When Cole was Stanley’s king

Stanley orchardist Peter Chambeyron with bushel-box stencils once used to identify packed apple varieties.

This is an edited transcript of an unpeeled podcast interview with Peter Chambeyron, an orchardist at Europa Gully, Stanley, in Victoria’s North East. You can also listen here.

Most of us have nothing at all to do with food production, having come to expect the market to deliver a reliable, year-round supply while hardly noticing the prices. Many of us know that food is important, but we find it difficult to get a grasp on it. It just appears to be too big and too complex, easy to ignore.

There are so many issues that affect farmers growing food both natural and man-made: the repeated and often vicious cycle of booms and busts related to commodity prices, unhelpful weather, a changing climate, economic events, new trade agreements and government policy. All make growing challenging and finding markets difficult. Over a relatively short time span – just a few decades – we’ve seen in Australia the evolution of small greengrocers dealing with local suppliers into the most concentrated supermarket sector in the world, where dominant players use their power in the supply chain to demand supply at a scale, price and year-round availability that sees smaller suppliers unable to remain viable. Increasing globalisation, supported by a super-cheap global transport network, means local growers have no specific advantage and are often undermined on price and volume. Add to this changing consumer taste and expectations, new varieties and plant variety patenting and trademarking.

These factors often make it difficult to get a grasp on what it means. In our region, the apple has had an important place in our food-producing landscape. Apples remain at the heart of our region, no place more so that the small village of Stanley in cool-climate North East Victoria, Australia.

Exploring what’s happened with apples over the past 150 years offers us a window to understand the entire food system in all its complexity.

There are now just a handful of growers left in our renowned apple orcharding district and I’m sure what’s happened here is happening in similar apple regions around the world, including Canada, United States, United Kingdom and European countries, where the factors I mentioned a moment ago have created difficult conditions for traditional growers.

I spoke with my friend Peter Chambeyron, an apple orchardist in Stanley, about growing apples since he was a boy in the 1950s on his family farm. As a young married man and facing significant financial pressure to earn a living from apple-growing, Peter joined the Victorian fire service for decades, but in retirement he’s returned to his apple orchard. The issues that have affected his life as a small apple orchardist in this beautiful part of Australia cover the gamut of challenges mentioned earlier. And I’ll add here that when Peter talks about a bushel of apples, think of a big box that you’d only just be able to carry, so about 22 kilograms.

I began by asking Peter to tell me again the story of Stanley’s last apple exports in the late 1960s a few years before Britain, Australia’s traditional market for apples, joined the European Economic Community in 1973. We were sitting in the open-sided shed at Peter’s orchard, Jamie at the camera and our impatient dog under the table, with a breeze blowing and – intermittently – the loud sound of a gas gun firing to scare hungry birds away from the trees’ growing fruit.


Peter Kenyon 

Peter, you told me previously about the Suez Canal and the impact of the Israel-Egypt Six-Day War in 1967 on Stanley apple exports to England. And I think you said the last apples to England as a result of that conflict?.

Peter Chambeyron 

That’s right. Prior to that, Stanley used to grow one main variety, which was King Cole[1]. I’d have probably the last 10 trees in the district now. They were a tarty-type apple, very similar to Cox’s Orange Pippin that the English like. They like a tarty style. That was exported and (for) everyone that was their main crop. We had our own packing sheds here. Sinclairs had a packing shed or we sent to people like Geoffrey Thompson (an agent in Shepparton). But once England entered the Common Market and the Suez Canal incident, no more fruit was sent for export. Granny Smiths had been sent there, too. But, from Stanley, it was mainly the King Cole. It is a bright red apple very similar to Pink Lady. Our aim was to get our Australian apples there when in the English off-season.

When our fruit got stuck in the Suez Canal the insurance companies wouldn’t pay because they said it was an ‘act of war’. They ended up paying but they actually paid us on the English market at the peak UK in-season price, not their off-season. And from then on, I don’t think anyone ever exported apples from Stanley again. So there were two things that killed our exports: the Suez Canal crisis and Britain entering the European Economic Community (later known as the Common Market).

Peter Kenyon 

And you were a young man at the time?

Peter Chambeyron 

I started on our orchard here when I was 16 because my father was very sick. I took it over. My uncle was actually operating with dad. And then when I left school, I started on the farm and took over half the property. We exported for a couple years and at the age of 22, I gave up farming. That would have been in about 1970. We actually made $68 for the year. We couldn’t sell our fruit. And I bulldozed the whole lot out. But there’d been other orchardists slowly going. I think there had been around 40-odd orchardists here, individual orchardists.

