Third generation Rollingstone-based farmer Stephen Pace knows a thing or two about how to successfully grow pineapples with family owned and operated Pace Farm this year celebrating their 80th year of producing the delicious tropical fruit.
The operation located about 50km north of Townsville was established in 1936 by Stephen’s grandfather Michael, with pineapples always being at the core of the family business; a business which now spans several blocks and 200 hectares of pineapple production in various stages of growth.
The diverse business – which is jointly run by Stephen’s father John, uncles Colin and Roy, brother Robert and cousins Raymond and Allan – produces watermelons and pumpkins at the main farm as break crops for pineapples, and also incorporates a 500 head beef cattle herd, and a 50,000 tonne cane crop spread over farms at Bambaroo and Crystal Creek.
Stephen who was recently elected chair of Australian Pineapples said last year had been a struggle due to the lack of rainfall, and is very pleased to see the late season rain arrive.
“Pineapples don’t need a lot of water to flourish, but it was an exceptionally dry year and we ended up running out of water in August,” he said.
“The current rain is putting us in a good position for the harvest this year which is a relief.”
To mitigate water requirements he generally grows the low acid hybrid variety near the foot of Paluma Range where the soil is richer and water more plentiful.
“This is done strategically as the hybrid’s are a bit fussier than the smooth leaf variety which is a bit hardier and can be grown successfully at the front of the farm near the road.”
He said while the market value of pineapples is good, it’s because it takes so long to reach the point of harvest compared to other fresh produce (18 to 24 months) that there are a lot of things can go wrong.
“We have to constantly monitor and test each crop to make sure they’re are growing correctly, and factors such as weeds, feral pigs and early flowering fruit need to be addressed and kept in check as well.”
Stephen said planting commences annually around late March to April with the bulk of the harvest taking place between September and December.
“At peak harvest time we employ close to 30 people and around 20 when we’re in the process of planting.”
He said the backpacker tax has been a big burden not just to pineapple growers but the broader agricultural industry as well.
“I don’t think the government realises how much we rely on them in our workforce. If we could employ locally we would but there simply aren’t people out there.”
He said another chief ongoing industry concern is imported pineapples and the diseases that they can potentiality unleash in Australia.
“There are some pretty nasty diseases out there, so we need to make sure we’re working with Biosecurity Queensland so that none of them can get over here and decimate the Australian crop.
Stephen mentioned that the continuously escalating cost of production is an issue that he’ll be looking to improve in his position as chair.
“At a personal level we have to freight our produce to areas as far out as Perth, Hobart and Darwin, which cuts into our bottom line significantly, and it’s the same for all other growers.”
He also said the reduction in chemical options available to growers is making the job more difficult because growers are constantly having to adapt to the new limitations that are placed on them regarding what products they can use.
“We’re in the process of conducting trials to cut out or reduce the amount of chemicals and fertilisers that we need to use.
“We’ve started using seaweed products as an alternative to fertiliser, with the thought process being that seaweed provides better root health for pineapples.
“We are constantly monitoring results; it’s an intensive process which involves soil sampling before planting and taking leaf samples during the growing period.”
The 70 per cent decrease in annual pineapple processing production combined with the increase in fresh production from 15 years ago has led to higher demand for product from a smaller group of growers.
“It’s been great for growers as its led to a significant increase per tonne back to us from the cannery and they’ve also relaxed the reject parametres on what standard of product they’ll accept which leads to less wastage.”
He said in his role as chair he’ll be discussing these issues with growers from Central Queensland, Southern Queensland and the Wide Bay region when the annual pineapple industry field day and tour takes place at Yeppoon on July 21-22.
“It’s a great time for all growers to come together and share our knowledge and successes and discuss the issues that are impacting our business at a state level.”