Growing Innovation issue 20, December 21, 2016

“From value-adding to agri-tourism, we explore it all to improve farm-gate returns”

Fiona Hall, Caernarvon Cherry Co, NSW

With a nose for opportunity, Fiona Hall is determined to explore every feasible avenue for improving farm-gate returns, above and beyond efficiently growing, marketing and exporting great fresh produce.

It all began six years ago when Fiona took up full-time work in the family growing business, at the time run by her husband, his brother and his father. “I married into the industry back in 1997 and had always been involved with packing the fruit between my other work, but my full-on involvement has come in recent years. It grew out of a passion to be hands on and to get the message about our produce and other products out there,” Fiona said.

“As well as fresh cherries we also grow apples across five orchards, and we do cherry juice and some other value-added products. I thought we needed a brand to cover everything, and so the premium Australian fruit brand BiteRiot! was born.”

The unified brand was an important step in the company’s business strategy, and cherries from around 15 growers across New South Wales are also now packed, marketed and exported under the label. “We did about 1500 tonnes of cherries last year, and as our plantings grow this is set to increase,” Fiona said.

And the business opportunities haven’t stopped there. “I think an important strategy for improving farm-gate returns in horticulture is to consider other ways of being innovative outside of the actual growing, from value adding to looking towards agri-tourism,” Fiona said. “For us, we’re just starting up with agri-tourism. We have a beautiful old hall that was built on our property between the first and second world wars, and have set it up so that people can hire it out for functions such as birthday parties, weddings and corporate events. It’s close to town, it’s near a really picturesque dam, and it’s just lovely.”

As well as more pick-your-own farm-gate activity and continuing to grow the hall venue’s popularity, the next step for the business will be looking at on-farm accommodation options, Fiona said. “These sort of agri-tourism opportunities are a good way to improve your profitability and also help form a great connection with the public.”

And it’s keeping the public satisfied that Fiona sees as one of the key challenges for the cherry industry going forward, from a retail and market point of view. “Today the demands of consumers are much higher than they’ve ever been. Customers want bigger, harder and sweeter cherries, and we need to be able to develop and deliver these at the same cost,” she said.

“As well as work into new varieties that have the qualities consumers are looking for, and the qualities growers need – such as the ability to cope with rain – we also need to have quality standards within the industry to deliver consistent, good fruit and improve consumer confidence. This is the way we can increase domestic consumption.”

Fiona said that crop protection options and market access for mainland cherry growers are also top priorities. “I think over the last 12 months our industry’s R&D has really stepped up. There’s a lot getting done, and we just have to keep the momentum going,” she said.

“Our business is happy to get involved in R&D, too. We’re doing fruit fly trapping and monitoring on our properties as part of industry fruit fly work, for example, and are also working with the NSW DPI on irradiation treatment of cherries for access into Indonesia. And of course we’re open to adopting research results and new technologies that become available.”

Fiona was also the recipient of a Nuffield Scholarship under a Hort-Innovation-funded R&D project for the apple and pear industry. Though her project had a focus on the apple industry, what she learnt can be applied across horticulture.

“My Nuffield experience was a great opportunity to make contact with growers from around the world and to see the challenges they face and how they work around them. One of the biggest takeaways was how much collaboration goes on. Obviously in Australia, particularly with cherries, our geography is a challenge when it comes to working together and networking, but sharing, understanding where everyone is coming from, and collaborating where we can will only make us stronger.”

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