Mines, pines and apples

This is an edited transcript of an unpeeled podcast interview with Giff Thompson, the last of three generations of a family who grew apples near Stanley, in Victoria’s North East, for most of the twentieth century. You can also listen here.

Hello, and welcome to the latest podcast of unpeeled press, where I explore the many stories that create our food culture in North East Victoria. I’m Peter Kenyon.

Although you might not recognise it, Stanley represents a small rural community in a state of constant flux. On the surface, it appears quiet, almost sleepy. But as I learn more about its agricultural history and specifically apple growing, I recognise orcharding as just one aspect of Stanley’s story. First Nations’ people traversed this cool plateau and the country delivered shelter, water and nourishment. Modern, very recent settlers arrived only in the middle of the 19th century and in the time since, the landscape has changed and changed again.

Stanley enjoys soils, water and a climate ideal for small scale apple orcharding but it was gold and gold mining that drew new Australians here in 1852 with alluvial mining changing the landscape quite brutally. The scars of gold mining are everywhere to be seen, from gaping holes left in the earth to water channels hiding beneath the scrubby bush.

In the 1920s and 30s though, Stanley’s and Beechworth’s abundant gold was exhausted. Native hardwood forests were further cleared for pine plantations and many families also began to extend their small orchards, aggregating parcels of land and developing what eventually became one of Victoria’s noted apple-growing districts.

Until the family sold its orchard in the 1980s, the Thompsons were among Stanley’s largest apple producers, with three generations involved across more than eighty years. Referred to me by Peter Chambeyron of Europa Gully Orchards, I recently enjoyed speaking with Giff Thompson at his home in Beechworth.

Peter Kenyon 

Giff, tell me how long the Thompsons have been growing apples at Stanley.

Giff Thompson 

I think dad’s father probably started their first orchard in around about 1900, I suppose. A few acres. And had about 30 varieties on it, two of each variety that were in vogue at that particular time.

Peter Kenyon 

Were there other apple growers here already and is that why your family started?

Giff Thompson 

When the mining sort of finished, the people that stopped had to turn to something else to try and make a living. And the orchards in Stanley, they weren’t very big in acreage. A lot of them were anywhere from five to 50 acres (. We had almost 50 hectares at the finish. That was one of the bigger orchards. There was two or three other growers of that equivalent acreage at that particular time.

Peter Kenyon 

And where was your first orchard? Did you buy neighbours around you as they gave up?

Giff Thompson 

The first little bit was Dad’s father was the first with three or four acres and then he gradually acquired land, kept planting more, expanding. There was Dad and five sons. It was eight in the family – ten round the table.

Peter Kenyon 

And everybody lived from the orchard?

Giff Thompson 

Oh no no. Dad and the five sons. As each we each left high school or whatever school we went farming. That’s what I did much to the horror of my older brother. He said you’ve got enough brains, why don’t you go to uni? You’ll do something better than this. But I enjoyed what I did.

Peter Kenyon 

You’ve had a very successful career in apple growing.

Giff Thompson

We did. Dad died in 1962. My younger brother he went off to New Guinea and the rest of us we stopped together until the late ’80s when we sold the complex and got out. Our orchard was obsolete. The varieties were wrong. The trees were too big and two of my older brothers, they’d had enough in a sense.

Peter Kenyon

What were the trees that you say were wrong? What were those varieties?

Giff Thompson

Well, what went out of fashion were Democrats, Rome Beauties, Statesman – varieties you won’t hear of today. And we had the traditional ones like King Cole, a lot of those. Jonathan was probably the number one apple. Granny Smith and two or three others. Gravenstein was the early apple in those days.

Peter Kenyon 

Peter mentioned the Boswell apple. Do you know about it?

Giff Thompson

It originated from a family and Stanley I think. We had half a dozen of those trees on the original block.

Peter Kenyon 

Was that the only Stanley apple?

Giff Thompson

Probably to my knowledge, yes.

Peter Kenyon 

Do you know if it’s still growing anywhere?

Giff Thompson

I wouldn’t know of anyone who’d have any. Peter Chambeyron might have a couple of varieties. I don’t think he’s got that one.

Peter Kenyon 

Would you imagine as an apple grower that we’d be able to find that apple again somewhere in Stanley?

