Crunch time

Kim CousinsCountryman

The Di Marco family orchard in Karragullen was established in the 1930s but could wind up in coming years as the local horticultural industry slows and the next generation of orchardists forges careers elsewhere.

Silio Di Marco remembers a time when the area was full of farming and immigrant families setting up a life in the Perth hills.

The 86-year-old moved to the area from Italy as a child and says life in those days was "very casual, a lot more simple".

"Italian migrants went into mining, fishing and agriculture," he said.

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"A lot of them came from the land in Italy."

Today it's a different place, as urban encroachment settles in and hobby farms take the place of full-scale orchards.

Silio and his wife Siria's sons, John and Danny, took over the family orchard from Silio's father but it could soon be the end of the line for the Di Marcos' fruit growing business,.

Silio's father came to the area in 1933 and purchased 100 acres for 360 pounds.

"He cleared it with a spade and mattock," Silio said. "That was normal in those days, it was hard work."

The orchard was originally planted with Granny Smith apples, which were exported to England under the K&P brand.

Silio, who took over the reins in 1956, has seen many changes to the industry through his life, most dramatically to the export market.

"We had the support of the government," Silio said. "Then, in the 1970s, we became more connected to the Asian market.

"But you've got to keep up with the market, you have to grow what they want."

Silio also said space on the orchard was now better utilised.

"My father planted trees in a 7m square. Now that would be about 82 to an acre, with a lot of that area wasted especially when spraying," he said.

"We now plant closer. In the old days we didn't have the stock. It used to take 10 years for full production, now with the new stock available we get production in four years."

Storage options have changed as well as growing times, with cold storage providing more options in regard to varieties.

The Di Marcos grow the latest varieties, replanting about 5 per cent of the orchard each year.

"We used to have to be more aware of growing seasons but cold storage changed that," Silio said.

These days the 15-hectare orchard focuses more on stonefruit, including peaches, plums, pluots and nectarines, a decision shaped by market changes.

Each year they export 50,000kg (5000 10kg boxes) of plums, including Angelino, Black Amber, Fortune and Teegan Blue varieties.

Brothers John and Danny Di Marco grew up on the family orchard and have worked there since leaving school.

Between them they have six children. John said his eldest son would like to take over the orchard but he had to get a trade.

"Very few kids are coming into the industry," John said. "In our generation it was expected most would stay. Things were booming when we came out of school, the industry was more vibrant.

"Kids now have more opportunity, they can make more money elsewhere. My kids think it's a great lifestyle (on the orchard) but business-wise it's getting harder all the time."

Danny said they could scale down but it wouldn't make the business viable.

"You wouldn't set up an orchard today," he said. "A lot of orchards have gone out of business up here. I've still got a hope we can keep the business going otherwise it will end with us."

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