Like a phoenix from the flames, the Witchell family’s apple growing business has been reborn after the deadly Black Saturday bushfires.
The family endured the heartbreaking loss of one-quarter of its orchard, with another quarter badly damaged. Also burnt were the packing and storage sheds, plus tractors and other equipment. The multimillion-dollar loss partially wiped out years of hard work by four generations of Witchells at their 32 hectare West Gippsland orchard at Labertouche, about 100km west of Melbourne.
For grower Shaun Witchell, the fire in February 2009 was the biggest challenge he’d faced since joining the family business full-time a decade earlier.
“It was devastating for everyone. Not too many blokes see their dad cry,” he said.
The Witchell orchard was the only one in the district damaged by the fire, and other growers rallied around to help start the rebuilding and replanting process.
“We are a pretty tight industry and that gave us a little bit of drive to get up and go,” Shaun said.
“But it has taken a bit of a toll. Whatever we get done, it will only be to catch up to where we should have been. But we’re getting there and we’re going to pick a good crop this year, and we will continue to chip away over the next few years.”
Shaun’s great-grandfather started growing apples at the property in 1903.
The medium-sized business now produces eight varieties, including Gala and Pink Lady™, as well as a newer variety, Jazz™. It supplies mostly greengrocers in Victoria and has a reputation for quality fruit and being responsive to market demands.
Jazz™ is a New Zealand apple launched in 2004 and grown on license in Australia, the UK and several other countries. There are only three other growers in Victoria. The sweet-yet-tart apple will be available from April to June in volumes not previously seen in Australia.
“It’s a great eating apple; it’s sweet, it’s hard and it’s juicy,” Shaun said.
More trees are being planted and the Jazz™ will ultimately represent up to 20 per cent of the family’s apple production.
New varieties and long-standing reputation aside, Shaun said imported applies were an issue for local growers, but that consumers should also be concerned by the quality of such produce.