Ian Groves planted his first lychees in 1982, starting out with a modest 250 trees. Almost 35 years on and his Yeppoon farm has some 5000 trees, a strong market presence, a booming social media following and innovative growing techniques that continue to boost efficiencies.
“Back when I started out I’d just taken over the family farm from my father, who had grown pineapples. The land was getting tired of the monoculture, so I decided to try three new crops: avocados, mangoes and lychees,” Ian said. “It was still early days in the Australian lychee industry, but I picked them because people said they were an easy crop to grow, with few pests and diseases. I have a laugh because that didn’t turn out to be quite right, but I wouldn’t change anything. They’re an exciting fruit and there’s a lot of desire in the market for them. And when people find out you grow lychees, you suddenly find yourself with a lot of new friends!”
Despite what was promised, crop protection from “birds, bats and a million insects that want to eat the crop” remains a big challenge, Ian said. “We had permanent netting to keep out the birds and bats, but in last year’s cyclone Marcia they were torn down and really decimated the property, which we’ve been replanting.”
The new trees, like those before them, are planted high-density style. “We’ve got growing techniques here at the moment that most other growers aren’t yet using. As well as high-density planting, we maintain our newest plantings at a low height so that you can stand on the ground and pick them right up to the top. It’s safer and much more efficient,” Ian said. “We also have everything on drip irrigation, so we use a lot less water. In farming, you’ve got to always be alert to ways of doing things cheaper and more efficiently.”
As far as managing insect pests, Ian has been looking forward to the recently-released guide to fruitspotting bug, produced through one of Hort Innovation’s multi-industry projects. “The lychee industry was one of the project’s contributors along with the macadamia, avocado, papaya, custard apple and passionfruit industries, and I was part of the committee overseeing it,” said Ian, who is on the executive team of the Australian Lychee Growers Association. “The guide is packed with practical advice for growers. It’s not just ‘go and spray with this stuff’ or ‘put this bait out’ – there’s a full guide to recognising the bug and monitoring it in the orchard, a whole section on trap crops, important information of area wide management and loads more.”
Another R&D output Ian is particularly keen on addresses the fact that lychee skin dehydrates and browns very quickly. “At the retail level this quirk of lychees can be problematic, but one of the really great projects that we’ve had in the last few years with Hort Innovation has involved the development of retail-ready packaging that keeps the fruit red. It’s a special box with a clear plastic window above the fruit, with a little message on it along the lines of ‘keep closed to keep fresh,” Ian said.
“We’ve had the boxes for about three years now and more and more they’re being looked for in the market. In fact, while my Sydney wholesaler was sceptical at first, now he says buyers are looking specifically for our lychees because they’re in that retail-ready box. It allows the retailers to get better value out of the fruit, keeps consumers happy and making repeat purchases, and of course this keeps the value up for growers as well.”
When it comes to keeping consumers happy, Ian has another ace up his sleeve – savvy use of social media. “About three years ago we started the business’s Instagram account (@grovesgrowntropicalfruit), which now has over 1900 followers. More recently we also started the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/grovesgrowntropicalfruit). Our intention in using these channels is to put a positive image of farming out to the general public. We show them what’s happening on the farm, how the fruit is grown, and just make that connection with them. They love seeing how their food is produced. Like everything else that looks good and promising in horticulture, I’d encourage other growers to give it a go. It’s important to stay alert to the changing times.”