Visiting Ross & Karen Stuhmcke’s Fig, Persimmon and Stonefruit Farm

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We came here in ’84 and it was just a bush block – just scrub and we never set out to become farmers or orchardists – we just bought it as a bit of a knock-around paddock and maybe as an investment and somewhere where my father could spend some time. We started out with just a few Stonefruit and one thing led to another and now I’m doing it full-time! We have 140 acres and another 35 acres with a dam in between which belongs to the neighbour. We have about 14,000 Stonefruit, 1,000 mature Persimmons and another 4,500 young Persimmons and we started doing Figs on a patch of dirt we didn’t know what to do with and although we thought it was our best bit of dirt, it took us 20 years to plant something on it. It’s turned out quite good with the figs. We send to market as well as direct dealing with retail outlets.  

Sheryl What does the central market charge as commission?   

Ross Whatever they like! There is no set price. You might hear on the news – usually coming up to the election, there’ll be a piece for the farmers that they were going to straighten out the market system and have a code of conduct for merchants. If they are an agent, they would sell your produce on a commission basis. You could go in anytime and ask to see where your produce was sold and how much it was sold for. They then changed their name to Merchants which meant they could sell your produce for whatever they liked and give you back what they claimed to be the sale so technically they bought the fruit from you. They generally charge between 12 -15% but I had a good deal recently on Persimmons size 18 – 20. They sold them for $14.00 and gave me $11.00 back so he was charging over 20%!  Producers of fruit and vegetables will be struggling for a long time until they can get on top of it and deal direct but in the long run, the retail outlets say that this is the price we’re willing to pay you. A group got together of the main grower/packers and formed the Lockyer Valley Alliance whose objectives were just to promote the Lockyer Valley. In the 50’s the onion growers in Lockyer were the only onion growers in Australia at that time and they had the whole Australian supply at that time so they stuck together and wouldn’t accept an unfair price and all was going well for them but the wholesale buyers were wanting to pay less and less so they hung out until one bloke saw a train load of onions heading down the railway line and it turns out that it was one of their members so that was the finish of it. The problem now is that imports are so easy that they just bring in enough supply especially with vegetables. If there’s a free trade agreement with China, our vegetable growers are going to get hammered and they’ll become a vanishing breed because China can produce them so much cheaper than we can and you won’t know the country of origin.

Sheryl I believe that’s what a free trade agreement means ie when you buy produce currently, it states country of origin, but once an agreement is in place, it won’t show this information.

Member  Because we have opposite seasons to the northern hemisphere, you’re still going to be able to sell. In fact you’ll be able to sell all over the world.

Ross To a degree and for a price. We can currently sell all over the world for a price and the price just isn’t sustainable especially when our dollar has gone to US70¢.

Sheryl Do you do the farmers markets at all?

Ross They’re very good but we’re too big for farmers markets. The industry is generally heading two ways: You have the really big suppliers of which we’re not one or you’ve got Mum and Dad operations as we call them where husband & wife might do all the picking and packing and you can make a living from farmers markets provided you haven’t got too much debt and a lot of the farmers markets you’ll buy the same quality for a lot less price because you haven’t got all those other add-ons.

Sheryl Where do you buy your trees from?

Ross I get most of it from Birdwood Nursery.

In this area tree crops aren’t popular – it’s more concentrated on vegetables. They thought we were mad trying to grow trees on this goanna country and they’re right because without water you can’t grow diddlysquat so to solve our water problems we started drilling bores and they’re OK. The bores near the highway serving the vegetable growers are dropping and they have a major problem but our underground water is found in a different place. Their water is nearly all above the sandstone and we’re into sandstone after about 20 feet here and we’re on the edge of the Helidon Hills which is a sandstone area right back up to Ravensbourne – about 30 miles of it and so now they’ve protected that area through vegetation management so none of this will be able to be cleared and now we can’t clear any more on our property whether we want to or not even if we want to replace it with fruit trees, it has to stay the way it is so our water is found in the sandstone 300 feet down and on the black soil they find water at 100 feet roughly but they find far bigger volumes. We only get 2000 gallons an hour whereas they’re talking 10,000 gallons an hour but now a lot of them are down to 2,000 an hour where they were getting 10,000 previously so as they’re not use to working with such a low quantity, they’re struggling. Apart from the bores, we needed more water than the bores would supply. We pumped them into a dam so as we still needed more, 4 growers around here put a bank across the creek and put in a weir which was approved over 10 years ago and that worked well for a while until it didn’t rain and it ran out. We knew the Council was trying to do something with their sewerage water so we managed to get a farm innovation grant through the Federal Govt. to use the recycled water on tree crops. They’ve done vegetable crops north of Adelaide but never used this recycled water on tree crops. 2 of us put in a proposal, got the funding, we had to match it dollar for dollar so we brought the water out 7kms from town and we pump it into our dam.

