Orchard the apple of their eyes

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

When Richard Licciardello looks at his family's modern, 100-hectare apple and pear orchard, he imagines his grandfather smiling down at what his descendents have been able to achieve.

As Richard explains, his grandfather emigrated to Australia from Italy in 1927 with not even five pounds in his pocket.

"The story dad always tells us is that it cost our grandfather 32 pounds to get over here on a boat," Richard said.

"It was all bush, and he said if he had enough money, he would have jumped back on the boat and gone home.

"From him having nothing, to working for a neighbour picking spuds, to what we've got today - he'd be up there smiling down on us."

It's something that gives the Donnybrook orchardists a sense of pride, but that being said, Richard's the first to admit the orchard industry can be a fickle mistress.

Both Richard and his brother, Anthony, returned to the family orchard almost immediately after school.

"I came back to the farm in 1987 and have been here since," Richard said.

"I've never regretted it - we're not only farmers, we market our own fruit.

"I've gone from just a worker in my younger days, all they way from watching the clock and knocking off when I was 18 to 20 to now managing the farm.

"It's a good lifestyle, long hours but it's a good place to bring your kids up.

"You do get years where you work all year and you get nothing for your product.

"We do 12-hour days six days a week and, don't get me wrong, if I didn't want to do it I wouldn't be here, but you don't want to do it for nothing.

"But it gives you great gratitude as a manager, when you're organising all these staff and picking and packing, then when it all flows into place and at the end of the day you see what you achieved - it's very satisfying."

However, the duopoly of the supermarkets and finding staff in the midst of a mining boom are challenges.

"If we were talking this time last year, my biggest concern would have been water," Richard said.

"If we didn't have a good winter like we did (last year), everyone in the district would have been in big trouble by now.

"Until last year - in my 24 years back on the farm - I've never worried about water."

It's brought the issue of climate change to the fore of Richard's mind, and although Karintha Orchards has plentiful water supplies, he concedes at some stage the industry may need to start pushing towards more water-efficient varieties.

Like his father, Richard believes the threat of imports is the biggest hurdle the industry faces.

"There are good things in our industry as long as we get looked after and we don't bring in fruit from over east and overseas," he said. "We're at a turning point to see how much fruit they start bringing in from overseas."

In the meantime, both off-farm investments and diversification help to spread risk and Richard sees the family moving further down that track in the future.

"We do aquaculture and catch about 1.5 tonnes of marron a year," he said.

"We started 12 to 14 years ago. It's about $50,000 to $60,000 of marron a year.

"Aquaculture is something I'm looking at getting into in a bigger way than what we are now.

"Potentially to fish, like barramundi and silver perch, but it's early days and I'm just starting to look into it."

As for the future of the orchard, Richard is quite happy with the current scale of the operation.

"I don't think we'll be getting any bigger - not unless my brother's kids or my kids want to come back on the farm," he said.

"We just about have enough here to keep going until I'm ready to retire.

"We've got enough trees in the ground to give us 20 years no worries, and more."

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails