AT just 27-years-old, Tablelands based farmer Tara Gauci-Quintieri is making her mark on the horticultural industry, developing innovative products and championing change.
Born and raised on the family orchard of some 5000 lychees, longans and limes on a property at Mutchilba, the second-generation grower recalls a childhood among the fruit trees.
“I remember every day after school not doing homework but getting off the bus and packing fruit or watering,” Tara said. “We were always doing something.”
Life got busier in 2005 when the family purchased another farm, and established a 20,000-fruit tree orchard.
But with the greater production came a problem – the high cost of importing crates for longans.
“With longans we have to import crates from China three months before the crop,” Tara explained.
“We would estimate production based on the flowering but then we had a few crop disasters due to natural disasters so we lost a crop but still had to store the crates in the packing shed.
“For us it was a major expense having the crates sit in the shed for another 12 months until we got to use them.
“Because lognans need to be gassed for shelf life, cardboard is no good.
“We tried other packing methods using bags but it was double handling.”
Tara found an alternative crate, made from polypropylene using a machine made in China, which allow growers to display their product aesthetically and meet their packaging needs.
Tara purchased a crate business in Mareeba in 2014, renaming it to JAT Plastics and set about manufacturing her own crates for growers on the Tablelands and beyond.
“It wasn’t economically feasible to keep importing the crates,” Tara said.
“We were not going to make any money so we decided to make our own crates.
“We knew we needed a reliable and cost-effective supply of crates for our own business security but also for the local horticultural industry as well.”
Tara has grown the business from two active customers, her family being one of them, to more than 35 growers.
She admits her knowledge of machines, robotics and technology was next to nothing when she started. But there was no stopping her as she battled language and cultural barriers to travel to China, training in the use of the machine and developing new moulds.
It was a tough start when she began making the product locally, as growers had experienced quality issues with previous crates and weren’t interested.
But Tara persisted, and redesigned the mould to make the crates collapse-proof.
Crates are now available for a wide range of product lines including longans, lychees, squash, rambutans and beans.
“I think growers are very thankful that there is something like this available,” Tara said.
“They know that their produce now is been recognised in the market.”
Tara retains a hands-on role in the orchard, overseeing the packing each season and looking after the bookwork.
While the challenges of launching a new product in the market have been many and varied, Tara said she was proud to deliver an innovation that has helped so many growers.
“To see now its a local product and being used so widely and spreading through Australia is quite an achievement,” Tara said.
“I’ve learnt a lot about robotics, and how moulding process works.”
She plans to continue to develop new crates, with trials of a single tray mango tray for the export market in China were successful last season and install a second machine.
Tara is now using her experience to lobby for major legislative change in the industry.
Her family was recently the victim of a fruit wholesaler that went into liquidation, leaving a trail of unpaid debts to growers.
She is championing changes to the Horticultural Code of Conduct, which governs trading arrangements between growers and traders in the horticultural industry.
“I want to change how the agreement is set up,” Tara said.
“As farmers we have no control. We send our fruit and hope to get paid.
“There has to be a better way.”
Tara’s hard work is not going unnoticed and she has been named as a finalist in the annual Charlie Nastasi Horticultural Farmer of the Year Award which will be presented at a gala dinner in Mareeba on Friday.
The other nominees for the award, which is hosted by the Mareeba District Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, are Peter Inderbitzin and Con Iacutone.
The award recognises outstanding innovation and/or exceptional leadership in the Tableland horticultural industry.