Sheryl What size pipe did you use?

Ross  4 inch. We don’t get a lot of water at a time but we get about 100 megalitres over a year and it’s pumped in off-peak rates. Sewerage water usually has 3 stages of treatment. The first stage takes out the solids, then it goes to the secondary stage and it goes into holding dams and sunlight is one of the greatest treatments and we then get it at this second stage. The 3rd stage is very expensive where they treat it to potable standard and I believe they do this in France. It’s only a mindset. Have you heard about the scheme for recycled water from Brisbane up to the Downs?  The quality of the recycled water we are getting is probably a lot better than what farmers in South Australia are using out of the Murray River. It’s more saltier and has more nutrient in it. Our water is held for about 20 days before we get it. The only problem we’ve found with it is if we get say 3-4 days of around 40º we find it can have an algal bloom – blue/green flush but it just takes a couple of good days then it settles right down. There’s not a lot of difference between sewage and grey water because all the grey water from town goes into the sewerage.

Ross No they don’t like salts. 

George Borewater is recycled! 

Sheryl Have you tried barley grass?

Ross No, we haven’t done it because what we’ve been led to believe is when you put it in that’s fine but the biggest hassle is that when it collects on it, it’s getting it back out of the dam that’s the major problem because the barley starts to decompose and it falls apart so you haven’t achieved anything. We just don’t pump on those days. Our pH goes through the roof when that happens. We just move to our other storage water. When the heat drops down, everything goes back to normal. Only some of the fruit is growing on the recycled water. We took virgin country and we started with recycled water so we’ll be able to monitor it to see what happens. We grow Figs and Stonefruit on the recycled water – not the Persimmons. I’m still looking for more water from the Council as they promised but it just hasn’t happened yet! We get the water free of charge from the Council. They put some water up for tender recently and the lady is paying $140 per megalitre and she has to do all the pumping.

Pruning Stonefruit  Our year starts off with pruning our Stonefruit in December/January and making sure plenty of light is getting into the tree to develop buds for the following season. We’re looking for buds to replace wood that will shoot out in the following spring and that will give us fruit for the year after. This is the time of bud initiation and because they grow vigorously they can shade everything out.

Figs   At the end of January we start picking Figs until the beginning of June and by then we usually have a frost so that knocks any quality out of the fruit. They’re a pain to pick because you virtually have to pick them every day but we’re trying to pick only every second day because of the cost of labour. Two people to pick and pack 20 trays takes just over four hours. We sell them for $24.00 per tray which is fair money.

Sheryl Have you tried trellising?

Ross  I was going to.

Persimmons  We start picking in March and go through to beginning of May. I only have non-astringent. There is a small market for astringent and Israel grows a lot – they call them Sharon fruit and I think they’ve just got approval to bring them into Australia. They’re our biggest competitor in Asia when our Persimmons start. We have to wait until they have cleared because they are selling them for $5-$6 per tray and it costs us $5.00 per tray for us to get ours there.

George I always thought the Israelis got good prices for their fruit?

Ross I haven’t seen the pricing but this is what I am told. They treat them with gas to take out the astringency and it’s quite well liked.

Sheryl Is there any way we can take out the astringency in our astringent Persimmons?

Ross There is but I can’t recall just now.  If you want to ripen any piece of fruit especially a Persimmon, put them beside Bananas or Tomatoes. We can’t send our Persimmons out in the truck with them as they would arrive very spongy. They’re very ethelene sensitive so if you ripen a couple, then it’s like ripening an Avocado – put them in a brown bag with a Banana etc. inside. Usually they’re picked green and gas ripened but as most fruits ripen, they give off more ethelene. 

George Persimmons don’t like chlorides. 

Judy How soon before you get a decent crop?

