower.

“John was at the local post office one morning waiting for it to open and there was another lady there waiting also. Well they got chatting,” Jane said.

“Turns out she and her husband owned a small boutique passionfruit farm on the Sunshine Coast that they managed by themselves with a bit of extra labour at peak times.

“I think she painted a very romantic picture of what passionfruit farming could be like and John was sold hook, line, and sinker.”

By the time Jane arrived home that evening John had already joined the passionfruit association and ordered the grower guide and field guide. Jane recalled he’d also been and measured out the main paddock and priced up everything they would need.

“When John gets his teeth into something, he goes for it,” Jane said.

“I got home that night to be told, ‘honey, we’re going to be passionfruit farmers’ and that was it.”

From that point on Jane said it was an incredible ride.

“We went full scale ahead with ground preparation banging in 2136 posts, 10km of wire and 15km of irrigation and that’s before we even thought about planting,” Jane said.

The whole process was a very steep learning curve that unfortunately was not without its mistakes. Following an unfortunate series of events, the Richters ended up planting the wrong variety of passionfruit for the region.

“Our first season we planted the Misty Gem variety, but the variety that really grows well on the Sunshine Coast is Sweetheart,” Jane said.

“We were so green we had no idea other than what we had read in the grower guide.

“Our plants were two and a half months late arriving from the nursery, and because we were both still working through the week, we only had weekends to do the planting.”

Jane said they organised friends to come and help however the weekend they planted the temperature topped 43 degrees.

“600 plants were dead within two weeks because of a mixture of heat and planting technique,” Jane said.

“Some we planted too deep, some not deep enough, and some the grafts broke so there were a few different factors but ultimately it came down to the fact that we just didn’t know what we were doing. But we were enthusiastic.”

The Richters made it through their first year of farming but unfortunately when it came time to plant again, they hadn’t quite learnt their lesson about the variety. So, they replanted with another 600 Misty Gem vines. Fortunately, a local grower steered them on the right path.

“We were asked why we planted the Misty Gem variety. When we chose that variety, we had been told it yielded the most fruit, had the highest pulp ratio for fruit size, and it was the one all the market agents wanted,” Jane said.

“This person was very candid with us and said yes that’s the case, but it doesn’t matter how good a grower you are you can’t grow them, they won’t grow properly and yield commercially here.

“We are forever grateful to that person because they literally pulled us up short and said pull them out and plant the Sweetheart variety.”.

Having overcome their rocky start to their farming career the Richters are now actively involved in the passionfruit industry with Jane the current Vice President of Passionfruit Australia.

A key focus for Jane is research and development and driving change and growth within the passionfruit industry.

The industry’s current R&D levy is funding a breeding program which aims to create F1 progeny true breeding varieties that are bred for a number of different characteristics.

“The program is going through and identifying the genetic markers for fruit size, sweetness, yield, disease resistance, and the ability to withstand warmer and colder temperatures to name a few,” Jane said.

We are part way through the process which will span around 10 years and hopefully be a continuous program.

“The overall aim of the breeding program is to produce commercially viable varieties, ideally that are true breeding that you could potentially propagate from seed.”

In addition to the levy funded research and development program, Jane is busy pursuing several other research projects for the benefit of the industry.

“Post-harvest is a problem for the passionfruit industry. When fruit leaves the farm, it is spotless but by the time it reaches the supermarket shelves fruit is often wrinkled and in poor condition,” Jane said.

“Fruit is often not refrigerated or correctly managed from a humidity perspective and that dramatically reduces fruit quality.

“I’ve found a company that makes a post-harvest coating for non-edible skin produce that can extend shelf life from 10 days to 45.

“With a trial quantity of this product, the NSW Department of Primary Industries, who have a post-harvest lab, will be doing a lab-based 45-day shelf life trial.

“We don’t have the levy money to fund these kinds of exercises, but it’s amazing what you can get if you just ask people nicely.”

Despite the industry attracting new entrants Jane said the limiting factor for the growth of the industry is how labour intensive it actually is.

“The cost of labour, particularly peak labour, for most passionfruit growers accounts for 50 per cent of input costs,” Jane said.

“Passionfruit is a distinctive colour to its surroundings, especially the purple varieties, and it drops to the ground when it is ripe and ready. You’ve got robotic mowers and vacuum cleaners so why can you not have a robot that harvests the fallen fruit.”

Export is another area the industry would like to explore.

“There is very little export at present. Based on levy data, last years’ export total was 140kg which is about 20 boxes of fruit,” Jane said.

“Passionfruit was one of six tropical fruits recently identified by Hort Innovation with export potential but what the industry needs to make it work properly is a cooperative marketing agreement.”

Jane believes the industry should be looking to the RockitTM apple for inspiration when it comes to marketing their product overseas.

“Pre-packaged fruit into a similar tube format not only allows for plenty of communications space to tell the Aussie passionfruit story but would help preserve the shelf life of fruit because you could control the relative humidity within the tube,” Jane said.

“But of course, to do that requires an investment in marketing and we’re never going to have enough domestic levy money to fund such an idea.

“I do think it’s an industry that’s got the capability to be four or five times bigger than it is today, but as an industry we definitely need to be smarter about how things are done.”

Written by Natalie Brady
Photography by Natalie Brady

Vines with a View is featured in the March 2019 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.