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Custard apple grower gets to the heart of the matter

Paul Thorne, from Oakey Mountain Fruits, said his orchard wouldn't have survived the last 30 years if it wasn't for the property's dam.
Paul Thorne, from Oakey Mountain Fruits, said his orchard wouldn't have survived the last 30 years if it wasn't for the property's dam. Andrea Davy

DRIVING through a busy Brisbane housing suburb, where the deeper you travel the bigger the homes seem to get, the last thing you would expect to find is a dirt road leading to a fully fledged custard apple and lychee farm.

But Paul Thorne, who is the president of Australian Custard Apples, has made his living from farming this Redlands property for more than 30 years.

He started working the block when he was just 23, back when the house he shared with his wife Glenda did not have power, and before the thriving housing development on the outskirts of the block even existed.

While the property's location is a little unique, Paul too, is not what you may expect when you think of a farmer - the father of three is a keen Instagrammer, passionate scuba diver and someone who treats the roaming wallabies that pinch fruit from his trees with kindness.

"I have learnt to live with them,” he said.

This week, Paul caught up with the Rural Weekly to discuss how this year's season was shaping up and to explain how a small-sized grower, living in a sprawling capital city, was able to secure top-end export markets.

PROUD FARMER

Although Paul said growing custard apples was easy, he used words like "special care”, "close attention” and "monitoring” when explaining the process of farming them.

It is clear he has a deep-set pride for his work.

When he walks among his trees he can offhandedly tell you the history of each plant, which ones are the best for producing that large and perfect heart-shaped fruit, the ones that needed extra pruning last season and the ones that were damaged in the 2013 Cyclone Oswald weather event.

Oakey Mountain Fruits operates on a smooth cycle so Paul can evenly spread his time between the custard apple and lychee orchards.

It starts in August at pruning time.

"I sequentially prune a block at a time, so I prune a block then I might wait a week and then prune another block, then another block,” he said.

"By the first of November the KJ variety of custard apples have started flowering.”

From November through to January Paul will hand- pollinate his trees, then by February the lychee season will start to ramp up.

When the lychees are in full swing backpackers are hired to help during the labour- intensive picking and sorting phase.

"Then there is a short space in between where I have to pull all the lychee stuff down and get all that fixed up, then I start back with the custard apples again,” he said.

Thanks to the lunar moon cycle, the custard apples are ready for harvest, normally, by the end of March or early April.

POLLINATION

Paul is one of the few remaining producers who hand-pollinates his custard apples.

"Because I have mostly pink mammoth trees, they normally don't set fruit well, and they often set fruit that is misshapen, ugly fruit,” he said. "But the export market wants, and loves, large fruit, which the pink mammoth grow.

"Hand-pollinating is an aid to set a crop. It also allows me to time the pollination so I can stagger the fruit coming on.”

Paul learnt the art of hand- pollination when he first entered the industry from Bill Thompson, who was an early pioneer of the custard apple industry.

"He is the guru of custard apples,” Paul said.

"He used to get around barefoot, and was a real individual type fellow, but through him, and that group, I learned how to do it.

"I use African Pride flowers because they produce a lot of flowers.

"So at 2.30pm I bring the flowers back to the house and shed the pollen.”

Paul joked his pollinating kit was "high tech” as it included an Aurora 5 paint brush from the newsagent and a household kitchen sifter.

The sifter fits perfectly above a mixing bowl, and allows the pollen to fall through away from the petals.

"Then, I wait until it's 4pm and that's when the females, which are hermaphrodites, will open in the afternoon. I get them before they fully expand so I beat the bees.”

Normally, by this time of day, there is an afternoon sea breeze, which Paul predicts helps bring the flowers out.

Walking among the orchard with a small container around his neck, Paul will brush the fresh pollen into each selected female.

"For me, hand-pollinating is good because it means I am always in amongst the trees,” he said.

"I will be able to spot a problem before it starts. Unless you monitor your trees all the time you can get problems with mealybugs, or spotting bugs. By the time the bugs are on the fruit it's often too late.”

EXPORT NICHE

Today, about 60% of Oakey Mountain Fruits' custard apples are exported, mostly to Asian markets.

Having a top-quality fruit was the secret to securing and maintaining these niche, and profitable, markets, he said.

Custard apples are not a fruit that can be handled roughly when they are being processed.

"You can't put them on a conveyor belt and tip them out at the other end like mangoes,” he said.

"If you don't do a good job and you mishandle them, then the end product will not be good.”

As a small grower, Paul does the bulk of his work on his own, which ensures all the fruit is treated carefully.

"I don't have much ego but it is rewarding that your produce is wanted in export,” he said.

"Because I have been a small grower all my life, I feel as though I am just a small speck in the market.

"But people will chase me now. I have been able to establish a name.”

SOCIAL MEDIA

In recent years, the 56-year-old has become savvy with social media and started an Instagram page to promote custard apples.

The Oakey Mountain Fruits page has pictures showing the process of farming, from sorting lychees that are ready for the market, to the mundane jobs like cleaning out weeds from water tanks.

And of course, there are a few happy snaps of the roaming wallabies.

The page promotes Australian-grown fruit, and also works to connect growers from around the country.

Paul feels it's important to encourage any new growers to the industry.

"We don't try and hide things. Ultimately, if we work together to improve the product it will help us all,” he said.

This year, Cyclone Debbie caused difficult growing conditions in some areas, but overall it has been described as a "bumper crop”.

"For myself, I faired fairly well,” he said.

FAMILY FARM

A perk of being a small producer has meant that Paul and Glenda have had the chance to work alongside their children - Isaac, Jacob and Leah, who are all now adults.

"It was great for the kids,” he said.

Growing up they all helped out and used to keep a tally of who put together the most cartons each week.

A downfall to being a smaller grower, however, is that Paul is heavily reliant on himself.

From August to about June it's essential he is at the farm working in the fields.

But, in the past five years he has become a keen scuba diver which fits in well with his busy farming year.

"I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid,” he said.

"But it fell by the wayside, and we didn't have much money when we started out... but I was always interested in that sort of thing.”

Now with solid export markets secured, and with the sale of a his motorbike, Paul was able to buy his own scuba gear and has now travelled overseas twice during the farm's off season.

Once to Samoa and once to Palau on diving trips.

"It's the only time I have ever travelled overseas for a holiday,” he said.

Search OakeyMtnFruits on Instagram to keep up to date with the Redlands farm.

Fast facts

Custard apples are an excellent source of vitamin C, a source of dietary fibre, necessary for digestive wellbeing, and contain potassium, magnesium, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and vitamin B3.

Custard apples can range in size, from 500g-1.5kg

Custard apples are in season throughout autumn and winter. Following a warm summer and a burst of rain in March, this season's Aussie custard apples are at their prime.

To choose a custard apple, opt for ones that are pale green and firmer, which will give to gentle pressure once ripe. Ripen custard apples in the fruit bowl then store in the fridge and eat within three days.

The custard apple crop flourishes with the help of lunar activity, so the peak usually coincides with the Easter full moon.

Topics:  grower redlands


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