Growing Innovation: Issue 6, May 2, 2016

Blue sky approach drives family-owned orchard

Matt Fealy, Blue Sky Produce, Mareeba, QLD

The mango industry provided Matt Fealy and his family the lifestyle change they were chasing when they left Brisbane in 2013, to travel around Australia indefinitely.

While Matt and his wife Jess were adventuring with their three children, the couple received a call from a family member, asking if they would be interested in managing an orchard in Mareeba, far north Queensland.

“Being that we had left our city lives behind with the view to return home and be closer to family, we jumped at the opportunity… I mean, who doesn’t love mangoes?” Matt said.

Matt and Jess have since welcomed baby number four to the Fealy family and have made improvements to the Blue Sky Produce orchard, investing especially heavily in modernising their pump shed.

“Constantly making improvements is far more engaging then simply keeping the grass mowed,” Matt said.

“The trees were not in good health when we got here and it will take a few years yet to bring them up to capacity but this season especially, we are beginning to see some results. As I like to joke to people, we have tripled production in three years but three times nothing still equals nothing.”

The 153 acre orchard includes about 3000 mango trees, 3500 shepard and hass avocado trees, 600 Tahitian lime trees and 4000 passionfruit vines.

For the majority of the year Matt manages the day-to-day running of the orchard with one farm hand, but during mango and avocado season the number of staff increases to more than 20.

He has a family connection to the orchard which is part of the Johnsons Kairi NQ Group, created by his grandparents.

“It is still 100 per cent family owned and managed.”

Matt and Jess have used modern means to compete with the “big boys,” including a prolific social media presence.

“We believe that the little fellas have an advantage on social media as there is a strong global trend toward consumers being far more connected to their food production. How much more connected can you be than viewing photos taken on my phone, right where and when things happen on the farm?”

Apart from delighting in an endless supply of “the king of fruits,” Matt said he was enjoying being part of an industry with enormous growth potential which was stepping up to face recent challenges, including the fact new fruits were edging into the lucrative summer fruit market.

“I guess it’s like deciding whether to buy an immaculately presented mansion or a renovator’s delight; where is the challenge in simply maintaining something versus improving it?”

Matt added that he was excited by efforts being made to expand export market reach.

“The mango has such a short, sharp and often oversupplied season, market reach is critical to being able to alleviate supply gluts. Whilst I am yet to be able to participate in some of the USA export programs, I feel exploring these and other export markets, will be a very positive move.”
Grower profitability was the most immediate challenge facing the mango industry, Matt said.

“For example, industry is heavily concentrating on fruit maturity at time of picking, to improve the consumer experience. This is a great idea and I wholeheartedly support it, but the real question is: why do growers pick immature fruit? Because early fruit gets double the money. I don’t know a grower alive who wants to pick immature fruit and wants the consumer to eat a bad mango. Most growers proudly have their names plastered all over their boxes and stickers but when we are lucky to receive cost of production, let alone a profit, what would you do?”

Matt said the best thing about his job was the variety it offered.

“I can have my whole day or even week planned but often by 8am, that plan is out the window and I can find myself doing something I could never have imagined for the rest of the day. I have removed the word ‘boredom’ from all my dictionaries.”