Family success after tree change
Bert and Angie Hayes are not your traditional farmers, and this may explain why they diversified from conventional grain and livestock pursuits to incorporate WA's largest pistachio farm today.
The Hayes first moved to Northam to start a car dealership after Bert spent many years working his way up from a salesman to a manager at a Perth dealership.
Bert said he was never a farmer, but had got involved in agriculture after moving to the Whealtbelt town.
"I first did an apprenticeship as a butcher before getting into the car business," he said.
"I always had a hankering to get into the car industry, but it was a bit frightening at the time because it meant going from a good wage onto a commission."
But hard work at the dealership paid off, enabling the couple to purchase a property in Northam and start farming.
Bert said they started farming grain and livestock, but were compelled to diversify into other areas as time went on.
"We were planting a lot of trees on the farm to make the place more liveable and it was also a conservation-type thing," he said. "But, equally, our motivation for initially planting the pistachio trees was to add to the cosmetic appeal of the farm."
Driving onto the property, you get a sense of perfectly proportioned structure with the rows of pistachio trees planted up the driveways and along the fence lines.
The dark green pistachio leaves offset the grapelike bunch of beige fruit and provides the perfect juxtaposition against the dry summer fields.
"We wanted to beautify the property," Bert said.
But for the Hayes, another consideration was to also plant trees that grew a crop.
Bert said after conducting research, they decided upon growing pistachios.
"We started a tree-planting program, which gave us other options than just planting natives," he said.
"I went one night a week to a course in Perth to study what sort of trees would suit the Northam land environment, which turned out to be pistachios."
The first years of growing pistachios proved very challenging for the family.
"I always knew the potential for pistachios was there, but in the early days it was very difficult to get the trees established. We had trouble sourcing the trees, but I managed to get seed for the root-stock," Bert said.
"I had to get the trees grafted by a contractor, which cost us dearly, because we didn't have the expertise to do it ourselves at that time."
Bert said they ended up having a very poor success rate.
"The tree grafting success was less than 5 per cent. It was costly for us in the fact that the grafting success rate was so poor, and for the money we paid out at the time, we had next to no results," he said.
It was many years before the Hayes' pistachio business turned the corner, after some help from Eastern States growers.
"It was six to eight years of just struggling along before we finally saw some light, which came after taking the opportunity to go over east," Bert said.
"The people in the east showed us how to graft and bud our own trees."
On returning from the Eastern States, the Hayes successfully grafted more than 200 trees. Bert said they were "over the moon" with the outcome.
"We had around a 90 per cent success rate with that attempt," he said.
With new-found confidence, the family expanded their operation by establishing a pistachio nursery.
Bert said the nursery means they can grow trees for their own use and sell them to other growers.
"The orchard has grown considerably over the years," he said.
Today, the Hayes own the largest pistachio farm in WA, with more than 2500 trees.
"At the moment there are three or four farms in WA that are about half our size and the rest of them go down from there," Bert said. "The size of the farm generally comes down to whether they're growing pistachios full time or just for a hobby."
Bert said the trees provided a healthy crop each year to meet demand for the "fresh fruit", predominantly coming from the Middle East market.
Bert and Angie now consider themselves semi-retired, with their neighbour taking over the cropping side of the farm and their daughters, Donna Gentle and Julie Hemmings, looking after the pistachios.
"Julie has taken on the nuts and marketing and Donna is looking after the nursery for us," Bert said.
The couple's daughters are both working towards expanding the business.
"Donna has a purpose-built pistachio nursery at her farm at Boyup Brook and Julie has gone full-time developing a pistachio confectionary business," Bert said.
_MORE STORIES PAGE 12 _
I always knew the potential for pistachios was there, but in the early days it was very difficult to get the trees established.
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