The growing scale of growing apples

WHEELS: Beechworth orchardist Rob Tully with the truck in which his parents brought the family to Beechworth in 1955.

This is an edited transcript of an unpeeled podcast interview with retired, fifth generation apple orchardist Rob Tully, who grew apples just outside Beechworth from 1955 to 2016. While the apple trees have now completely gone, Rob still keeps his hand in with a small block of 600 pear trees. You can also listen here.

Hello and welcome to this episode of unpeeled.press. I’m Peter Kenyon and I explore our vibrant and diverse food culture in North East Victoria the issues that influence it. Today I’m talking with one of my neighbours about his family’s orchard history and experience producing fruit here on the outskirts of Beechworth.

Rob Tully is a fifth generation fruit grower. Before he moved here as a boy with his family, the Tully’s original orchards were in Doncaster on land that’s now deep in Melbourne’s suburbia[1]. Rob has seen the fruit industry’s production locations, scale, technologies and opportunities change. He brings a thoughtful intelligence and insight to the growing of apples and pears, commonplace fruits that most of us simply take for granted. Let’s dive straight in.

Rob, thanks for letting me interview you today and talk about apples. The Tullys are very important in North East horticulture. They’re a key part of the history of apple-growing in the Beechworth and Stanley region. How long have the Tullys been growing apples?

Rob Tully 

We’re not so big in this area but we were about three generations in the Melbourne metropolitan area, always in apples and other fruits. And when that got built out and started to develop into a housing area in the mid-1950s, my father decided to leave that part of the family operation and move up to Beechworth which, in the fullness of time, he never regretted. He always thought it was a really good move to come here. But yeah, I’m about the fifth generation of fruit growers. And two generations up in the Beechworth area.

Peter Kenyon 

And when did you arrive in Beechworth?

Rob Tully 

1955.

Peter Kenyon 

So you remember coming here?

Rob Tully 

I do. The old truck that brought us here is still parked on the property. I have strong memories of one of the longest trips that truck ever did, I’d say, carting us and the family chattels up from Doncaster in Melbourne up to here.

Peter Kenyon 

Was there an apple orchard here at the time?

Rob Tully 

There was. This orchard was planted in 1914 and it was run by the Christesen family which are well known in this area.

Peter Kenyon 

So you bought some of their land?

Rob Tully 

Yes. They actually relocated out of the area for a short period of time and then moved back in and moved back into fruit growing also.

Peter Kenyon 

And so did you continue growing the apples that they were already growing? Or did you plant more? Or did you plant different types of apples?

Rob Tully 

My father didn’t plant much of the orchard. In fact, his time here was relatively short. I suppose he was running it without my input for only about 16 years. It was mainly apples with a few pears and something my father didn’t know about this place was growing a lot of cherries too. So dad relied on the guys that were working the orchard prior to him coming up here to show him how to go about growing cherries.

Peter Kenyon 

Because he didn’t grow those in Melbourne.

Rob Tully 

We didn’t grow those in Melbourne. Cherries were only grown in a few areas and they weren’t as popular as they are now.

Peter Kenyon 

So what grows here now on your orchard?

Rob Tully 

On our orchard, because of my age and the fact that my children are not that keen on taking on this place as an orchard, I’ve pushed all of the apple trees out. And we’ve got a small patch of pear trees now. Beurre bosc, which is a russet skin pear – a very old pear – and one of the new varieties called Corella, which is a bi-coloured pear.

Peter Kenyon 

And when did you push the apple trees out?

Rob Tully 

2015 I think it was or 2016. So the last year that we had apples here was a very big year. It wasn’t a case of the place running down slowly. It was a case of the place going from full production virtually to no production. It was a fairly drastic decision.

Peter Kenyon 

Was it a hard decision?

Rob Tully 

Not for me. My children were more upset about it than me. But given that I’d planted all the trees – there was none of the original orchard left or any of the orchard that I inherited from my father – it was all orchard that I’d developed in my time here. And it was it was purely a business decision. And no I really didn’t lose much sleep over it at all.

