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Switch from sheep bears fruit

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Ironically, it was a dislike of sheep work that drove Russell Delroy to horticulture.

These days Russell spends his time pruning specialty fruit trees at his Pemberton orchard, but as a kid he could be found drenching sheep at his family's Esperance wheat and sheep property.

As Russell explained, he realised early on he wanted to pursue a different kind of agriculture.

"The truth of the matter is I hated sheep," he said.

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"I was one of the youngest kids and I got all the donkey work when it came to sheep.

"I had to do all the drenching and pick up the dags in the shearing shed - I didn't want to see another sheep."

After finishing secondary education in New Zealand, where he studied horticultural science, Russell decided to swap the vast wheat and sheep paddocks of the south coast for the cool climes and karri trees of the South West.

"When I came back to WA I wanted to grow the things that we imported from New Zealand, the small niche products, which at the time were kiwi fruit, tamarillos and avocados," he said.

"It was about just trying to grow a relatively small line, so you had some force in the market."

At the time Pemberton was better known for more traditional vegetables and fruits, like potatoes and apples.

But Russell felt there was an opportunity to branch out to niche fruits like avocados, kiwi fruit and tamarillos and capitalise on changing Australian tastes.

However, growing fruits that were virtually unknown to the WA palate provided a few challenges.

"It was very difficult from a small base being able to develop a consumer market, because you've got almost no money for advertising because you don't have a big enough revenue base," Russell said.

"(For tamarillos) we used to do lots and lots of taste testing at things like the royal shows and relied partly on expat New Zealanders, who knew what a tamarillo was.

"(Growing those fruit) enabled us to be significant in terms of marketing and grow with those products development.

"Avocados were a fairly small product 25 years ago but have grown to be for most fruit retailers number two or three on their main fruit lines behind bananas.

"They're almost a staple."

The trees have now been in the ground 25 years and these days Russell's Pemberton operation grows about 70 per cent of Australia's tamarillo production, 85 per cent of WA's kiwi fruit and is the State's second largest avocado producer.

Harvest of the orchard's 12,500 tamarillo trees is from May through to October, but as Russell explained, the trees require specialised management.

"They actually need cold to develop good (fruit) colour and it's hard to grow them in warm parts of Australia," he said.

"The trees are quite frost sensitive.

"We've got overhead irrigation for frost control and when we get a frost at night it irrigates warm water over the top of them all night - it's all automated.

"You get a layer of ice that forms over the leaves and that protects it from freezing.

"Then there's quite a lot of pruning and they are quite a specialised crop to grow."

The 10,000 kiwi vines, which produce about 350 tonnes of fruit, are also labour intensive and as vigorous growers require a lot of pruning.

Marketing has also proved to be a challenge.

"New Zealand dumps all of their class two fruit into the Australian market," Russell said.

"They grow around 100 million trays a year for the global market.

"Theirs is an enormous industry and Australia gets swamped with cheap class two imports and that has been difficult to compete against.

"We've had quite good support from major retailers in carrying Australian kiwi fruit in a three-month window.

"Prior to that we used to have to export our fruit because we couldn't sell it on our own domestic market against cheap imports.

"Believe it or not we sent it to China and I could make more money selling my kiwi fruit in China than selling it in my local supermarket.

"I did that for about 10 years through the 1990s."

While Russell grows niche fruits, like other fruit growers he is concerned about the effect of cheap imports and concedes it will be increasingly challenging for producers in years to come.

"It's an issue with avocados, whether from New Zealand, Chile or Mexico," Russell said.

"There are real concerns but increasingly you're going to have world's best practice and quality or you'll be out of the game.

"Secondly, you've got to look at taking on whatever technology you can to reduce labour."

But while there are challenges, Russell firmly believes the industry has a bright future.

"Agribusiness is big business - it might get eclipsed by mining, but fresh produce retail is worth around $8 billion and the younger generation shouldn't ignore agribusiness as a career going forward," he said.

"It gets a bad reputation, that you can't make good money out of it - that's simply not true.

"It's been a good career for me and there is good money in agribusiness for good operators."

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