Ross  Fuyu and Ichikikei Jiro are the 2 main commercial crops. It’s a square fruit. Jiro take an extra year than Fuyu because it doesn’t grow as vigourously. It grows for a short period in spring and you’re !!! if you can keep it going. You just try to keep fertiliser and water to them. Jiro is a much bigger fruit.

Sheryl Do you deflower?

Ross We just call it thinning. We don’t with our Persimmons. We try to prune to a level that gives us less fruit then we just go through and knock off the deformed ones. With Stonefruit, we’ll knock off 80%-90% of the flowers. The sequence of fruiting is Isu which is very susceptible to fruit fly – we use it as our monitor tree – we’re lucky to pick any fruit off them, then one week later is Jiro. We need to pick most of our fruit when there is only a touch of orange. The reason being is that on the coast until you get much further down south, we get a problem with fruit softening. You’ll pick the fruit and two days later, it will be too ripe and they can’t work out why it happens. They call them bombers as they blow up! After Jiro, you go to Pomello which is a Sth. American variety then it’s Oshu Gosho and quite characteristic of this type are splits in the fruit. It’s a smaller fruit – tastes the same as a Fuyu but crops heavier. Then Fuyu then Suruga. Suruga has some odd shapes which children really like so you might consider this for the home garden. We had a perfect Easter bunny this year but you also get perfectly formed fruit too. One way of telling Suruga is slightly square and pointy and around the base, it gets all these creases and that’s why it’s not liked in the market place. There’s a few different strains with Jiro and Fuyu.

Jo Which would be the best for the home garden?

Ross The easiest one to manage is Jiro. It crops well, you can let it hang for over a month. Apparently you can get bags now with little windows in them so you can watch development! In Japan and China they bag a lot of fruit.

Olga Have you ever dried them?

Ross The problem with this is that if you go commercial, they have to be seedless.

Sheryl So which ones are seedless?

Ross It will depend on whether you have pollinators in your orchard.

Sheryl I thought you always had to have pollinators in a commercial orchard.

Ross No, that was the original thinking but you don’t have to.

Sheryl Have you cut out all your pollinators? 

Ross Yes. We do have a couple left but it’s only because we haven’t finished grafting them over.

Fertiliser We fertigate as well as using normal fertiliser. Persimmons love Potassium and Calcium. Don’t put Nitrogen on when they are cropping as it softens the fruit and gives less shelf life. Give them a complete fertiliser when they come out of dormancy and start to shoot which is about 3 weeks before flowering. 3 handfuls per mature tree at springtime.  Then a little at Christmas and then one handful of Sulphate of Potassium and Calcium/Gypsum in February & mid March. The unusual thing with Persimmons is that their roots become active following leaf flush so if your leaves start to flush, then your roots aren’t active as yet so you get the opportunity when you see the leaves start to go to put the fertiliser on then the roots will start happening. It’s back to front with Persimmons compared with other fruit trees.


Sheryl Do you get much Fruit Spotting Bug or Fruit Piercing Moth?

Ross We have most of our Persimmons netted. You would have a lot more pressure in Brisbane from them because they have more to eat there. Fruit Fly is the biggest problem. You get a black spot where the fruit fly sting and whether you have a product called Lebayacid on there that will kill the eggs or not, it will still get this black mark and it’s 2nd class fruit straight away and we can’t sell if it’s got too many stings on it. It’s no big deal from a home point of view providing you don’t have the maggots developing. Lebaycid is an excellent product. You spray it on a regular basis and it keeps a small amount of chemical in the surface of the skin so when the female stings it, it kills the eggs straight away. Once you see the first black mark on the surface of the fruit, you have to spray every 7-10 days. I only spray every fortnight. We don’t blanket spray as they did in California to get rid of Mediterranean Fruit Fly. That gave the growers access to market all over the world. We can’t get access to more than half the world. Singapore is the only country where we don’t have to worry about the Qld. fruit fly.

George Have you tried bait spray?

Ross Yes, it keeps our population down but it’s not 100% effective.

George I believe bait sprays don’t work with Stonefruit at all but they should on Persimmon.

Ross  It’s the same with all the fruit. You mix a chemical with the bait, the bait attracts the fruit fly and the fly lands on it and she eats some of the yeast and falls over dead and that’s good because you don’t have to spray your fruit with the bait but any that don’t go there, you’re still going to have the fruit fly problem and if we do this, then we lose too much of a commercial quantity. They are trialing a fruit fly net on a commercial basis however it changes the atmosphere inside the net completely, a bit more humid, a bit more shade, fungal problems but it’s not bad but I’m just not rushing into it. Bob Nissen and Alan George at Nambour Research Station.