Peter Kenyon 

On the Stanley plateau?

Peter Chambeyron 

A lot more families would have been involved. For example, Giff(ord) Thompson’s. Either three or four boys plus the father (Reuben Thompson) had an income off that one farm. But in those days they supplemented their income by growing potatoes. A lot of potatoes were grown here. (The Thompsons) got 18 tons to the acre without watering. A crop of potatoes added to their orchard income.

Peter Kenyon 

So they didn’t plant their entire farm to apples? They kept some for the potatoes to allow for a bit of diversity in income?

Peter Chambeyron 

That’s right. Do you know where Joe and Mary Rinaldo live on the top of Red Hill? It’s a 100-acre paddock there. Thompsons grew their potatoes there. No water. The demise of the apple industry here also came about because of the rise of supermarkets. For example, Dad, every night after picking, would take in probably a dozen cases of apples – bushel cases – and we would deliver them around Beechworth. Those days every household bought a case of apples because apples kept. Once the supermarkets came in, people didn’t buy.

Peter Kenyon 

Because it became convenient to buy as you needed it?

Peter Chambeyron 

We had people, hawkers, who would come here. Lewis from Wangaratta would come twice a week and load his truck up and he would hawk the fruit all over the North East. Plus we had greengrocers, which we haven’t got now. For example, Beechworth had Borschmanns (still operating as Goldfield Grocer), Barnes, the animal store, they all sold apples, but once the supermarkets came in, with convenience shopping, one-stop shopping, you can buy just a single apple.

Peter Kenyon 

I think the other thing is that there’s more variety of fruits now, so people don’t want to just eat only apples when you’ve got all kinds of things.

Peter Chambeyron 

That’s it. And that’s the problem with our cherry season now. You know cherries were a ‘Wow!’ factor. But American cherries come in earlier. Fresh apples had that ‘Wow!’ factor. But you can buy apples year-round now. And back then no-one really had cool stores. The Collins’s (near Stanley) probably had the first cool room.

And (growers) never pushed their crops then like we do now. The fruit would keep much longer, not fertilised and not irrigated.

Peter Kenyon 

So the apple’s structure itself was different as a result of growing technique.

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes. Probably a harder type apple is what they grew.

So it was a combination of (Britain joining) the European Common Market and the Suez Canal crisis which became the bullet that did the lot. Then came the supermarkets. And because supermarkets only buy from big growers, the small growers (couldn’t compete).

And as I said earlier, the fruit kept those days. Of a Sunday, all the (apple) sheds in Stanley would be open (to the public). Going home that evening, you’d see apple cores from Stanley to Beechworth where people had eaten their apples and thrown the cores out. But they would buy a bushel of apples (about 22 kilograms). No-one would buy a bushel case now. And they would buy potatoes. Not a little 5kg bag. They would buy a 130kg bag: their winter supply. And they would keep.

Peter Kenyon 

What varieties were included in the shipment via the Suez Canal?

Peter Chambeyron 

Rokewood. Granny Smith. Yates. Democrat. Democrat was a very old variety.

Peter Kenyon 

Were they all exported to Britain?

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes, but mainly our King Cole from this area. From the Shepparton area they would grow a lot of Granny Smiths. They grow a better Granny Smiths than us. Because what happens with Granny Smiths (is) (buyers) like them pure green. In Stanley we could grow our King Cole much better than Shepparton. We need cold nights and warm days. And that was a problem with Granny Smith. Granny Smiths (grown in Stanley) had an orangey tinge.

Peter Kenyon 

The Six-Day War blockaded freighters in the Great Bitter Lake on June 5, 1967. So the apples in those shipments would have been picked at the end of summer here – in February, March, April. They would have gone to the packing shed, on to Melbourne and then onto the ships. And those ships were going through the Suez Canal on June 5 when the war began.

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes, that was the nail in the coffin.

Peter Kenyon 

I think you told me once that the number of apple orchards and apple production in Stanley was at a high in the 1950s and 1960s. So it was a big cliff that Stanley fell from.

Peter Chambeyron 

Absolutely. You know, we would have trouble even those days with the wharves, because you would send a load of apples and unless dockers got their boxes, they would condemn that load, but you’d take the load back with a few extra cases the next day and it was loaded on. Bearing in mind they were all packed in wooden bushel cases in those early days.

Peter Kenyon                                                

Can you sketch for me how long the Chambeyrons have been growing apples here at Europa Gully? And is this your only site in Stanley where your family grew apples?

