Kerry Smerdon swore he’d never forge a life on the farm – it was the pineapples that did him in. With two generations of pineapple farmers before him, he’d spent every holiday as a kid picking them. This fruit was tough enough to pick with its spiky exterior that always shredded your hands, let alone having to harvest them in Queensland’s pouring rain or searing sun. He studied accounting but realised that wasn’t his bag either. The land called him back, as it often does, and so he chose to harvest tree crops whose produce was just that little bit gentler. Kerry and his wife Ros now produce some of the country’s best macadamias and custard apples, but their particular specialty is avocados.
The pair, along with their three motor-cross mad sons, live on their 64 hectare farm in the Glasshouse Mountains of the Sunshine Coast hinterland, an hour north of Brisbane. Kerry had been working on the family farm since 1994 and purchased the property from Kerry’s parents in 2008, and what a year that was. Ros and Kerry were married in April, and having poured time, money and effort to commence the conversion from what was a solo pineapple plantation to a new tree crop paradise, the November bushfires came through and destroyed blocks of trees as well as irrigation. It’s this unpredictability that is one of farming’s greatest challenges, and the couple has continued to endure floods, droughts and cyclones over the past two decades. Strong winds in particular are the enemy of avocados. “With a long stalk that hangs off the branch, the fruits can get a whipping and can easily fall from the tree. But that’s just the vagaries of farming you have to cop,” says Ros.
Avocados are a climacteric fruit. Just like bananas, they mature on the tree and only ripen once picked. When harvested and kept at room temperature, avocados will take around five days to naturally ripen. But for their journey to our plates, it is important to cool the core temperature of the fruit as soon as it comes off the tree, in order to reduce any disease and to best manage the ripening so that it arrives in our customer’s fruit and vegetable boxes at its prime, ready to eat.
What sets the Smerdon’s venture apart is the extremes they go to in ensuring quality control. Regular leaf and root samples are assessed by an agronomist who puts together a nutrition plan to create great soil health. And when picking, grading and packing, each avocado is handled like a day-old baby. But it’s the journey to the destination where quality control steps into overdrive. In each and every pallet of avocados travels a ‘tracer’. This very clever little device allows Ros and Kerry to track the temperature of every single avocado, every step of their journey, from the farm to its final destination. One of the avocados has to take one for the team, as the tracer is poked into the fruit to record its temperature every ten minutes. At the end of the journey, this tracer is sent back to the farm for the data to be collated.
“Not a lot of farmers use them but the information we get from the tracers is amazing. If there are any problems with the fruit, we can pinpoint what went wrong; when and where the cool, constant temperature was compromised,” says Ros. They are also very particular about fellow passengers. Where possible, there’ll be no pineapples or bananas joining that road trip – both emit ethylene, a natural gas that hastens the ripening process.
Ros is known for her farming savvy. Her contribution in helping to create new industry innovations such as avocado cooking oils and beauty creams, as well as exploring new ways to deliver the fruit to customers in a ready-to-eat condition, earned her the Rural Woman of the Year award in 2008. She has also worked hard to secure better pricing for farmers in an agricultural industry that favours retail profits over fair prices and a sustainable future for farmers. On this subject she is vocal.
“We have one of the strongest food safety programs in the world. My fear is that this won’t be truly appreciated until there are no farmers left and we are forced to buy and consume imported, inferior product that’s not grown with the same strict guidelines. Everyone talks about food security, but it is also about Aussie growers producing Aussie food to be eaten by the Aussie population. Our biggest challenge is that our costs continually go up but our returns aren’t matching that. We’ve seen it with milk, where good operators have gone out of business because there is nothing in it. Growers need to be paid reasonably with decent terms. That is where it is going to make things tough for a lot of farmers over the next few years,” says Ros.
Ros and Kerry started supplying their avocados to Aussie Farmers Direct this year, and it’s a highly valued partnership. “It provides us with a wonderful alternative. Aussie Farmers Direct pays a good price and pays on time (which is a bonus, believe me!) and orders come in regularly. I have friends in the city who order Aussie Farmers Direct, and they do a comparison with the other supermarkets, whose fruit and veg is never as nice, so it’s a blessing that our avocados are in such good hands at Aussie Farmers Direct,” adds Ros.
Add Some Avocados to your Aussie Farmers Direct Fruit & Vegetable Delivery: AussieFarmers.com.au