Growing custard apples has been a “later life challenge” for Gary Pike who, since leaving school in the early ’60s, has considered pineapples his bread and butter.
While pineapples remain the predominant crop at G.O Pike and Sons, Gary is optimistic about the opportunities for custard apples and is increasingly turning his attention towards them.
This shift in focus happened almost by accident, when Gary’s sister and brother-in-law left the family business. “They were growing custard apples and tropical stone fruit and when they left they were going to bulldoze them out, but we said we’d retain them and give growing them a go.”
Some of the custard apple trees on Gary’s Glasshouse Mountains property have been standing for more than 30 years. “They’re old trees, but we’ve significantly upgraded them. We’ve removed blocks of the Hillary Whites and upgraded them with a newer variety called KJs.”
Gary said Hillary Whites require hand pollinating, which is an expensive undertaking. “In the afternoon you go and get the flowers and extract the pollen from them, and the next morning you go down with the pollen and a little brush and, if the flowers are open and receptive, you pollinate them. For two months, six men were doing that five days a week and my wife and I were doing it seven days a week.”
Of the 2000 custard apple trees at G.O Pike and Sons, 1500 are now the new KJ Pink variety. “These are different because they self-pollinate,” Gary said. “You have to thin them, prune them a bit more, and the fruit size is smaller, but they’re definitely less work.”
Gary said he found working in the orchard and growing custard apples rewarding, although this year he had more competition selling to the Melbourne market because the Interstate Certification Assurance (ICA) fruit fly protocol had been lifted.
“Until last year you couldn’t send them down there unless you had done extensive spraying, dipping and record keeping. There were only three of us from the Glasshouse Mountains sending fruit to Melbourne, but now it is less viable.”
G.O Pike and Sons completes chemical trials every year in the hope of identifying less expensive and more natural options, Gary said.
“We’ve been conducting chemical trials with organic compounds, but it’s very hard to get accurate weight measures because of the nature of the fruit. It’s susceptible to splitting and fruit loss after a spell of cold weather or a bit of rain.”
Gary is also involved with a grower group that is working hard to market custard apples to wider markets through avenues such as social media. He is looking to export the fruit this year and is hopeful this move will improve the average price return.
“You put the fruit into the market then the buyer takes it and doubles the price. It makes the fruit that expensive that people are shying off buying it. Most growers hate this. We accept it because we’re between a rock and a hard place, but my message would be, support the growers and buy the fruit.”