Peter Chambeyron 

This was the only site. What happened is that we owned the land. We’ve had the land here for about 140-odd years. But I believe in the early 1930s, Dad planted his first orchard. He was a baker. He actually owned that accommodation, opposite the Old Stanley Road in Beechworth, that was a bakery. And he had a disability. We think that at four and a half  years old he had polio and he sort of walked quite strange. So he planted the orchard out and must have gone into his first production needing storage.

The old shed down the road there was built by old Jack Scanlon. And the cart to carry his apples in is still here. That was also built by Jack Scanlon. So, Dad carried on the farming and I think in the meantime, they actually bought another block of land opposite over the road, and Dad planted that and, and had that almost into production when the Second World War broke out, and his brother was trapped in Malaysia. He was a mine manager over there. So uncle Jack Chambeyron came back, and they farmed together up till I took over the property in the late ’60s. So that’s how it all happened.

Peter Kenyon 

And who looked after the property when you went off and did your fire career?

Peter Chambeyron 

I bulldozed the orchard out in about 1972. The whole lot. Pushed the whole lot out. As I said I was married in 1970, that crop that year, I made $68 for the year. About two years prior to that, sorry 12 months prior to that the orchard across the road, we’d pushed that out and we only had this section here. At one stage I was actually working three properties here in Stanley. I had Dad’s side which was this side of the road. Then I leased another orchard from Perce Hill. Eight acres and then I took over my uncle’s side over here. But I only worked that for one year and then pushed them out. And at that same time orchards we’re gradually going out. Anyone that hung on to orchards after that really they went downhill.

Peter Kenyon 

Was it all apples at the time?

Peter Chambeyron 

All apples right from the top of the road down to the bottom. And from the top of the road just opposite where the entrance is, that was all apples. The Chambeyron orchard. And bearing in mind when they picked apples in those early days, they all went into bushel cases. No bulk bins. It was all manhandled. You’d lay your boxes out. The bins came in later. In the last two years we sent (fruit) to Shepparton it was bins.

Peter Kenyon 

And the apples were packed and graded in Shepparton?

Peter Chambeyron 

We sent them on consignment. And that was the problem. We sent on consignment, meaning that they packed them. (And we were paid) whatever they sold them for.

Peter Kenyon 

And did they tell you how much you’re going to get.

Peter Chambeyron 

Yeah, it’s the same as sending the Brisbane Market, Sydney Market now. But, but the interesting thing those days, if you grew apples, you’re pretty sure in the early days, you could sell them. The buyers would come onto the farm here and buy. Like your hawkers, your greengrocers. Those sort of type of people.

Peter Kenyon

And they’d reserved some of the crop before you’ve even picked it.

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes, where now that doesn’t happen. You’re pretty limited. Like if you know you’re going to supply say, Coles, you have to assure them that you’re growing something like 4000 bins of apples of that variety to keep in storage. So that cuts out the little grower.

Old varieties

Peter Kenyon 

And what varieties did you grow back then? And what varieties do you grow now, and why has that changed over time?

Peter Chambeyron 

(We grew) a lot of the old varieties like the Rokewood, and Yates (from Georgia in the American colonies before 1844, where it was also called Red Warrior)[2]. They were hard. And that’s another interesting point. The apples, those days were a type of harder apple to eat, and they would keep better. So probably move with the modern times, the modern apple. But the problem is with the modern apple, as a small grower, we will not be able to get the new varieties because a lot of the varieties have a patent on them. So you may be … You know, Jamie may develop that variety. You as an orchardist might be allowed to plant 10,000 trees and that’s all you’ll be allowed to plant. So the little grower like me …

Peter Kenyon 

… doesn’t get permission.

Peter Chambeyron 

Correct. So, once again, the supermarket will lock the smaller grower out.

Peter Kenyon 

And are there any apples that are specific to this region? To Stanley? Did Stanley develop any apples?

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes. It was an apple very similar to a Jonathan. It was called a Boswell[3]. And that block was on the Mount Stanley Road. And the descendants of the Boswells are actually buried here at Stanley. So it was an apple that wouldn’t get black spot or scab. It was the only apple I know developed in this area.

Peter Kenyon 

Is it still grown anywhere?

Peter Chambeyron 

Not here, no. Some of the heritage people might have it around Castlemaine. So that was called a Boswell. I can actually show you where the old house is.

Peter Kenyon 

What’s your earliest memory of eating one of your apples and picking it from the tree?