Giff Thompson

I doubt it very much Peter. A lot of the little orchards like Stanley’s changed dramatically the last 30 years I suppose. The last 20 years have seen different people live there. All sorts of people from doctors, retired police, you name it. Once it was a really strong farming community. And it went well. Most neighbors helped each other and a lot of them as I said only had the small orchards. But they eked a living: an orchard and four or five acres of spuds and they had a horse to work the farm. When we grew up Dad had four Clydesdales. They were the engine of the farm and I can still hear him getting up at 4:30 padding down the corridor of the old house to feed and water the horse because nothing moved until they were watered and fed. And off we went.

Peter Kenyon 

Where was that incidentally?

Giff Thompson 

It was on the Six Mile Road about a kilometre from the pub on the left. It was just a house block there. Most of our land was on the Myrtleford end of Stanley. And as we progressed, Dad bought more land. We had 170 acres on Red Hill on the back road to Beechworth.

Peter Kenyon 

Peter mentioned about that being where you grew potatoes.

Giff Thompson

Yes we’d get anywhere from 50 to 70 acres of spuds. And when the hail got the fruit instead of having 50 acres, we’d plant 60 to get enough money to have another go at the apple crop. It was a precarious sort of life but we survived and I suppose over the years, I guess we employed – if you went back – I don’t know how many hundreds or even thousands of people you know. In the middle of the apple harvest we had anywhere from 50 to 60 people working just for that particular time. We had on the complex – the main orchard – 12 or 16 vans, two or three huts, cabins.

Peter Kenyon

So there was a real group of people who came through. Did they come every year?

Giff Thompson 

Some did. Some came back and it was marvellous that those people did because can plug into their lot and you didn’t have to show them. And they knew what row to go, when to start and it was marvellous.

Peter Kenyon 

Where did those people come from?

Giff Thompson 

Anywhere. Anywhere within Australia. And a lot from overseas. I think one year we employed 27 different nationalities. Two people from Iceland mind you! Picking apples in Stanley!

Peter Kenyon 

How long ago was that?

Giff Thompson

Oh, that would have been in the ’70s and ’80s.

Peter Kenyon

Giff your first memory as a child of the of eating an apple. Do you remember what the apple was and how you ate it?

Giff Thompson 

Well, we I ate quite a lot and Mum loved making apple pies. Looking back, we were like peasants. We lived off what we do. We were never short of food, I can assure you, the whole crew, you know. And Dad had a habit of inviting people. We called them down ‘n’ outs. He’d say Rita, knock ’em up a feed, they’re starving. And she did. But my father going back, he worked hard. He worked. He was a foreman on the softwood plantation in Stanley. In fact, I think he planted the first tree down near Fletcher’s Dam. But his job was, in the depression, they had two camps. The Elbow Camp. They filled the hardwood with axes and cross cuts and burnt it and then they planted the pine. His job was to pick up the people coming from Spencer Street [Melbourne] to Beechworth’s railway station, about five o’clock at night and take them out – in a jinker thing with horses – take them out to the various camps. It’s interesting, like his life: where he started to where he finished.

Peter Kenyon 

And that was before he planted his apples? He gradually earned a few bob and planted a bit more and acquired a bit more land you know. And when did he eventually become a full time apple grower?

Giff Thompson

Oh, in the 1940s – the 1930s or 40s, I suppose. I was born in 1934. That’s I think about when the first pine was planted out there: the year I was born so it’s 80, getting 85 or 90 years since they started the softwood plantation. But that’s getting away from the apple growing. But no, he worked there and he acquired a bit and worked weekends. No, I don’t know what sort of life – it would have been pretty bloody tough but then that’s what they did in that era. It’s like what we do today. My grandkids will look back and say, ‘How’d they ever survive doing that?’

Peter Kenyon 

Giff, tell me about when you exported apples directly. How did how did that work? Did you get an order from somewhere? Did you have an agent in London who would tell you how many boxes to send?

Giff Thompson 

We’d have the [Shepparton] agents like from Geoffrey Thompson. His buyers would come around. I think it was Craig Moysten. Blue Moon in Melbourne. And we called them a commercial traveller. They’d come around wanting to buy whatever varieties you had or what volumes you had, the price you may get for them in the end. And if you had that fruit, you sent it, basically on consignment. We all got paid, but it wasn’t a lot of money and you had to have number one grade fruit for that.

