Sweet season for pineapple growers

FARMING FAMILY: Ben and Michelle Clifton with their two boys, Bob and Jim, on their pineapple farm.
FARMING FAMILY: Ben and Michelle Clifton with their two boys, Bob and Jim, on their pineapple farm. Contributed

TEN years growing pineapples and Ben Clifton still loves to knock the top off a freshly picked pine and have a munch on it in his lunch break.

The Bungundarra grower has seen the ups and downs of the industry, but is reaping the rewards of a particularly sweet season this year.

If he could put an order for the perfect weather he would ask for an inch of rain every month and 30-degree temperatures.

"And we have had just that for quite a long time,” he said.

"We had a particularly warm winter so the pineapples kept growing all winter long.”

Ben admits the terrific conditions have thrown his "forecasting into havoc” as some fruit has developed earlier than expected, but overall it's a good problem to have. Looking across his crop, he can see a remarkable improvement in the pineapples.

"I love harvesting pineapples, you see how good you were two years ago when you harvest pineapples,” he said.

"There is a lot of work, a lot of cost, a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into a pineapple, but it's not until the day you pick it that it all becomes realised.”

It's a particularly busy time for Ben, as he is harvesting the winter crop for sale and planting his 2018 summer crop.

Ben is the farm manager and co-owner of Valley Syndicate, which is situated about 20km outside of Yeppoon.

The business is not new, but the farm location was shifted to Bungundarra about four years ago. It has taken many hours, and long days, for the farm to be at the high standard the family expects.

"We are now fully farmed into our new block,” he said.

"We are on a deep sandy soil that drains really well, which is integral to growing good pineapples - you need good drainage.

"So the problem with very sandy soil is there is not much else in it.

"It doesn't bond well to nutrients and there is very little organic matter in it.

"So our first crop of pineapples, I guess, were probably lacking a few trace elements.

"So once we grow a crop of pineapples we turn all that organic matter back into the soil, it really helps improve the soil.

"Each time we do that, in subsequent planting it continues to improve the organic matter in the soil.”

As well as boasting higher yields each year the soil improves, Ben said the workload that came from building a farm from scratch had eased.

"There are always challenges, that's the name of the game for farming, but since we have planted this whole farm for pineapples it's much easier.

"There is no removing stumps from the ground, no damage to implements, there is no hundreds and hundreds of man hours picking up sticks and stumps to get them out of ploughed ground, there is no laser levelling blocks and working out where your drainage will go - all that infrastructure is done.

"It's just a matter mulching the old crop into the soil, giving it enough time to break down and planting the new one.”

Formerly a school teacher, Ben chose to invest into farming for his family. His two sons, Bob, 7, and Jim, 5, so far love helping their dad out on the land.

"I just hope that through their teenage years that they will still be just as enthusiastic to get out of bed early and help dad out,” Ben joked.

Ben said he was still learning each day about farming pineapples. Planting more than 1.6 million pines each year, Valley Syndicate is one of the major fresh fruit producers in Australia.

Something of concern to all pineapple growers was the fear of foreign imports, Ben said.

"The issue is not so much dealing with an oversupply of fruit, it's dealing with the pest and diseases that will inevitably be transported into Australia,” he said.

"Places like Thailand and the Philippines have quite a lot of pest and diseases that will cause havoc if they are released in Australia.

"Because of those diseases, those countries will not be able to get the same sort of yield that we can get in our crops.

"But the trade-off is that we pay a much higher labour cost.

"If we became susceptible to these disease I think the fresh fruit we have come to know and love in Australia will become unavailable... well, they just won't be viable.”

Apart from that, Ben feels the future is bright. When the Rural Weekly spoke to him over the phone he said a light shower was just starting to fall.

"I just encourage everyone to go out and get a pineapple, it's some of the best fruit we have produced and there are plenty of them around - get a top-off variety.”

Topics:  farmer farming family pineapples yeppoon

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