Peter Kenyon 

You’re a very rational man and that’s a good thing. Because there’s often a lot of emotion and I’ve said it before in my podcast, I’m a real romantic about orchards and about apple growing and what it represents.

Rob Tully 

That’s true. In my time here, I was probably what you would say nowadays politically active in the fruit growing industry. And I went to a lot of field days, a lot of conferences and was part of that part of the industry. And at one of those conferences in Tasmania, which is regarded as the Apple Isle for Australia, I remember one of the old family growing fruit growers coming up to me during quiet time at the conference at the business end of it. And we got talking about it. And he gave me a bit of good advice then and that was, “Robert, don’t get emotionally involved with your assets”. He said their family actually departed from fruit growing there for a period of time and went into hardware. They bought a hardware shop in Hobart or Devonport or wherever they were and they stayed with that until the industry picked up again and then they bought back into the fruit growing game again. So it’s been good advice. I’ve always remembered that.

Peter Kenyon 

So you’ve got a hardware now, is that what you’re saying? And you’re going to get back into apple growing in the next few years?

Rob Tully 

I wish I didn’t!

Peter Kenyon 

I remember you telling me that story before. So all that you’ve got left now is the block of pears. How many trees are in that block?

Rob Tully 

600 trees.

Peter Kenyon 

And that gives you a crop commercial crop that you can sell?

Rob Tully 

There’s a little bit of machinery that we’ve kept back there and it allows me to run the machinery and use it for what it was designed for. It’s more of a weekend hobby now, I suppose you would say for me. Although it’s a fairly big hobby. I pruned all of the trees myself this past winter and I haven’t worked like that on an orchard since the mid-1970s. It was always a case of having to have people do that work for me. So it was an enjoyable exercise I’ve got to say that.

Peter Kenyon 

Is it a big crop this year?

Rob Tully 

It is a big crop.

Peter Kenyon 

And what are you going to do with the fruit?

Rob Tully 

Well, I’m not sure because it’s difficult for us to get pickers now so I might be approaching Peter and Jamie …

Peter Kenyon 

I’d be delighted Rob!

Rob Tully 

A bit of pear picking!

Peter Kenyon 

Peter Chambeyron mentioned the Boswell apple as a local apple. And I wonder given apples’ propensity to develop local varieties wherever they grown do you know if that’s the only local apple?

Rob Tully 

I’m not familiar with Boswell at all. What I can say is though, I’m sure it was never grown in large quantities around the Beechworth-Stanley area. It’ll have been a selection that one of the Stanley growers has picked up in the course of many years and probably propagated himself up at Stanley. But it was never commercially grown. Stanley however has had one apple that was a staple for this area back at the time that we were selling a lot of fruit overseas and just prior to England joining the Common Market and that was called the King Cole. And all orchards grew King Cole. We had a lot of King Cole growing here. I can remember picking over 1000 bins of King Cole here: very widely produced. A really good apple for this area. It wasn’t popular in Australia, because it had it had a unique flavour. It was a really tart apple. But it was an apple that cooked up really well. So it had a beautiful flavour when it was cooked. And I would say it was superior to Granny Smith as far as a cooking apple would go but that’s only my personal view.

Peter Kenyon 

And I keep hearing about the King Cole and it strikes me as the apple that’s been adopted locally as our local apple. It would be nice to get that growing again, so that people were familiar with it.

Rob Tully 

It would be. A lot of stuff was sold on farms to locals in the wider area. And it wasn’t hugely popular even with the locals, but you’d get odd people who understood the taste and how to how to prepare it and how to cook it who would come in time and time again asking just for King Cole. Not an easy apple to handle. It bruised very easily. So that was interesting that it was so popular as an export apple because export fruit in general, you’d be looking for something that travels fairly easily and this apple wouldn’t have been one that travelled fairly easily. However, back in those days when fruit was being sold, there wasn’t the same concern about the cosmetic appearance of fruit at its destination.

Peter Kenyon 

As there is now.

Rob Tully 

The Scandinavian countries used to really like King Cole because they’ve got a taste for something a bit bitter, a little bit sour.

Jamie Kronborg 

And it was in Australian-bred apple, which I guess is the key point. Bred in 1912 in Lang Lang, down in South Gippsland.