Peter Kenyon 

And they would let you know how many to send? And they would be aggregating orders somewhere in Melbourne or in Shepparton so they would look after the logistics of sending them to Melbourne and beyond?

Giff Thompson

Their trucks. All we did, we’d pick it. They’d send a semi-load of bins. And Bill Serkis was a good one. He was one of the big buyers from Shepparton, still is a big orchardist there I think. He sent a truckload of bins and when they came to pick up that truckload, there’d be another load of bins. You were always in front with empty bins. They supplied that. All we did was fill their bins and they had their own trucking systems.

Peter Kenyon

And that was later that you did it in bins, but at some point or another you were packing into the crates themselves.

Giff Thompson

It used to be into lugs, what they called the Australian dump case. It was a long and narrow thing to get your arms into. But then they brought in lugs which were flat, they were hard to handle. They had wire to hold the boards together on the ends. Things have changed.

Peter Kenyon

Yes. And so you would pick them in the orchard and take them into your own packing shed. And you would pack them.

Giff Thompson 

Most of when you sent for export was picked straight off the tree. And they would do all the sizing and sorting in Shepparton, wherever their packing house was.

Peter Kenyon 

We’ve got some stencils here, which Peter’s loaned us. It’s interesting. We’ve got London Pippin, we’ve got different varieties.

Giff Thompson

That’s Five Crown.

Peter Kenyon

And Jonathan. And the Rokewood.

Giff Thompson 

Rokewood. They were a hard apple. They were export apples. Hard harvest apples. Solid. And of course the best apples to export.

Peter Kenyon

But here we’ve got Hamburg.

Giff Thompson 

Beurre Bosc. That was pears.

Peter Kenyon

London. Hamburg. Glasgow. Liverpool. So at some point, Peter was saying you would pack in the shed and you would use those stencils. So you actually packed and they wouldn’t get opened until they got to Glasgow or London?

Giff Thompson 

Yes, we didn’t personally but they had a packing shed in Stanley. Claude Sinclair ran that. He was a grower. People would bring in 100 or 200 cartons and they’d get a pack out. My sister, she packed out for two or three seasons.

Peter Kenyon

Yes. And so you don’t remember a time where you at your orchard packed for Glasgow?

Giff Thompson

Not personally. Some of our fruit would have gone there but through the packing sheds in Shepparton. They didn’t leave our packing shed to go overseas. We had an eight or nine rotary-bin grader. It was state of the art when we bought it but obsolete now.

Peter Kenyon

How did the apple season go? What were the first apples that you picked? And what time of the year was that?

Giff Thompson

Probably would have been London Pippin – Five Crown. They would have been the first. I think roughly that would have been probably early March those days. We left them on the tree a bit longer than they do today.

Peter Kenyon

Why was that?

Giff Thompson

Let them get a little bit of flavour. Like a lot, I bought some nectarines the other day. Well I used to grow a few peaches and nectarines on my own farm. And if you could eat mine, they’re hard and very favour-less because the sugars hadn’t come into them. I went to bite one but my teeth aren’t that good.

Peter Kenyon

That’s one of the really interesting things about apple growing is that in the olden days, you were growing more for flavour.

Giff Thompson 

You’d let them ripen a bit on the tree. Well, you can’t do that today and once CA [controlled atmosphere storage] came in you can keep them all year round. If they got past a certain sugar content they got too ripe and they wouldn’t CA store – controlled atmosphere. That was the reason they brought the picking date probably one to two weeks ahead of when we normally would have started. We used to start picking Johnnies in the middle of April but gosh you’ve finished picking them by then now. Long gone.

Peter Kenyon 

In the day when you were growing apples for flavour, you didn’t start picking apples until late March or April?

Giff Thompson 

Yes, it would be well into March. And so the first ones you said you picked were London Pippins and Five Crowns and then probably what we had you followed into Jonathans.

Peter Kenyon 

What were the other ones after that?

Giff Thompson

Well your had Five Crowns, Jonathans, Delicious, probably Statesman, Democrat were later. Rome Beauty were a bit later.

