For many Australians, Batlow is synonymous with apples - such is the strength of the brand that the Batlow Fruit Co-op has developed over many decades.
Behind the brand is a diverse group of growers, some large but many, like Greg Mouat, are smaller scale operators who are very hands-on in terms of producing fruit and are happy to leave the marketing to the Co-op.
Greg’s father bought the orchard in 1926. “He married late and lived a long life”, said Greg, explaining how only two generations have worked the orchard in more than 80 years.
Greg’s father grew 500 bins of apples and pears a year, mainly apples and mostly Delicious apples, along with Jonathans and Granny Smith, “the normal varieties of the 50s and 60s”.
The whole orchard was bulldozed in the mid 70s with support from a tree-pull scheme and the ground had to remain vacant for five years. When Greg took over the block in 1980, there was no orchard, so he started replanting seven hectares of orchard from scratch.
He initially planted Red Delicious and Galas but over the years has planted Pink Lady™, Fuji and Braeburn. Greg is currently looking at replanting some of the earliest of those plantings with new Pink Lady™ and Gala varieties.
He started planting at 5.5 metres by 2 metres, which is about 1,000 trees a hectare.
“One of the reasons for the wide planting was we have a relatively steep block and we had to allow for tractor slippage. We maintained that planting density on semi dwarfing rootstock M106 throughout the 80s, but now, our latest planting is at 2,500 trees a hectare on M9 and M26 rootstock."
“Our first planting of really dwarfing rootstock was in 1997 but it was not intensive, we still had a spacing of 4.5 metres by 2.3 metres. In hind-sight, that should have been a maximum of 4 metres by 1 metre.”
Greg now has 10 hectares under orchard.
“We could go to 12 hectares but that won’t happen until we can get a better water supply. We have about 13 to 15 megalitres of storage and we are looking at putting in a bore, but a bore would need to come good before we remove any more trees or plant up the remaining area."
“Bores have not been very successful in Batlow, there has been some water found, for example, there is a bore next door which flows at about a litre a second, which is roughly 30 megalitres a year, but we don’t know how for long that will last,” Greg said.
Greg is approaching 25 per cent of his orchard on dwarf rootstock.
“I’d like to push the whole lot out and go modern, but you have to have water and getting good nursery stock for the varieties I want is still a problem."
“I like the new red Gala strains, I like Fuji, I think Fuji is a good strain, they grow well in Batlow, Braeburn do well here and Red Delicious is experiencing a bit of resurgence, and Rosy Glow is a red strain of Pink Lady™. These all grow well in Batlow as we have a fortunate climate, we don’t get the burning hot days, it is a classic cool climate apple growing region – strong soils, good rain and altitude,” Greg said.
Despite the suitability of the region for apples, Greg said you always need to have a flexible plan.
“We have trees that should have been pushed out three years ago but there was no way we could have predicted what was going to happen drought wise, so we have had to be very flexible with our plan."
“Another problem with intensive plantings is we don’t have a great supply of high quality nursery trees and that makes a big difference to the speed with which you can develop high density plantings. This fact is becoming very evident in the Future Orchards 2012 program, a lot of people are saying they cannot get hold of the type of trees they want.”
But Greg said that everything else needed to be in place as well.
“You have to have your ground in good condition and in replant areas, you need to fumigate. We have planted mustard as part of our soil preparation program. It's tending a bit towards the organic way of doing soil fumigation but we don’t have a fumigation contractor just down the road that we can call on to do many of these jobs.”
Greg is a director of the Batlow Fruit Co-op but has always believed in working through the co-op for packing and storage.
“It allows me to fully focus on growing the crop. I think the co-op has been good for Batlow; we are very fortunate to have to co-op because there are so many other spin-offs from it such as the hail netting system that has been developed here."
“And really, the whole area was born of cooperation. We were so far from the Sydney market you couldn’t jump in the horse and dray and take your fruit to the market. We needed storage and that was the start of the coolstore, and it has grown from that point."
“The other thing is the co-op now has orchards in its own right and they maintain a stable workforce that is available in the district. It is difficult to keep good experienced staff, particularly pruning and thinning people, in an area like this."
"The crew would only be here for a few days and then go away. Now, I don’t have to go looking for them and it makes a big difference to my operation,” Greg said.
On the farm with Greg Mouat
What will happen to Batlow?
Greg said it was difficult to know what the long term future of Batlow would be.
“We have an aging grower base, the average age is probably 60 years of age and only a few have sons back on the orchard prepared to take over in the future."
“I don’t know what will happen to the district apple growing industry. It may be that the co-op has to purchase more orchards to ensure its own survival as older people leave."
“Despite that, I think the future for Batlow is very good, it has a well recognised brand, it grows good quality fruit, I’m not too concerned about imports, with a strong name and a strong market presence, I think we can compete. The main problem is the ageing grower base."
“And I am just as likely to encourage my boys to do an apprentice-ship or get a degree and if then they want to come back to the orchard, they would have something else to fall back onto."
What is the Honour System?
Greg sells some fruit at the front gate via an honour system. “For the past 20 years, families from a Yugoslav background have purchased fruit from the farm and they have been a very strong customer base."
“We keep the honour system going because it puts us in front of people. Some days we may only make $20, but it shifts some second grade fruit, it brings in a bit of cash and really, people love to get fruit and vegetables fresh from the farm.”
Do you grow anything else?
We like cherries but there are only three of us growing cherries in Batlow. I think there is a real opportunity to expand cherry production here.
“We are a bit later than other cherry areas and that could be a bit of a trap. We usually don’t make the Christmas market, coming into season between Christmas and New Year. Prices usually tumble, but we can grow some big fruit here so we would get the late premium market."
“We used to have boysenberries years ago but they got old and were pulled out, but we could grow them now along with blueberries, bramble berries and raspberries."
“However, there is a big issue in developing the infrastructure and again, water is a limiting factor, but it doesn’t take a lot of ground to earn a lot of money out of berries. You would also need the packing sheds, cool rooms and other infrastructure.”
Greg is married to Kristin and they have three sons Richard, Sam and Tom.