Rob Tully 

A really easy apple to grow and really prolific on the tree. Cropped heavily every year. Didn’t require much spray at all to grow it well. Little bugs that became a real problem for us called two-spotted mite, they never worried King Cole. I don’t know what it was about the leaves that two-spotted mite would suck the juice out of the leaves. They didn’t like King Cole leaves though. Yeah, a really easy apple to grow.

We would we would pick King Cole when the background colour started to turn from green to yellow and the reds not fully developed. And the longer you would leave it on the tree, the better the red colour development on the fruit. That applies to a lot of varieties. But with King Cole they’d also develop a lot of natural wax on the skin too. And it gave the fruit a real shine. So that you would look at some trees there late in the season if they hadn’t been picked. And the overall picture of the tree with those shiny red apples was just like a colouring book. Really they looked tremendous. And when you had a whole orchard like that, and I’m thinking of Fartuszynski’s orchard out there, they used to grow a lot of King Cole. And you drive past and the orchard would slope away from you. You’d nearly run off the road looking at it because just the mass of colour.

Peter Kenyon 

Would that natural oily wax have helped with exports? So they didn’t need to be artificially waxed?

Rob Tully 

No, it was probably such that it would give the inspector cause to have a closer look and see what the maturity of the fruit was looking like. Because it’s probably past the best stage of maturity for exporting by the time it gets that waxiness about it.

Peter Kenyon 

But exporting apples, I understand they’re picked earlier. So they’re picked before they’re optimally flavoured to cater to the export market.

Rob Tully 

Yes, that applies to a lot of varieties. In particular, it applied very much to Granny Smiths. We would pick Granny Smiths for export a long time before we’d pick them for the domestic market. They were really in my opinion too immature even for export. Yeah, they’d have a white lenticel on them that would disappear as they got more mature. It’s quite an attractive little spot on the skin of the apple that disappears as it got a little bit more mature. And we’d be picking Granny Smiths for export before we’d be picking some of the earliest red apples for the market. And Granny Smith was always the last apple but you would pick but for export you could pick it really early. But it was not doing the variety a good service by doing that I think.

Peter Kenyon 

Richard Guthrie showed me a way of determining apples for picking where you cut the apple in half and you put it into some purple kind of ink and stamped it and it will demonstrate how much of the apple was sugar and how much was starch. Is that how you did it? Or was there another way of determining the ripeness of the apple?

Iodine testing for apple ripeness [Image: Purdue University, Indiana]

Rob Tully 

Scientifically we’d do that. It’s an iodine solution that you make up and you dip it in and it’ll tell you at what stage the starches are at in reference to the sugars that develop. The starch reacts with the iodine and causes a black pigmentation on the apple. As the sugars develop you don’t get that black pigmentation and you can tell straight away what maturity is.

Peter Kenyon 

And is that how you would do it in addition to pulling one off and tasting it?

Rob Tully 

Well no the taste test was always pretty hard to beat I thought. So long as you understood what you were aiming at whether you wanted it for long term storage or for short term storage and a quick-selling variety. You know a lot of ins and outs on what you do with your fruit when you pick it and what time you pick it and what market you’re aiming for. But the old-timers test for what stage the sugar development was. Richard did his apprenticeship with me so he would have learned a few of the tricks that I’d been told by the timers. Cut the apple or I’d do it with pears quite a lot. I still do it with pears.

I cut the apple or the pear in half, and you push the two halves, you pull them apart. And if you re-attach them, push them both together again and you hold the stem up. And if the bottom part part sticks to the top part, you’ve got enough sugar development there to be entitled to pick the fruit. If it drops away straightaway, you’ve got to wait a bit longer. It’s the sugar that causes the two halves to stick together. So if you haven’t got any sugar there, they won’t stick together.

And you can also get another indication. When you push the two halves together, if the maturity’s developing quite well, you can say a little bit of juice come out where you’ve cut the two. If it’s still dry, when you push them together again, it’s not quite mature enough. But you’ll find it easier – I find it easier to do with the pears. And as I say, I still do it with the pears. I carry an knife round with me all the time. So I’ll cut the pair in half and plug them together. Well, there’s a lot of wastage like that. There’s a lot of apples with just one bite taken out of them.

