Organic nut grower Philip Farnell and his wife, Patty, gave up the city life two-and-a-half years ago when they moved onto the Wellwood orchard in Wallace, Victoria.
The property was established in 1992 and while walnut trees remain a large focus, the couple grow beautiful chestnuts, along with some hazelnuts.
Philip, who was a civil engineer, said the change from city to country work has been a refreshing change. “It’s been great to settle down into the routine of farming. It was on the drawing board for a long time,” he said.
Philip and Patty employ the equivalent of one full timer and do much of the work themselves, with a little help from some four-legged friends. “We don’t cut grass like they used to – we now run some sheep along with the mower.”
New harvesting methods have also been on the agenda. “We recently trialled a new harvesting approach for our chestnuts. Rather than picking them up with a garden rake and a bucket, we used a vacuum harvest process. The vacuum machine is somewhat similar to what they use for collecting horse poo – it tows nicely behind the ride-on mower and saves a lot of labour,” Phillip said. “We found we could harvest a very large tree in about a fifth of the time.”
Philip said immediate challenges facing the chestnut industry centre around biosecurity, including quarantine rules with respect to blight control. “Chestnuts suffer blight just like walnuts do. It’s devastating trees and crops in the north-east Victoria region. We recently had our farm assessed and we’ve got zero so we’re very lucky, but we’re quite isolated from anybody else.”
Last season many growers also experienced black spot in their chestnuts, Phillip said, which didn’t help with low prices and high consumer expectations. “A number of growers at the Tri-Nut Conference reported that they had black spot in their nuts, which unfortunately isn’t visible until you open them – which is generally in the hands of the consumer.”
Philip said biosecurity at the farm gate was becoming a bigger issue for farmers across the board, with many growers putting signs at their property entrances to discourage unexpected visitors. “It could be other farmers, irrigation sales people or plant machinery contractors. This is to avoid contamination of the property by people bringing unknown pests in, as well as weed seeds.”
In the Bright region trees had been removed and burnt when they contracted disease, Philip said. “It’s scary that your trees can be knocked over like this. The government takes over and quarantines your property to isolate the disease. It’s a total loss and some of those trees would be very large and very mature. You’re looking at 30 years before those trees are established again. That’s a generation gone – you won’t see those trees reach that level of production again until the grower’s kids are looking to take over the farm.”
All of this highlights the need for the industry to come together and continue to address the issue of quarantine.
On the consumer side of things, Philip sees an opportunity to continue educating consumers that chestnuts are clean, fresh and more than up to international standards.
“I would say, I too was naive about chestnuts before I entered the industry. They can be quite tasty as a snack and they can be used in cooking. They’re an alternative source of protein, and they’re great.”