NUMBERS MAN: Stonefruit grower Robert Hood keeps a meticulous record of his orchard.
NUMBERS MAN: Stonefruit grower Robert Hood keeps a meticulous record of his orchard. Jamie Brown

Hood family adapts to change in stonefruit industry

ROBERT and Robyn Hood, their daughters Michelle and Julie, and older brother Bill, of Newrybar, came to the north coast of New South Wales already familiar with stonefruit and orchard production.

So they revelled in the warmer climate, compared to their first foray into horticulture in western Sydney.

This was in 1989 and the red soil land they purchased in the Byron Bay hinterland had suffered from erosion and camphor laurel infestation.

Robert grew up with stonefruit on his family's Sydney orchard and quickly established himself again in this sub-tropical paradise, naming the new enterprise High Valley Orchard.

Stonefruit trees were supplied by local nurseryman and stonefruit pioneer Lyle Wright - sunwright nectarine and tropic beauty peach among others - which soon matured into fruit producing specimens.

The southern markets loved the early stonefruit, and the varieties they grew produced large, ripe fruit that attracted some of the best prices in the market.

"We did this when things were easy," Robert said. "Not like they are today."

Over the years the family has survived many challenges - damage to fruit from flying foxes, and fruit fly; cranky neighbours concerned about spraying regimes; and agents more interested in their cut.

But they survived them all, and thrived. Today they still thrive, but are in survival mode as the right to spray for fruit fly dwindles, and the need to adapt becomes more paramount.

Central to their survival strategy has been the erection of close-weave netting to protect their trellised trees from flying fox, birds, hail - and now Queensland fruit fly.

The Queensland fly is quite large, so the close weave helps stem their advance.

But the dense netting has other drawbacks - most notably the lack of sunlight on early fruiting varieties.

"We are down 30% this year," rues Robyn, pointing to the silver light inside the netted orchards as evidence that sunlight levels are affected along with fruit set.

The nets also attract dust, which seems to enhance the population of scale. Robyn suggests the scale's natural predators are possibly kept at bay by the net, leading to a population problem.

While the nets keep hail out, they can be overwhelmed - like during one late spring storm in 2008 that damaged $300,000 worth of stonefruit structure in 10 minutes.

Early fruit sent to markets in Sydney and Melbourne provides the Hoods' greatest portion of their yearly income.

Seasons like this one add a hiccup to that formula, in that the cold spring weather tends to turn consumers off early stonefruit.

And now there is new competition from the US thanks to free trade rules.

Spray loss setback

THE pending loss of fenthion spray is a concern for the Hoods.

While they are already trapping for fruit fly, and have netted to help prevent their effects, they realise their fruit productivity will suffer.

Independent tests carried out by the Hoods last season revealed fenthion levels virtually disappeared after 14 days.

"We used to spray for fruit fly every seven days to get our fruit into Victoria. I feel that this was overboard," Robert said.

Keeping track

AS ROBERT was educated as an accountant, facts and figures are close to his heart, and Robyn notes that he keeps a meticulous record of his orchard.

"We allow 10% waste each year," she begins. "And we do a random branch count - we keep records of the same tree year after year, but choose each tree randomly."

One year Robert estimated his total production within 20 trays. Such accounting helps to keep ordering budgets under control.

The couple are also thankful the operation remained relatively small - 3000 trees under net across 3ha - so wages are kept to a minimum.

When they do employ staff it is always skilled. There's little room for backpacker labour here.

Soon after the trees set fruit in late winter, flowering fruit is thinned to four per lateral with a final thin to one to two pieces per lateral to allow the final pick to yield larger than average product.

The key to that success is removing small or badly shaped fruit and excessive foliage so the tree can concentrate on producing cash, not greenery.

As a result, the orchard produces 4500 to 5500 trays per hectare or 20 tonnes to the hectare - slightly less than some but at a greater return thanks to the size and quality of the fruit.

Market advice

WHEN it comes to dealing with agents, Robert has 47 years of experience.

But he has come to this simple conclusion: "Only compare prices to market average," he says.

"It's not worth worrying about what the agent makes, just make sure you are happy and they are reliable."

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