Peter Kenyon 

Rob, is it fair to say that most people haven’t tasted a really good apple or a really good pear? Even people in this fruit growing district, let alone people living in metropolitan areas.

Rob Tully 

Probably in the fruit growing district they would because the guys that are selling them at farmers’ market or at the roadside or at the shed sales, this sort of thing, they understand their product pretty well. And they’ll perhaps be keeping a little bit of stuff that’s late-picked, that’s put up for sale, that’s at its prime eating condition. And for someone in the city, it’s unusual for them to be able to access fruit as such, in that sort of condition. It’s nearly always going to be immature. Anything that’s off a supermarket shelf will have been picked early. So the flavour development is just not there.

Peter Kenyon 

And just to clarify, apples won’t ripen after they’re picked?

Rob Tully 

Oh they do. Yeah, they do. Red Delicious is a good example. They’re picked fairly green. They’re an apple that does develop good sugar levels as it’s stored. In those brown pears that we grow too, that’s another good one too. You can eat them straight off the tree when we’re picking them. But if you want a completely different flavour, just put them on the sideboard for ten days or a couple of weeks after you’ve picked them and then eat them when they’ve started to go a little bit softer. And it’s a beautiful, smooth, mellow flesh that you get rather than the apple type of flesh that you get when you pick them off the tree.

Peter Kenyon 

I suppose that’s part of the customer’s investment in eating quality fruit is understanding what their role is after they’ve bought it. But I think most people nowadays expect that whatever you buy at the supermarket, you should be able to just go home, cut it up and eat it and if it’s no good, you just let it go or you don’t buy it again.

Rob Tully 

Well, if you weren’t told with those white flesh nectarines, you’d never buy another one again, because they look magnificent when you buy them in the shop. And you bring them home and you think I’m going to really enjoy them and you can’t even get your teeth into them. They’ve got to sit there for four or five days to develop the softness and the sugars to enjoy eating them. But what a terrific product for the supermarkets to handle. You could throw that against the wall when you buy them from the supermarket and play catchy with it for a while and you wouldn’t do any damage to it. And when you see some of the supermarket workers handling their fruit, it’s terrible the way they do.

Peter Kenyon 

Well it gets tumbled out of the bin, banging against each other.

Rob Tully 

Yeah, but if you buy it from the guy who’s selling it at a shed door, you won’t ever see him handling that fruit like that. My father used to cart the fruit down to the docks to be loaded onto the ships. And I often heard him telling me and he told other people the story where he went down there, one of the first times he went down there with the fruit. And no containerisation. It was still the boxes were loaded onto the, you know, the big rope nets rope and then the derricks would lift them up and over and they’d then be unstacked in the hold. And the guy when he pulled up at the docks, a couple of the wharfies hopped on the back of a truck and then picked up the boxes of apples and they threw them off the back of the truck onto the ground. And Dad watched it a couple of times, because the wharfies had a reputation that you couldn’t argue with them. And it was fairly easy to precipitate a strike if you weren’t careful. And he finally plucked up enough courage and he said to the guy who was throwing these boxes of apples onto the ground.

He said, Look, he said, these things are not meant to be handled like that. They’re apples and they’re meant to be passed from one pair of hands to another pair of hands. And he fully expected the wharfies to walk out on strike when he pulled them up about it. But he said the guy was really good about it. He said, No one told us we can’t do this. He said we’re happy to do it the way you want it done. If someone had told us to do it that way, that’s what we would have done. So he came away with a good feeling about the wharfies after that.

Peter Kenyon 

And the last of the apples that you exported as you say, they went into a container here. So you handled them and then more or less they just were in a big container. So there’s huge advantages to that type of transportation of food now.

Rob Tully 

Yes. Well the containers that we loaded when we were doing the export job, they weren’t even on pallets that were wheeled into the container. The pallets were forklifted up onto the back of the pantechnicon and the cartons were individually stacked in the bottom of the container. But in a lot of cases, I think the fruit was stacked properly on pallets and it was palletized in the container, which is a sensible way of doing it.