George Dick Drew was using shadecloth about 6 weeks before  fruit set and was able to see his sugar levels were higher when he netted.

Sheryl  So you just monitor with bait sprays and then use Leybaycid? 

Ross For the Persimmons but you can’t let it go too long. If we weren’t bait spraying with protein hydrolosate mixed with maldason or clorferafos or some are using diptarix, we’d have to spray every 7 days with Lebaycid and we’d still have black fruit. George Dick Drew developed it and said that chlorafos was much better than maldason but it lasted about the same time.

Ross I get mine through Bugs for Bugs at Mundubbera.

Olga  So your nets are predominently against birds? Ross Yes, with a little bit of hail protection as well. I had hail insurance for 10 years and the first year I didn’t take it, we had hail. I don’t take it out anymore because I don’t think it’s worthwhile. It costs about $30,000 for a half million crop and they have a 20% excess so if you were halfway through your crop, that’s 70% gone so it’s only if you got wiped out right at the start would it be worth it and your profit out of a half million crop wouldn’t be 10%. Hail netting costs around $30,000 per hectare. You could get away with a $20,000 net which is a simple birdnet, but a decent hail storm will demolish it. A net will last around 10 years and is UV protected – comes from New Zealand.

Olga Can you get a net that rolls away? 

Ross  Yes, someone has it up Nth Qld. but the problem is that everytime you roll it, you’ll damage it to some degree. Lorikeets just love the Persimmons. My neighbour just gave up. He had the scare gun but it was hopeless.

Sheryl  Have you got a permit to kill any birds?

Ross Yes, a guy from the department came out and said that I appeared to have a problem and said to me that he’d try really hard to see if he could get a permit for 15 but in the end he could only get me 12 for the season!!!!!!! Then I had to collect them and put them in the freezer!  And that’s for thousands of trees!!!

Figs I only have the one variety – Black Genoa. There’s a White Genoa. There’s a block in America that has 14,000 different varieties so just go on the net and you’ll find him. Commercially the 2 main ones are Black Genoa and Arctic White. Brown Turkey would be the one you would be familiar with because it’s large and it’s grown a lot down south but it doesn’t tolerate the humid conditions here. Figs are desert plants that originate in the Middle East unlike most of our fruit which came out of Asia – China especially but I just think that the Chinese kept records whereas others didn’t.

Sheryl Why did you choose Black Genoa?

Ross It can handle the humidity a bit better and it grows to a reasonable size. Size seems to be everything when you’re trying to sell fruit from our point of view but we have to get a balance between tonnage per hectare and size of fruit. If we go and thin everything out and have all big fruit, we mightn’t get the tonnage and you haven’t got the fruit left to get the weight up so it’s a balancing act for us. Also, with Black Genoa, the little hole at the end of the fruit isn’t as big as others and insects like to live in that hole so it doesn’t happen as much with Black Genoa. It’s worked out well for us. We water them every day for about an hour. We start watering when they are very small but they’ll crop more if you feed and water them more and if you’re not in a frost prone area, you can crop them into July. I get a bit of frost here. 

Pruning We got Peter Young to come and show us how to prune them in winter as he wanted the cuttings. He came in with a chainsaw. Let the trunk grow to knee height then crop them and let 3 or 4 leaders shoot sideways or whatever comes, it’s a vase shape – open in the centre. The second year you cut these to about a foot long when they’re dormant in winter and break all the others off bar two and the third year we’ll trim all those and just leave them with one. You also take off all the side shoots. They can get a bit of leaf rust so we put a bit of Mancozeb on them every three weeks when the leaves are coming through at the start and use it as a foliar spray on all the new leaves as they come through then keep using it until the withholding period when we start to pick.

George It acts as a trace element with Zinc & Manganese.

Ross Don’t worry about the length of the branch as you just bend them down to pick the fruit. You only get figs on new wood. Figs are grown just from cuttings. I think they strip the bark off the first 3 or 4 inches, roll it in rooting hormone and put it into heated beds with sterilized soil.

Sheryl At the cement works at Darra there’s apparently a really large Fig tree – they must like lime.

Ross We use Gypsum on them in winter

Member I think they’ve demolished it.