Peter Kenyon

What were the last ones?

Giff Thompson

King Coles. Started picking King Coles after Jonathans. That was the bulk of them. But one of our main orchard blocks was King Coles. You know, we had a huge block of them.

Peter Kenyon

When would that have been, at the end of April?

Giff Thompson 

Into April, yes.

Peter Kenyon

I would have thought that you couldn’t send a soft apple overseas so you’re looking for the harder apple.

Giff Thompson

That was one of the reasons we kept on Granny Smiths. They were pretty good in transit if they were picked right. If Granny Smiths are left on the tree and they go yellow, you wouldn’t get a better apple. You can have a wash with them, they’re so full of juice! They’re beautiful. They’re no good for the domestic market when they’re too ripe. We had a lot to do with the Italian tobacco growers in Myrtleford. They used to work for us sometimes. And when we were finished picking, the leaves are nearly off the trees there would be a couple of families come up and they’d go up and down every row of Granny Smiths and they’d end up with two or three boxes. They were made from heaven they reckoned, these Grannies. Stanley apples are renowned for their quality. Bit higher country. That’s why Batlow’s got a good name for the colour because like Stanley about 2500 to 2800 feet (760 to 850 metres). Batlow starts and it goes up to 3000 feet (914 metres), so they get extra colour (from) the cold.

Peter Kenyon

Originally to keep apples, to give them a longer life – because you’re obviously only picking them over maybe a six or eight week window – how did you store the apples?

Giff Thompson

Well, when we lived on the Six Mile Road, just across the road it was all alluvial mining. I can still remember when I was four and a half years old, before I went to school, the last probably two mines in Stanley were the Langs: Jack Lang and his son Alec. They were sluicing the banks. It looked monstrous you know a 12- or 14-foot (3.6 to 4.2 metres) wall. Anyway just up above where they were mining Dad and his workers, they dug our own coolroom across the creek, similar to that. We’d put in, I suppose it would have held probably about 1000 bushels (21.8 tonnes) and these King Coles they’d keep there till the end of October. Unbelievable. It was probably an even temperature what helped to keep them, like it didn’t fluctuate much, just a dugout in the earth. And the two cellars you’re talking about, Norm Pope and his sons dug those with pick and shovel, horse and scoop. And later on that property was sold to Douglas Manson McAlpin. He was my ex-father-in-law years ago and he continued to use them.

Peter Kenyon

You would only store the apples there for release to the local market, is that right?

Giff Thompson

Local and Albury. Melbourne a bit.

Peter Kenyon

What era was that before the mechanically-refrigerated coolroom started?

Giff Thompson 

That would have been anywhere from the ’40s and ’50s, I should imagine.

Peter Kenyon 

Who had the first mechanical coolroom? Did you have your own?

Giff Thompson

No, we did not. We didn’t build coolrooms. We picked and shipped.

Peter Kenyon

You kept your own back for your own use and maybe the local market.

Giff Thompson

Very little really. Most of ours were picked and they’d be gone that night or next morning for export. You had designated times for export. They’d cut off at midnight on a certain date. Well, if you didn’t have your apples there, well, you missed out on that. You arranged it that you did. We had good relationships with the exporters in Shepparton.

Peter Kenyon

Peter Chambeyron was telling us about the apples being lost in the Suez Canal and I find it a really incredible story.

Giff Thompson

That’s right. When they blew that. Yeah.

Peter Kenyon

So I don’t know how much you know of that.

Giff Thompson

Not much at all, just the headlines that came in the papers on the blocked canal for x time.

Peter Kenyon

And people somehow got word that the apples were on the ships there?

Giff Thompson

Some of them were. The Common Market sort of put an end to that. We had a variety called King Cole, a really red apple. And they were in demand in Europe, especially in Hamburg and Germany. They were a tart apples, sort of a little bit acidic. And once that disappeared, we lost a lot of the market for that, you know. It’s like today, the farmers have got to find markets elsewhere. And what you had yesterday doesn’t apply tomorrow.

Peter Kenyon

No, that’s right. You can’t guarantee anything. So the Suez Canal was 1967.

Giff Thompson

I couldn’t tell you that.