Peter Kenyon 

Huge advantages now. Because I’d like to talk at some point about things like the innovation of plastic films that line the fruit boxes now and they somehow absorb the ripening gases that are coming off apples and different types of fruit and they help to retard that breakdown of the product.

Rob Tully 

That was there the last few years that I was growing fruit. In my time we went through the introduction of controlled atmosphere. And that made a huge difference to the fruit. But I was trying to think about it the other day. I think it was when we had the fire blight scare in Australia. I went down – there were a few meetings held at Knoxfield in Melbourne, as to what response we were going to take as an industry to that outbreak in the Botanic Gardens. I’m thinking it was probably about this time of the year when that fireblight issue was detected because it was at the end of the traditional apple marketing season. And although you’d still get apples coming out of controlled atmosphere at that time, a lot of guys would be trying to finish [sell out of the previous season’s apple harvest].

I always tried to finish my apples before the cherry season started. I didn’t like to be handling apples as well as cherries at the same time. Although I do remember we did go one year into January there before we finished all of our apples. But I remember at the conference that I went down to for the fireblight, someone brought out some of Montagues Royal Gala apples and put them on the table where we were, and invited everyone to try them. And there was no talk about how they’d been treated but they looked to be quite good apples. But Royal Gala around about Christmas time was most unusual even out of controlled atmosphere that were in good order. And Rob Sinclair and I were sitting together there and we grabbed one of those apples and tried them. They were absolutely superb. If you’d have said to us that they’d been picked the day before, we wouldn’t have argued with it. And I suspect because Montagues have always been leaders as far as technology goes. I rather think that they were probably trialling what subsequently became known as Smart Fresh and it was a gas that you put into the coolstore that has a huge benefit in slowing the ripening process down – more so than the controlling of the atmosphere. And I’d say they were trialling some of those and they’d brought them out there and brought them along to the conference to give out to fruit growers to see what the response was. We weren’t told that but in hindsight I suspect that’s what they were doing.

Peter Kenyon 

I wonder if you could measure with the different types of fruit the energy investment in that. There’s a huge energy in isolating different types of gases and then the infrastructure to percolate it through the storage and the seals on the doors and everything in order to have an apple out of season or in order to have an apple from last year, or keep fresh until the apples are practically picked this year. And I wonder if we are aware of that kind of investment in energy. Of course, it’s very innovative. We know that but then investment in energy is huge, instead of just eating a fruit that’s in season and allowing it to go out of season and eating something else.

Rob Tully 

I know in my case it became a lot more commonplace by the time I was getting out of the industry. But for the previous two or three years, I’d shied off using it. I never used Smart Fresh but I know that the quotation back then and that’s going back now ten years probably, the quotation then for my small rooms was about $4,000 each room. You just set the container up in the room, seal the room up and push the button and the gas just distributes itself around the room and does its job that way. So wasn’t it wasn’t a cheap exercise.

Peter Kenyon 

And then you have to get that back.

Rob Tully 

It came down to where you sat in the scheme of things as far as wanting the public to get a product like that. And in our industry there’s a very marked divergent line between grower-packers who want to put product before the public 52 weeks of the year and others who say, “no what we’d like is a finishing date so that the public has got no apples for two months/10 weeks, something like that and start the new season off with no carryover and the public continually asking if these are last season’s apples or this season’s apples. It’s like cherries. Cherries can’t be kept all year round. I guess that’ll change. We’ll soon be able to see cherries 12 months of the year I suppose.

Peter Kenyon 

Well and they’ll bring some in from America or more in from America and they’ll also develop varieties that are like bullets but look pretty.

Rob Tully 

I haven’t got a problem with counter-cyclical trade but I think there’s a huge benefit in having a break with our local stuff and having new season stuff which is clearly defined as New Season fruit. In saying that, in February and March, with some of these Smart Fresh apples that are still round from the last year, I can’t tell the difference. I really can’t tell the difference between new season’s and last season’s I’ve got to tell you. If they’ve done the job properly with it, it does come out really good. But I’m still a believer in having fruit being sold on a seasonal basis.

https://www.freshplaza.com/

Peter Kenyon 

That was the wow! factor that that Peter Chambeyron talked about, particularly with cherries that people go, Wow! they’re fresh, they’re new season. Because that’s largely gone now.