Peter Chambeyron 

I used like getting a Granny Smith and banging it on a piece of timber and bruising it and sucking the juice out of it. That was probably my favorite as a kid. Probably too young to bite into it. But I sucked the juice out of it. I was probably the most favorite kid at primary school because I always had a lunch bag full of apples to share around with the kids.

Peter Kenyon 

Where was that?

Peter Chambeyron 

In Beechworth. I went to St Joseph’s. I left here. Our family left here when I was four and now I’m 73.

Peter Kenyon 

Peter, can you describe for me the chain from picking the apples – and I appreciate that it starts earlier than simply picking them: there’s all the preparation for growing and caring – to packing them and then to your customer?

Peter Chambeyron 

Can we go back a little bit? Well, it’s like everything. Fruit used to taste like fruit. And this is what we’re doing now on pick-your-own. We want an apple to taste like an apple. And in the early days, they didn’t want to keep their apples too long, but they wanted to taste them.

For example, my father would not pick Granny Smith apples until Anzac Day (April 25). Because they were fully mature, and those apples would go into an oily stage which was a natural oil that came out and kept them. Now they pick them much earlier because they go into the cool store in a controlled atmosphere, they don’t oil up, they actually dip them to preserve them. So the taste is not there. And that’s why that’s the secret of our business: pick-your-own. And the fruit was so much better. They never used a lot of fertilizer those days, so the fruit kept a little bit better. And I think probably handling it was a lot easier. It wasn’t roughly handled; it just went into a bushel box instead of bulk bins. So, but nowadays, it has to be picked so much earlier.

Peter Kenyon 

How long have you been doing pick-your-own?

Peter Chambeyron 

For cherries we’ve probably been doing it for the past 10 years and on apples the last four or five years.

Peter Kenyon 

And before that you’d be selling them commercially?

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes, at farmers’ markets and at the shed door.

Peter Chambeyron 

But it’s interesting when you get people that come on to pick-their-own, especially older people. They say, this is the way apples used to taste. So, and I think it’s a niche market for people. And people want that experience of picking their own. And this is the market for the future for us. It’s no future for us if we’ve got to rely on supermarkets, we can’t supply them. So we’ve got to look for that market.

This year, we’re actually putting potatoes in for people to be able to pick their own potatoes up off the ground. We’ll dig them. So that’s the experience. And that’s the future from going right back, perhaps not pick-your-own, but people being able to come onto the farm in my father’s day and buy a bushel of apples.

Peter Kenyon 

So Peter, prior to pick-your-own, you used to send these apples off in bushel cases, and you put a stencil on the end of them when you packed them yourselves. And you would label the boxes and use these stencils to do that. So these were made, presumably by somebody locally, and you would have a pot of ink?

Peter Chambeyron 

It was just a brush with boot polish and we just held it on and just brushed it over. And the Rokewood (he’s holding the variety’s stencil) – it was a very hard, not a very big apple, but it would keep. Dad often told the story he had a lot one year and he sent them to Batlow, which had one of the first cool stores. They sold them at Christmas, I don’t know what year it was, and Dad got 66 shillings a case, which was enormous money. Because this was the first cool room it was the first place that could actually have apples for people at Christmas. So he told the story of the old Rokewood. But to eat it out of the paddock it was a hard, sour apple.

Peter Kenyon 

And so the Christmas apples were ones that had been picked the previous year and held in cold store?

Peter Chambeyron 

Yes. And of course the Jonathan (holding that stencil), that was an old apple. We had a pippin, the London Pippin, which we still grow but we call it the Five Crown. I don’t know if they ever exported it, but Heinz Baby Foods used to buy that because it was low in acid and when you cooked it, it would actually go to a pulp. It’s a cooking apple, but if you leave it long enough on the trees and it goes yellow, it’s a really nice apple. Unfortunately won’t have them this season. There’s not an apple on the tree this year. They didn’t bloom.

It’s become a very popular and in fact one of our Stanley nurserymen, Richard Guthrie, had a consignment of 1000 trees to go to Batlow. He asked if I wanted a cutting. I asked what they were, and he said ‘Five Crowns’. I said I’ve already got them. So that’s an apple that is going to come back.

Peter Kenyon 

That’s amazing, because we don’t really discern between eating and cooking apples much anymore.

I think the theme is that apples are continuing to develop but the modern apples are, as you indicated earlier, often patented. Whereas there are still many, many varieties of apples that continue to be grown, fortunately, heirloom apples that are often many hundreds of years old. And this London Pippin / Five Crown is one of them. (It’s been recorded since 1580). Henry VIII may have eaten one of those apples, and so might Elizabeth I. So they’re not all new varieties, some of the old varieties are still going strong and have a lot of characteristics that are very desirable.

