Sweet tips for value-adding

Haidee VandenbergheThe West Australian

Wes and Ros Tweedie have been in the strawberry game a long time, more than 40 years in fact.

During that time the couple has rolled with the punches as the industry evolved, but these days sweet success is coming in the form of a product line of jams, preserves and sorbets, all produced from the fresh strawberries they grow.

Wes was originally working as a plant pathologist with the Agriculture Department before the couple thought they would try their hand at a few strawberries in Wanneroo. The sweet sensations proved to be a huge success in their first year after storms wiped out much of their competitors' produce and left the Tweedies with bumper prices.

From that moment, the duo were hooked on straw- berries but Wes concedes not every year delivers such a fortuitous outcome.

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"With an agricultural crop you don't really learn everything but you just get more experienced and better able to handle the disasters as they happen, " he said.

There are always challenges when it comes to farming, not the least of which is the ever tightening cost- price squeeze.

In a bid to get more bang for their buck and find a market for their seconds, the Tweedies have taken to value adding to their strawberries.

It's a process they first started in Wanneroo, slicing fresh fruit for a Japanese client of ice cream manufac- turers Peters-Brownes.

"The guy in Japan had about 1000 shops and he thought he could tell the difference if the sauce in the ice cream was made from frozen fruit against fresh fruit, " Wes said. "We had a small kitchen that had to comply with what they wanted and we (also) played around with a few things like strawberry sauce, but we didn't make as much as we did then as we do now."

The couple packed up and moved to Albany in the early 1990s and for a time ran strawberry farms in both Wanneroo and on the South Coast.

But the commute soon became too much and Wes and Ros decided to concentrate on their Albany operation.

"At one stage in 1993 suddenly there were going to be 12 million (strawberry plants) in the ground in the Wanneroo area, " Wes said.

"When everyone was making some money out of the industry there was sort of five million to eight mil- lion - somewhere in that range.

"It was going through the roof, so we came down here looking for land because there was really only one strawberry grower down here then and he was getting very good prices."

These days the Tweedies have 36 acres at Albany and sell most of their fruit through Canning Vale. Some is also sold at the two markets in Albany.

But a significant amount of their strawberries go through the shopfront on their Albany farm in the form of delicious sorbets, jams, sauces and, of course, fresh strawberries.

"There is a lot of downward pressure on prices in the wholesale market to the point where this year in partic- ular, when we've had a lot of small fruit, we've been getting less for it than it costs to produce it, " Wes said.

"That gives you impetus (to find other revenue streams). There's a cost price squeeze for basically all of agriculture and there is a real motivation to try and sell direct to the consumer.

"When we sell direct to the consumer there is a better profit margin."

However, selling direct isn't without its challenges and Wes said there was little doubt the whole process had been a learning curve.

"It's been a slow evolution and we've never really had a lot of success trying to wholesale product because our costs are so high that on a small volume we can't produce each item at a low enough price, " he said.

"You still have to make money out of it. If you get less than it actually costs to make something out of it you can't continue doing it.

"We still throw away 30-40 tonnes of fruit every year, a lot of that fruit could have been made into product, but you just can't compete with people that have fully automated gear and are putting huge amounts of product through at minimum labour costs.

"But the thing is at least you've got the potential to say 'I won't produce it for that price'.

"Whereas if you send totally to the market you're dependent on how much fruit there is there, what the buyer wants to do, what else they've got coming into their store and whether they overbought last time."

Wes and Ros' philosophy is to try and maximise what they can do with a strawberry.

"What we do is extract juice from a strawberry and then make that into vinegars and syrups, " Wes said. "The pulp that's left, we then make jam out of that.

"We call our jam double strength because out of every kilogram of fruit there's roughly 500-550g of pulp left after you take the juice out.

"With the sorbets, I started off with strawberry obviously and (now) we've got four of five basic flavours that we do.

"One is straight strawberry and then there is a strawberry and blueberry, we do an orange with strawberry and a lemon with strawberry.

"In season we might make an apricot sorbet and if we can get hold of passion fruit we might make a passion fruit sorbet.

"The biggest lesson is that we've gone away from trying to produce a huge range of products. We'd rather produce a smaller range that people really want to buy.

"Most of our customers are locals that only spend a small amount of money.

"I can't see much sense in producing a lot of things that people don't really want, even if it means we don't have a huge range.

Tweedie tips for value adding

·Work from the marketing end back. You have to have a product you can make something out of, but you have to have somewhere to sell your product.

·Consider what you're going to do with your product once you've made it and how much you will make. I can make a lot of product here if I want to but I've got to be able to sell it.

·Don't just rely on one person who says I'll take it. If they change their mind then you've got nowhere to take it.

·Think about whether you can tailor production to where you can make enough money to make it worthwhile i.e. growers markets or other outlets.

·Start with a smaller range you are confident in selling before producing a huge range that doesn't necessarily sell.

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