Rob Tully 

Well, it is because there’s always American cherries in now in July and August. And if you want to pay $25 a kilo for them that’s fine. You can access good quality. They do a really good job. They bring them in on a jumbo jet and they’ll have been on the trees over in America probably only two or three days beforehand. And we’ve got them here in really good condition. I’m amazed at how good they turn up, some of them.

Peter Kenyon 

I’m not sure what the jumbo jet’s doing for global warming though in order to have cherries.

Rob Tully 

That’s right. Yeah.

Peter Kenyon 

You picked a thousand bins, you said once of King Coles, how many acres did you have in apple production at the height of your orchard and when was that?

Rob Tully 

Probably about 80 acres/75 acres was our biggest area at any time. And that would produce about 60,000 bushels of apples per year [about 1300 metric tonnes]. We talk in bins nowadays. That was about 3000 bins. The most we ever picked I think we picked was 3500 bins in one year. That was a was a really busy year. That was in 1972 if I remember correctly.

Peter Kenyon 

From picking and packing when you talk about bushel bins did you do the packing here? I know eventually they went into big bins and they went away elsewhere but you’ve got a big packing shed so I’m assuming you did all your own packing or some of it?

Rob Tully 

Well, I can remember the days when it was still being done in bushel cases. So we handled bushel cases. When my father moved up here, half of the family stayed on the old family farm in Doncaster. It would be one of the last orchards that was left in Doncaster. But the packing shed and the cool store remained there for quite a long time after the last of the orchard disappeared. My father in his brother who ran the Doncaster side of the operation still used to work in together quite a lot. So until we’d built more of our cool stores up here, a lot of our fruit went down to Doncaster and was stored there. And my uncle packed the fruit out as he saw fit. That side of the family had a growers’ stand in the Melbourne Market. And we would sometimes pack food up here and we’d send it down to the growers’ stand in the Victoria Market or in my time it moved to Footscray Road. I started just as the market was moving into the Footscray area and I got out just as that market was shutting down and moving out to Epping.

Peter Kenyon 

Which wasn’t that long ago. Rob in terms of your apple output here, are you aware that most of it went for export or domestic or was a mix?

Rob Tully 

Yes, we knew where my most of the fruit went each year. We would sometimes sell to speculators that came in. That was mostly from the Goulburn Valley or sometimes there were a few big exporters that handled stuff out of Melbourne. So yes, it was probably either Melbourne or Shepparton where our export market used to be. We didn’t have much input once it went to the exporters. They might tell us where they were sending it to but there was no guarantee. You didn’t sell the fruit with a guarantee that it was going to a particular market. It was up to the exporter where he sold it. They’d come in, they’d offer you a price per case and you could either take it or leave it. From our point of view I only exported from my shed on a couple of occasions. And that was using either my uncle’s export license or one of the Shepparton exporters’ licenses. And I was packing under their license. It was an operation I would have liked to have seen grow and get bigger. There was a period of time when the Victorian Department of Agriculture was promoting Albury Wodonga as an inland port and I was hoping that might take off and we could have been doing exports from our shed on a regular basis but it just didn’t seem to eventuate.

Peter Kenyon 

You’ve invested an awful lot in that cool room and the cool sheds.

Rob Tully 

You did. And the red tape for sending fruit overseas from this place was pretty involved. It was not easy to go through all the hoops that you had to before you had a container turn up at the place that was sealed and locked here. And it wasn’t opened till it got overseas. A lot of red tape. The fruit would be exported a number of times and it became prohibitively costly to get an export inspector to come in while we were packing the fruit and then come in while we’re loading the fruit onto a container. It was just unfortunate. But the bigger exporters are doing that on a daily basis out of Shepparton and they’ve got inspectors that are located in Shepparton and we didn’t have that luxury here. I would have to get the inspector either from Shepparton or for a short period of time that was a guy doing it from Albury but it was an expensive operation.

