In Australia, 99 percent of farms are owned and operated by families. One of these farms, Blue Sky Produce, has a unique story to tell.
Twelve months ago, the Fealy family – mom Jess, dad Matt, and three (now four!) children – left their home in Brisbane and embarked on a road trip around Australia. Twelve weeks later, they were starting a new adventure as owner-managers of a mango, avocado, lime, and passionfruit farm in Far North Queensland. Today, they have successfully survived – and thrived – in their first twelve months on the farm. To celebrate the International Year of Family Farming, Food Tank sat down with Jess and Matt to talk about their experiences as family farmers.
FT: On your blog, you talk about the road trip around Australia that you and your family were taking when you were offered the chance to become farmers in Far North Queensland. How did this opportunity come about?
J&M: Matt’s family owns and manages a number of other farms and had decided that they needed to diversify into fruit farming. They knew that we had left the city behind and were looking to begin the next challenge in our lives, preferably in a rural community closer to where we grew up. As it happened, a suitable orchard came on the market during our travels so they gave us a call to see if we would be interested in managing it. A pretty big change for a travel agent and an accountant!!
FT: What does a typical day for the Fealy family involve?
J&M: Here at Blue Sky Produce, we grow mangoes, avocados, passionfruit and limes as well as have a large onsite contract packing shed, so a typical day really depends on the time of the year. We have two distinct periods of the year: ‘During Season’ and ‘Off Season’.
We are currently in the ‘Off Season’ which means a typical day starts with the alarm set at 6am, but it is rarely required with a newborn baby and 3 other young children in the house! Matt then heads out on the quad to do some watering before breakfast. Jess organizes breakfast, school lunches and getting the three big kids off on the bus.
Once the chaos of the morning disappears round the corner on the bus at 8am – Matt gets the workers started for the day (we have one full time farm hand, Charlie, and 1 or 2 transient staff for larger jobs) on anything from weeding, pruning, mulching, replanting, soil preparation the list goes on. Once the workers are all tasked, Matt is in the tractor spraying and fertilizing or meeting with agronomists, bug spotters, soil experts or trying to attend as many local best farming practice forums offered in the region to learn as much a new farmer can! Jess moves between running a home, cleaning the workers’ quarters, taking care of pays and superannuation and general book work for the farm, with usually a few runs into town for anything from ‘O’ rings to tractor parts.
The work day ends when the sun goes down, with a cold beer and usually a family walk around the farm to tend to the chooks, ducks, dogs, guinea pigs, guinea fowls and peacocks. The night times are for reading industry email materials, researching best practice and blogging/Facebooking! We usually try to squeeze in a week or two away from the farm during this time.
During the Season (November to April) it is all about the mangoes and the avocados. Matt is in the packing shed by 5am prepping machinery, making orders for the boxes, stickers and labels required for the day. We usually have a team of up to 30 workers during the season which requires considerable more rostering, paperwork and management for Jess. The workers will generally start at 7am and finish in the shed at 7pm, at which stage Matt and Charlie will normally still have 1 or 2 hours to go to finish things up. During the season we will also have a picking crew out in the orchard operating simultaneously to the shed and all the crops require more watering, spraying and fertilizing than ever before. During the season it is VERY busy!
FT: What has been the highlight of your experience as family farmers so far?
J&M: We both love that we are carrying forward the efforts of Matt’s grandparents who were pioneer farmers in this region. It is very satisfying to know that our hard work is helping to keep at least one more Aussie family farm running and contributing to a rural community.
A highlight for Matt is that farming requires such a broad spectrum of skills – one day you’re repairing a wiring harness on the tractor, the next you’re stripping down a chainsaw, the day after that you’re pouring over soil and leaf analysis – a good thing for someone who gets bored easily!! For Jess, the highlight has absolutely been the time at home with Matt & the kids, enjoying the space, sunsets, ducklings, puppies and sharing this with our extended family who are mostly nearby. Oh, and surviving our first ‘Season’ without any major or costly mishaps was a pretty good feeling too!!
FT: Are there many other family farmers in your community? How have you found the community reception and support?
J&M: The majority of farms in our district are family owned and operated. In the short nine months we have been here, we haven’t had a lot of time to get to know too many other farmers. However, our immediate farming neighbors have all introduced themselves and have been very supportive of a new, young family joining the farming community.
FT: It’s been a big year for you and your family! What are your plans for the next twelve months on the farm?
J&M: Ha! First and foremost, hope we don’t go broke and be evicted from the family Christmas table!!!!
The farm was a ‘doer upper’ so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us to bring it back to its former glory. Our plans for the next twelve months include planting 2000 new avocado trees, preparing 30 acres of virgin soil for our own mulch hay. We are passionate about trying to farm sustainably and will implementing in our orchard better integrated pest management practices by promoting the populations of beneficial insects.
We’re also really excited that we have been accepted in this year’s Northern Gulf Resource Management Group Efficient Farming Program. The program brings together a team of irrigation, pest, crop nutrition and property mapping specialists to work one-on-one with farmers. We believe that as the ‘new kids on the block,’ this program will fast track our knowledge of up to date, relevant and sustainable farming practices. Lots going on but we can’t wait!!