George Maybe it’s not lime they like as Calcium. If you put Gypsum on which doesn’t change the pH then they’re going to be healthy.

Irrigation  We use anti ant Nan Dan sprinklers – Nan bought Dan out! True!

George Why didn’t you use drippers?

Ross Because of our sandy soil. There are two issues with it. You have maximum crop with maximum demand and you have a hot north-westerly come through with 42º, the tree hasn’t got enough root area to draw the moisture in.

Sheryl I notice you don’t bury your irrigation pipe and you use 19ml.

Ross I buried my first lot and after that I became a quick learner! Only made that mistake once! The irrigation was designed by Hardies.

Sheryl I notice you have your irrigation heads quite close to the trunk – about 60cms out. The water doesn’t damage the trunk?

Ross It doesn’t seem to damage it nor on any of the other crops. Every time we switch the irrigation on, we come round and check. If we don’t, we’ll get blockages and it doesn’t matter how good your filtration is. There’ll either be a bit of algae or ants or something else. We use mig welding wire to unblock it. They’re also pressure compensated and what that means is that when they’re going up or down a hill, they’ll balance themselves out to a certain degree and all that  pressure compensating is that little black rubber disk at the base of the sprinkler. We have a main going down the middle with tributaries going off. Just put it in a pressure gauge to test out your pipe. Cobwebs tend to be a problem.

Sheryl What time of the day do you put your water on?

Ross When Merv wakes up!

Sheryl So you don’t do it at night?

Ross No, but where the Kiwifruit and Avocadoes will be going we’ll do it there. Spacing is 4.5 by 3 mtrs. Most of the trees I’ll put in now will be at 4.5 mtr spacings. I bought a new slasher that when we weed spray our strips my slasher will just fit across that. We leave the grass clippings under the trees.

Pests At the start of the year Fruit Fly are a bit of a hassle around January but these are easy to manage as we bait spray but it’s not a big problem here. The birds haven’t been a major problem either. Currawongs and Crows are the main problem but with Avocadoes we’ve found that they’ll knock a few green ones off and it’ll take them a week to ripen, then they’ll go along every day and knock off enough for the next week’s feed and they’ll keep doing this. This year we’ve had the least pressure from fruit fly that we’ve had in 10 years and we also don’t have a big problem either with the Fruit Piercing Moth either.

Fruit Development  All the fruit crops basically have a large need for water in the 2-3 weeks leading up to harvest. That’s when the fruit are filling out. If you simplify the theory the way I’m lead to understand, in the first few weeks of the fruit forming they produce the number of cells you’re pretty well going to have in your fruit for the rest of the period of the fruit’s life so if you can get the maximum number of cells develop at the start through having your nutrient balance right and enough moisture there and have everything in balance, that will give you a chance of getting the biggest and most quantity of fruit. Then you go through a stage when the fruit just slowly develops by the cells getting larger then the last couple of weeks you usually find in most crops that those number of cells can fill up with water, starches and other nutrients and the cells expand.

Sheryl Do you put the same of water on at flowering as in the last two weeks before harvest and what quantity?

Ross  Similar. I’d water the Persimmons twice a week for about two hours because we’re on sandy soil and the water moves through quickly if it’s moist but longer if it’s dry. We use 50 litre an hour sprinklers per tree so we’re putting on 100 litres a week and that happens for about 3-4 weeks at flowering then about the same prior to harvest. In the middle, you’d half that to about once a week for 2 hours as a rule of thumb. I have water monitoring equipment that measures the water every 30 minutes and it sends out an impulse and measures the water in the soil and we download that into a computer so we have an idea of how it’s going. So if it’s hot weather and they really have a need for water, we can pick it up quickly.

Note from Sheryl   I put up this query on removing astringency for the home user on the internet as all of my books only had notes for the commercial grower which weren’t suitable and this was the reply. Perhaps one of you could test it out to confirm:

You can remove the astringency in astringent persimmons by waiting until they have completely changed colour. Pick them and check for any soft spots then place the firm ones in a pot or bucket and cover with water. They will try to float so you will have to place something on top of them to keep them submerged. Soak for 5 days changing the water each day. After 5 days remove from the water, dry, then peel and eat or refrigerate and eat later. You can also pick them after they have completely changed colour and are still firm, peel, slice crosswise 1/4” to 3/8” thick and dehydrate. When they are dry the astringency is removed.

Article compiled by Sheryl Backhouse