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Wild about fruit

Frank SmithCountryman

Chris Birmingham’s grandfather selected the family block at Dwellingup in 1912. The Birmingham family have been there since — Chris’ share is 80 hectares growing fruit, pines and Aberdeen Angus cattle.

“All the beef cattle do is keep the grass down, ” said Chris. “I plan to destock over summer and just retain a nucleus herd.”

The orchard is the main enterprise, growing stone fruit — apricots, plums, nectarines and both white and yellow peaches.

The Birminghams also grow Apriums and Pluots, which are interspecific crosses of apricots and plums grafted over plum rootstock.

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“I buy them as a whole tree and have to pay plant breeders royalty rights, in addition to a production royalty of five to eight per cent, ” Chris said.

He also grows traditional apple varieties, such as Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Gala.

His other fruit crop is cherries. Dwellingup has the cold winters necessary for cherries to set fruit.

“Cherries are expensive in shops, but they are very labour-intensive. It takes a long time to pick a kilogram, ” Chris said.

“The orchard occupies every day of the week. Finding enough labour is the big problem.

“I carry most labour all year round, but I need 20–30 people for harvest. Staff often leave for better pay in the mining industry. We are close to Alcoa and Newcrest at Boddington.”

Keeping fruit fresh

After harvest, the apples are stored in a high nitrogen atmosphere with 2 per cent oxygen and 0.5 per cent carbon dioxide.

Sometimes Chris uses SmartFresh (1-methylcyclopropen). After 24 hours’ treatment, fruit will keep for up to six months, but he finds it expensive, costing about $3000 to treat one cool room.

Like most fruit farmers, Chris has pest problems.

“Cockatoos are so bad you can’t leave the place, ” he said. “Deterrence doesn’t work for small birds. It is not so bad in years when there is heavy blossom, since there is more food for small birds.”

Kangaroos and wild pigs are also a problem. “Feral pigs tear up the place and bite through irrigation pipes when they want a drink, ” Chris said.

The Birminghams sell most of their fruit through Canning Vale Markets, but around 20 per cent is sold through farmer’s markets.

“Last year was a light year with a dry spring and warm winter, so we sold more through markets, ” Chris said. “When the cherries are first ripe, we go to Boyanup Farmer’s Market. Our fruit is earlier than most South-West products; we leave when South-West growers have fruit ready.”

The family also regularly takes fruit to Peel Farmer’s Market and Manning Road Markets.

“You get a better margin, but I don’t go overboard. I sell at just less than shop prices, ” Chris said.

“You can sell more mature fruit in farmer’s markets. Assume it is going to be eaten within one week. You can sell what you would eat yourself with confidence. Older varieties sell well. Blood plums are a best seller and golden yellow peaches are a consumer favourite. We always offer customers a taste.

“Customers tell us what they are eating and there is loyalty. We are in trouble if we miss a week.”

Chris said people buying at markets tend to consider flavour more than appearance.

They also attend Rotary’s Jacaranda Festival in Ardross street, Applecross, and were regulars at Mandurah Foreshore Market five years before the Peel Markets started. “Peel Markets are strict. It limits sellers to a maximum of two regional growers who sell their own produce, ” he said.

Chris also has a 10-hectare pine plantation, both to add value to the property and for aesthetic reasons.

Dwellingup is notorious for two devastating bush fires. The farm was burnt out in the 1961 fire, but the 2006 bushfire came only as far as the neighbouring property.

“It is just the luck of the draw, ” Chris said.

Dams on the property also hold marron. Chris does not sell them, because of the difficulty of transferring the licence from his father’s name.

“I’ve given up on marron, because there is too much paperwork. The main point of having a licence is to protect us from poachers, ” he said.

Tourists visit the property during cherry season. “I give them a short talk around the property and they buy some fruit, ” Chris said.

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