Peter Chambeyron 

But the problem with a lot of the old varieties like these, they’re hard to get a continuous crop each year on them. Like for example, we had a big crop of these last year, we’ve got nothing on them this year. So with the modern varieties they’ll try and make them spur up or bud up better, so they get a continuous cropping.

Peter Kenyon 

Consistency…because people like to have the same, everything the same.

And some of these other stencils here? So you were packing them and consigning them here. Would you have got an order from an exporter in Melbourne who said, ‘We want 50 cases of London Pippin, and indicated for Liverpool on the on the box’?

Peter Chambeyron 

This is probably before my time. I’m just guessing that we probably packed our own apples and sent them for export. And they would have been stencilled (here).

My father used to take apples to Beechworth railway station on his horse and cart. He sent them by train to Wagga Wagga (173 kilometres to the north in NSW), where he had a brother. And Dad would go up (to Wagga) on the horse and cart and hawk those apples around the streets.

We’ve still got the cart. And a funny story was he booked in at a hotel. And Dad had never had electricity or seen electric light. The publican turned the light on (in the room) and went crook the next morning because Dad hadn’t turned the light off – he didn’t know how to. But imagine driving a horse and cart all the way to Wagga to hawk all the apples around the streets.

Peter Kenyon 

When would that have been? When he was a young man?

Peter Chambeyron 

That cart was built in 1937. So there would have been motor vehicles, but dad wouldn’t have had one.

Peter Kenyon 

Peter, apples have been a frequently in the news because, as you say, they used to be seasonal and  have a ‘Wow!’ factor. Part of holding on to apples is cold storage. But the other one is bringing them in from different locations, including the northern hemisphere. Australia’s now talking recently about bringing in apples from Washington state in the US.

Peter Chambeyron 

Personally, I don’t think that’ll affect a small grower like myself, because we’re diverse, and that’s why we’re diversifying into pick-your-own. But I think it will probably affect the bigger growers. They’ve got that supply chain now. I think the Australian public is starting to wake up and they want Australian product and I think that’s where you come in, promoting things. Why should we bring something in when we can supply our own?

…We’re trying to grow a product that people are going to buy, where other people just want to get a supermarket apple. Ours is a niche market where customers come on the farm, or they’re going to the farmers’ market.  We were supplying our apples to Arnold’s (fresh produce retailer in Wodonga), and they were charging say $1.80kg. I was taking exactly the same apple to the Wodonga farmers’ market on a Saturday and getting $3kg. Because those customers want to buy off the grower.

So I think the future for a small grower like us is fairly bright. The biggest fear that we have growing apples here in Stanley now is the people moving in. It makes it very difficult for us. Like we got verbally abused, because our gas guns are going at the moment. A lady also wanted recently to know, a month or so in advance, when we were going to spray. It’s unreasonable. It’s illogical.

(Yet, at the same time) they don’t support us – as local growers. I don’t want to get political, but the thing is … they make a lot of noise, whether it’s over water or whatever. But they actually don’t come and buy fruit from us. We would only have a half a dozen customers in Stanley.

So for my business to survive we’ve developed pick-your-own and we sell at farmers’ markets. Genuine farmers’ markets. Got to be genuine.

Peter Kenyon

Thank you, Peter.

I love spending time at Peter’s orchard. There’s something remarkable about maintaining rows of trees, pruning them, watching over them throughout the year until the blossoms break open around September, the bees pollinate them, and the tiny fruit begins to form. Then it’s the careful attention against the predations of insects and birds – and unsupportive neighbours – until that fruit has developed on the tree and it’s ready to pick.

And whether you buy that fruit ready-picked via a local farmers’ market or greengrocer or you head for the hills and pick it yourself at somewhere like Peter Chambeyron’s Europa Gully orchard, remember that your support is essential to maintain our beautiful and varied farming landscape.

I hope this has provided an insight to some of the issues a humble apple orchardist faces producing a quality apple in our region. Thanks Peter for talking with me again today and for sharing your family story.

That’s it for today. This podcast was made possible through a Community Partnership Grant from Charles Sturt University. Thanks to them and for the support of Dr Sarina Kilham from CSU and Dr Nick Rose from Sustain Australia for making the podcast happen.

Until next time, goodbye and happy local eating.


[1] Australian variety raised in 1912 at Lang Lang, in Victoria’s South Gippsland

[2] https://www.isons.com/shop/fruit-trees/apple-trees/yates-apple-tree/

[3] http://www.miapple.com.au/miaapplgeneralAD.html

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