From protective cropping to substrate-based growing, mainland strawberry grower Nathan Baronio is keen to explore every avenue in the search for more efficient and environmentally sustainable practices.
“My family has always invested in the idea that businesses need to keep changing with the times,” Nathan said. And change Eastern Colour certainly has. The business, based in Stanthorpe, was once one of the largest broccoli producers in Australia, before moving into capsicums, then stonefruit and apples.
“In about 2012 we noticed horticulture in Stanthorpe was starting to pivot again, and that there was a lot of success in strawberries. We saw the fruit as the future of farming in the area, and wanted to be a part of that,” Nathan said.
The Baronios joined forces with business partner Paul Dydula, growing their first block of strawberries in 2014. And it was during this first year that they dipped their toes into protective cropping for the fruit.
“Protective cropping for strawberries isn’t common at all on mainland Australia, but we were very interested in it. Particularly coming from an apple-growing background, where hail netting was imperative, protective cropping was an easy concept for us to get behind for strawberries,” Nathan said. “We did a four-acre trial in our first season and it worked really well. Today the business grows 1.4 million strawberry plants over 70 acres, and by the end of the 2017/18 season we hope to have 75 per cent of that under polytunnels.”
Nathan said that strawberry growers have plenty of opportunities to innovate in their businesses and try new things. “But you obviously can’t take up every opportunity, you’ve got to find what really excites you. For me – and my brother Stephen, who helps drive a lot of our business’s innovation – that’s been the protective cropping, as well as substrate strawberries, which we’re now moving towards. We hope to be one of the major producers and real leaders in this space.”
This season Eastern Colour is running a one-hectare substrate trial, and aims to have about 10 hectares of substrate strawberries going into the 2017/18 season. “The approach is similar to hydroponics, but we’re growing in a cocopeat substrate. It’s a system our business partner, Paul, helped develop for Australia,” Nathan said.
Nathan said some of the key benefits of substrate growing will be the reduction in labour and the improvement in working conditions for employees. “There’s a shortage of seasonal workers in Australia – particularly out in Stanthorpe, which is a small country town two-and-a-half hours from a major city – so it’s hard to find enough workers. I believe that just as farms invest in equipment and R&D and new varieties, they need to invest in the workplace for employees. The better the workplace, the happier the employees, the more you can achieve – and substrate growing is going to help take us in this direction,” he said.
“We’ve had plenty of interest from other growers, from our customers and from neighbours, too. It’s all very exciting.”
Another thing Nathan finds exciting is the collective power of the Australian strawberry industry when it comes to R&D. “I was having a look at the Hort Innovation annual report, Breaking New Ground, and I was blown away that the industry’s R&D program for 2015/16 was worth almost $1.8 million. It just goes to show there’s a lot going into it, which is really, really encouraging.”
As well as investment in varietal work, Nathan said he is pleased to see the industry’s strong communication program (“I love the whole Simply Red newsletter and Strawberry Innovation is fantastic”), and is eager to see and implement work into biological controls and beneficial programs for pests.
“I’d also love to see the industry going full-heartedly at attaining an access protocol for China. That market is a huge opportunity. We grow all this beautiful produce, but Australia’s population is limited, so it would be great to see us expand into this international market,” he said.
Whatever happens, Nathan is looking forward to seeing his industry and his business grow. “With strawberries, everything is so immediate. Unlike, say, apples, where you plant a tree and have to wait a number of years to see results, with strawberries you can constantly try new things. It all happens so quickly and it’s so intense, in a great way.”