Wamuran berries fit the bill

Wamuran berries fit the bill


Horticulture
Wamuran strawberry grower Bill Sharpe. <i> - Picture: RODNEY GREEN.</i>

Wamuran strawberry grower Bill Sharpe. - Picture: RODNEY GREEN.

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LIVING someone else's dream is the only way Bill Sharpe can describe how he came to manage one of the most well-known strawberry farms in Queensland.

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LIVING someone else's dream is the only way Bill Sharpe can describe how he came to manage one of the most well-known strawberry farms in Queensland.

"It sort of started with my son - he wanted to get into farming, so we bought the place and then we worked it for a couple of years before he got into mining and left me with the farm," Mr Sharpe said.

The commercial first harvest of Sharpe's strawberries came in 1991 on the family property at Wamuran which is now owned by Red Jewel Nursery and managed by head grower Elise Pike.

"Our first lot of strawberries came when I was 43 so it's sort of gone on from there."

Taking the seat of president at the Queensland Strawberry Industry association for number of years, Mr Sharpe said his fondest memories were of how well-connected the growers were to one another.

"There were a lot of other farmers quite willing to help with the knowledge of growing strawberries and that's what we needed then and what we need now.

"We all have pretty much the same problems and people were solving those in a collective form."

Mr Sharpe said the industry has suffered under the rising costs of labour and transport as shelf-price remains firm.

"Price wise, we've gone from $5 per punnet in 1992 and today, it's pretty much the same and it can go down to 59 cents per punnet and production costs is probably averaging around $1.80 per punnet.

"A lot of the bigger fellas got bigger and the smaller ones dropped out.

"I was classed as one of the smaller ones but we were lucky enough to have a good agent in Melbourne and, consequently, we were able to survive and put out a pretty good product."

Mr Sharpe said the major concern for the industry was in the hands of consumers who had potentially had a bad experience with the fruit after purchase.

"Consumers are buying strawberries but they don't come back and buy more because they don't taste good and our statistics show it can take up to six weeks to see them come back.

"Strawberries don't keep ripening after you harvest them and that's where the bigger farmers tend to fall down a little bit because they tend to pick that little bit greener so the strawberries haven't got that taste they should have."

Red Jewel Nursery will see upwards of 40,000 strawberry plants harvested of their fruit this year with Mr Sharpe beginning planting over the coming weeks.

"Usually, in about late May, we'll have the first picking which is about two or three berries here and there and then the next week will be half a dozen more.

"It sort of comes in dribs and drabs and then all at once you get to June and it starts to really crank up and you'll get that first flush.

"It will go quiet then until the next flush comes on and then, by August and September, it just goes absolutely berserk."

With three of the five paddocks in full swing, Mr Sharpe said he would be planting around 30 varieties across the small lots of land.

"We have a huge amount of varietal differences here and it's the only reason we've survived in this industry.

"We used to have a variety called Early Sweet but it was a very small berry and, if we were getting the same price back then as we got now, we would have been laughing.

"Today, we're trying to get the bigger varieties tasting as good as those Early Sweets.

"We had to stop producing them because they were so small you need 50 or 60 of them to fill a punnet and it's ironic that there's more labour involved in picking those smaller berries and filling a punnet yet you get more money for the big ones."

Mr Sharpe said opportunities for growers lay in the variety they chose to plant, one that would reap the financial rewards from hungry consumers.

"Australia has the lowest consumption of strawberries - people don't buy them on a regular basis," he said.

"They're not like an apple or an orange but they're cheaper and better for you than chocolate or something processed."

Mr Sharpe said although strawberry plants were self-pollinating, it was always an added bonus to have a hive of bees to lend a helping hand.

"You can't beat nature, bees are the best. You can go into a patch and it's quite relaxing - all you hear is the bees humming.

"The good lord has blessed me, I can tell you!"

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