Extreme two years for region's melon farmers

RICH PICKINGS: Anthony Guenette (front) and Tom Brett (back) picking melons in the early morning light at the Bretts' property, Bar-K.
RICH PICKINGS: Anthony Guenette (front) and Tom Brett (back) picking melons in the early morning light at the Bretts' property, Bar-K. Matthew Newton

IT'S EARLY on a bright, autumn morning and already Tom Brett and his crew are picking their way through a melon patch as mist slowly lifts over the landscape.

Originally a worker in the gas industry who grew melons part time on their old block down near Old Man Lagoon, Tom and his wife Emily, along with their young brood, packed up and moved onto their Pelican property of Bar-K two and a half years ago to take up melon farming in earnest.

With just four weeks of picking left, it's safe to say this year's season has been much better than their first, which saw the Bretts' first crop of melons - like some others around the district - wiped out by hail.

While too much water was the problem last year, this year there wasn't enough.

"We sort of had two extremes; we've had a very wet season and now we've had a very dry one," Tom said.

But he knows that's just how it goes when you make a living from the land.

"There's ups and downs and that's in every industry I suppose. (Farming) is good, we enjoy it."

While managing water during the dry has been the biggest challenge for the region's growers this season, it's also had a positive impact.

Whereas typically the Bretts would see three or four "sets" of melons from a crop, this year they've been picking up to eight times from a single patch.

The hot, dry weather has meant there is less disease pressure on the vines, meaning that with enough water they stay healthy for longer and keep producing fruit.

Another of the big "ups" this season was the price of melons.

Around December, when they began picking, the Bretts were receiving upwards of $2.50/kg for their melons, something they'd not seen before and probably never will again.

The price spike was the result of Bundaberg growers finishing their picking season early and a late start to the NSW melon season.

Tom said prices had since settled down to around average - 60c/kg.

"It was definitely incredible money so we don't expect to see that again any time soon," he said.

The Bretts planted around 50 acres all up across five patches, and used a mixture of local labor and backpackers to pick the fruit.

Their staffing levels have fluctuated between 6-10 extra employees during picking.

As the Bretts slow down and swing into clean-up mode, rolling up the plastic mulch and drip tape they use to irrigate their crops and preparing their country to go into rotation, Tom feels it's been a "reasonable season" for the district's melon growers.

With another year under his belt as a full-time grower, Tom reckons his transition from the resources industry to horticulture has been for the best.

"It's a good lifestyle and good environment to raise a family," he said.

Topics:  agriculture chinchilla farmers melons

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