Peter Kenyon  03:33

They kept the apples for two years on the ship. And then it was too expensive. And there was no end in sight. And the refrigeration was costing them a lot of money. And as a result, they turned the refrigeration off and they tossed a lot of stuff overboard. And were they your apples? The apples that you picked?

Giff Thompson 

They could have been. We didn’t export ourselves, but we did through Shepparton. Geoffrey Thompson and Craig Moyston and another company packed and exported our apples.

Peter Kenyon 

And so you can’t tell me any more about the insurance payout and various other things. So the apples that were in that shipment were King Coles largely?

Giff Thompson

They would have been. A good proportion I should imagine.

Peter Kenyon

And would you know if there were any other varieties in that shipment? Possibly Granny Smith. There could’ve been Delicious. And there were two or three other varieties. There was one called Democrat. And Yates. They were hard apples grown for export.

Peter Kenyon

And how did Britain joining the Common Market affect you because it obviously affected a lot of markets?

Giff Thompson 

It did. It sort of fell away. You know, like Tasmania would have been one of the ones who felt the brunt of that too because a lot of their fruit … well they have to export. They can’t eat all they grow in Tassie. And that was a big pome fruit growing area.

Peter Kenyon 

And there were tree-pull schemes at the time. Did anyone in Stanley take up the tree pull schemes to knock out orchards, do you know?

Giff Thompson

Quite a lot of the small orchards were pulled out and bulldozed for economic reasons because you couldn’t make a living off them. You had to have volume. We were flat out picking. We sent out nine semis one day. That was a build up for two days, but some days three to four semis every day: 150-200 bins a day, which is a lot of fruit.

Peter Kenyon

Did you use the trains for any kind of shipping of apples?

Giff Thompson 

We used the train to bring empty banana boxes as we called them (a bushel and a quarter) from Melbourne and vans full of them at times. You know we had an agent where we could get them in Melbourne. They’d collect them and then made money by selling them to us growers, you know. So we owned them once we paid. I don’t know what it cost us; I forget now. It’d be two or three bob each I suppose, in those days. Shillings.

Peter Kenyon

But you didn’t actually send your apples away by train?

Giff Thompson

No, but we did from Albury to Sydney. A lot. You’d get a 12-ton van as they called them – a louvre van. Not refrigerated, just the louvres. And we’d take two truckloads and fill one of those up to go to Sydney.

Peter Kenyon 

And what era would that have been?

Giff Thompson

In the ’70s.

Peter Kenyon

Giff there used to obviously be a lot more apple growers in Stanley. There’s only a handful left now. How many apple growers would there have been in Stanley?

Giff Thompson

Well, when I left high school there were around about 30 orchards, all up. Some five acres, some ten. And, you know, they gradually [closed] because they’re uneconomic, those small orchards. There’d be an old couple trying to run it. And I mean, my father Dad, he bought apples off a couple of small growers to help the lady out. She was trying to run it, you know. I think he’d buy them and he’d make sixpence a box by the time he paid her you know but that’s what we did. But no, it’s diminished.

Peter Kenyon

And how many would there have been at the height say in the 1950s or the 1960s?

Giff Thompson

I’d say there would have been over 30 orchardists. And you can count them on one hand today. Peter Chambeyron has got a bit. Nightingales have a little bit. Collins – no, they’ve gone. You know there’s only four or five left and Peter would be one of the bigger growers in Stanley today for apples. Nightingales still have some at Stanley where Richard Guthrie looks after part of that. And Henry Hilton, he’s out there. Snowline Fruits. It’s about five I suppose now.

Peter Kenyon

Peter’s talked about the Suez Canal problem in 1967. And then Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973. And then apple orcharding fell off for a lot of people but your family kept going.

Giff Thompson 

Oh yeah. And like, I suppose it’s basic: it’s volume. It sounds silly, but you know a lot of people, when they’re retired miners and their family: one or two, they eked a living off these smaller orchards. But as things changed you had to have volume to make enough. The profit per unit deteriorated.

Peter Kenyon 

So how can you see where that will end? The apples have now moved to Wandiligong. We’ve got Shepparton and its larger acreage.

