Fruity fun in Donnybrook

Jo FulwoodCountryman
SolarFruit owners Steve and Sue Collis.
Camera IconSolarFruit owners Steve and Sue Collis. Credit: Countryman

It's an award-winning health food product that is receiving accolades across the country, but for Donnybrook couple Sue and Steve Collis, their SolarFruit business is all about family.

"Our two daughters have grown up in the business. They are 21 and 19 now, but by the time they were eight and 10 years old, they were already a terrific help working in the business," Sue said.

"We call our second daughter our fruit leather baby, because she was born the summer that we started the business."

Sue and Steve established SolarFruit in 1994 after travelling the country with Sue's mother's unique sundried fruit leather packed in their suitcases.

"Everywhere we went, people who tasted it thought it was amazing, even in South Australia along the Riverland, people thought it was superior to anything they had tasted before," she said.

"When we finished our travels, we thought this was something we could do as a family business."

SolarFruit is a dried fruit product that Sue believes is very different to what people normally think of as dried fruit.

After a pureeing process, the fruit is sundried, which Sue said was extremely labour intensive.

There are no ovens or cooking involved in the processing of the fruit and the drying period can only occur during the summer months when the fruit is picked and fresh.

"We process up to 50 tonnes of fruit every summer and we only process from December until mid March," Sue said.

"In four kilograms of fresh fruit, the finish weight, depending on the fibre content, varies between 400 to 550 grams, so we lose 90 per cent of the product before it can even be packaged up."

The fruit has to be turned over in the evening, which makes it difficult for Sue and Steve to find reliable labour.

"The hardest part of the business is to get someone to help with this process, because it's evening work. That is why it's so important that it's stayed a family business, since the work is seasonal and at odd times of the day," Sue said.

"Steve and I do most of the production ourselves, but when the girls got bigger, they helped us open the drying tables, then once they could reach above the tables they could help us with the flipping process."

The Collises have 230 drying tables, which each hold 40 kilograms of fruit pulp, so the constant flipping process makes for an extremely busy summer period.

"We couldn't have developed the business without the help of the girls and our extended family members," she said.

Sue believes one of the reasons customers are choosing SolarFruit over other dried fruit products is the extremely low rate of residual sulphur dioxide contained in the product. Sulphur dioxide is used as a steriliser, and can cause problems for asthmatics and people with other related health concerns.

"We'll never be millionaires, but we've always prided ourselves on making something that was healthy. We wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and we like to think we offer people a healthy alternative," she said.

"Because of our unique sun-drying process, the potassium metabisulphite is used only once in our process and the end result is astonishingly low residuals of sulphur dioxide in the finished product."

The fruit leather is made predominantly from plums, apricots and peaches, but the favourite among customers appears to be the nectarine.

"People seem to really love the flavour punch they get from the nectarine," Sue said.

SolarFruit was recently awarded a silver and bronze medal at the Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards for the apricot and nectarine platter pieces and, according to Sue, they'll be back next year with their unique plum product, hoping to win gold.

And while Sue and Steve might be committed to being on their 11ha farm in Donnybrook making SolarFruit during the summer months, they spend much of the rest of the year travelling the country, selling their product direct to customers.

"About 90 per cent of sales are direct to the customer," Sue said.

"Most of our sales are through the website, mail orders, and through the show circuit, such as agricultural field days and the Royal Show, only 10 per cent is supplied to shops."

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