Giff Thompson

It’s a monstrous complex round Shepparton if you want to see fruit handled. I’ve got friends there still. We used to cart our fruit from Stanley to Shepparton for export if the hail left us alone. A similar thing to what Nightingales are doing but Nightingales: they’ve just exploded. They have orchards at Wandiligong, Buckland and Batlow. Beautiful. And the top varieties. The short trees. You know people don’t want to climb a 12-foot ladder to pick apples with a bag swinging on them. We had trees to pick two bins per tree. That’s 40 bushels a tree average – King Coles. Granny Smiths. But that doesn’t happen here. And they’re all about two metres high now. Perhaps a little better. They’ll be able to cover with hail netting and, you know. It’s close. It’s getting production per hectare.

Peter Kenyon

A big investment though. Of course I think as Peter mentioned in the olden days you didn’t need to irrigate whereas somebody like Henry Hilton when you’ve got them planted that close you’ve got to irrigate and you’ve got to net them.

Giff Thompson 

Exactly right. That’s what it is. It’s like three of us drinking out of a cup. There’s not enough to keep us going. We might get by for an hour. It’s a scientific game now really.

Peter Kenyon

And what was it before? How would you have characterized it earlier?

Giff Thompson 

You followed what Dad did 30 or 40 years ago. That’s what a lot did. Same chemicals. That’s changed completely to what we used to apply like fungicides. There’s still some around but totally different. A lot of biological control now for insects and stuff which is good. Eliminates some of these hazardous chemicals which, God knows, affected many of us.

Peter Kenyon 

If we get to a point where there are no apple growers left in Stanley, where does that end? We can import apples from China, Japan, New Zealand and now they’re talking about America.

Giff Thompson

Exactly. And Keith [Nightingale] said, ‘You’re going to ask me an obvious question. When you’ve got no people at work, who’s going to buy the fruit? Well that’s something we’ve got to work out down the track but we cannot afford to have 400+ people here all year round.’

Peter Kenyon

I always thought the whole point of apples being able to keep in cold storage is that you didn’t need to import them from the northern hemisphere. So what’s the advantage?

Giff Thompson

I know, I know. It’s amazing technology and controlled atmosphere (CA) and I know that to keep them, they had to pick them a bit early rather let them ripen. But there’s nothing better than a tree-ripened Jonathan. When I’m saying tree-ripened I mean dead ripe on the tree. I could eat ten today if I had them but you can’t get them. You’ve been to Nightingales. They’ve got a shop complex in front of them. Their packaging. It’s like going into Myers. There’s a row of green and another of red, different varieties of apples and colours. He said you’ve got to have what the public want. I suppose we’re an affluent society. People can walk through, grab what they want and they’re gone. They don’t want to be hanging around. We used to sell a lot of our fruit, 20 or 30 semi-trailer loads – $25,000 to $30,000, to a bloke called Ken Dobson at the Cool Store in Dorset Road, Ferntree Gully. He’s passed now. But he said that’s what’s ruining it. He handled massive business. What happens, he said, you’ve got apples all the year, cherries now for six months of the year instead of six weeks. He said that ruins that market. You’re better to have designated products come in and in that period of eight to ten weeks and then they’re gone. He said you can get them all the year now and people lose interest. He said it was more of the wow! factor when they’re in that short window, when they’re ripe. And I knew what he meant.

Peter Kenyon

Where do people fit into all this? You know the French company received a good income from what they’ve built at Nightingales and then they’ve gone. But once that equipment’s there there’s perhaps a couple of people who come in and service it and tighten the screws every few months.

Giff Thompson 

That’s what I said to Keith and that’s what he said. What you’re going to ask me is who’s going to buy the fruit. They’re planting an orchard now for all robots. Picking. They’re trying two robotic pickers now, with suction (cups) that picks ripe apples off and leaves the green ones. To me there’s got to be an end to this. My stepdaughter Kylie would disagree. She said ‘No, there’ll be plenty of work. We’ll find something else to do.’

Peter Kenyon

Thanks for talking to me today, Giff, and for sharing your knowledge and stories. Thanks also to Charles Sturt University for support through its community university partnership grants and to Dr Sarina Kilham from CSU and Dr Nick Rose from Sustain for their help in making the unpeeled podcast happen. Theme music by Avocado Junkie. I’m Peter Kenyon.

Until next time.

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