Peter Kenyon 

And volume speaks for that?

Rob Tully 

Yes.

Jamie Kronborg 

Was there a premium in the export market?

Rob Tully 

Well are we took a chance there in the year when I did it and we had a guaranteed bottom line, which meant that we were able to do the operation successfully. But the carrot that was dangled there was that it might have made more than we’d anticipated. And myself and Rob Sinclair up at Stanley were the ones who took the gamble on that one and I packed the fruit for him. But look, we we probably did as well as we would have done on the local market, the domestic market. but it wasn’t a goldmine exercise. The beauty of some of those jobs and if you’re in it and you’re intimately involved with that side of the operation, some markets have different requirements as far as what they want. So you might have a market where, say the Japanese market would like a nice big apple where they can cut it up and they can share it around the table with the family. The Indonesian market wants a smaller apple and they’ll eat an apple the same as we eat an apple here. So if you’ve got a heavy crop of fruit and the fruit’s only going to be small, you’d try and maybe look at seeing if you could find an export outlet for it. If you’re getting all the information coming through from newsletters and publications on a weekly basis, you’ll see notes put out through those newsletters there, such as an exporter is looking for a line of small Red Delicious or something like that and you might be able to fulfill that order for him. Experience and a good knowledge of the whole operation is a big advantage.

Peter Kenyon 

And a network of people that you trust.

Rob Tully 

A network of contacts. Yes. We were lucky. We had been a long standing family from a traditional fruit growing area in Doncaster. We came up here with a lot of contacts, which were used over the years when we got up here. My grandfather established – along with two other fruit growers – a big cooperative in Doncaster called the Blue Moon Cooperative and the shed’s still got the Blue Moon logo on the outside of it up at Stanley. When that agency was offered up here of course it was offered to my father first because he had a family tie up with the Blue Moon Coop. We had shares with them at that stage. But Dad wasn’t interested in going around and selling sprays or fertilizers or doing that sort of work but the guy who took it on up here did a very good job.

LAST BITE: Rob Tully with the last box of apples from the family’s Beechworth orchard, picked in 2015.

Peter Kenyon 

Rob you talk about the height of your production, I think you said was ’72 or ’73?

Rob Tully 

I reckon that’s probably the biggest year we had. Yeah.

Peter Kenyon 

And I know from talking to other orchardists around here that it really started to fall off, particularly from 1967 owing to the Suez Canal crisis and a lot of the export from Australia being caught in that predicament. And then Britain joined the Common Market in 1973 and obviously that had a big impact. So even if you weren’t exporting other people were and their market fell away so there was a glut on the Australian domestic market. What do you know about that Suez Canal crisis in 1967?

Rob Tully 

I don’t really know a lot about it. I’m not sure whether we had fruit on the water. Look, we possibly could have done. My uncle had an export license and he was exporting regularly on a yearly basis so I’d imagine he probably had fruit on the water at that time. As I say, I was still a schoolboy then and I wasn’t involved with that side of it. But there could well have been some of our fruit that was on those ships at that time. But yeah, I can’t help you out much there. Certainly from my point of view when England joined the Common Market it had a dramatic effect on the fruit industry, particularly for the Tasmanians, but also for us on the mainland who exported fruit. And I could liken it to the way the tobacco industry collapsed around the Myrtleford area some years back. But as I said before, 1972 was probably our biggest year and our production figures following that would have reflected the decline. A lot of that was due to the fact that most of our production were export varieties: Granny Smiths and King Cole and that would have equated to more than 80 per cent of our production, well more than 80 per cent I’d say. So there was a transition period at that time, when we lost the export outlet, into varieties that suited the domestic market. And that doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to plant varieties or you’ve got to rework trees over to the varieties that are going to sell domestically. And therefore you’re going to have quite a hiatus between our peak production and what eventually it ramped up to after that. And we never got to the same figures that we did in 1972. The varieties that the markets were looking for weren’t precocious, high-producing varieties per acre. They might have been high-value varieties but we didn’t get the same production figures that we did with Granny Smiths and King Cole. And that really started a transition of crop rotation in the industry too. When I started with our export varieties we probably produced really about four or five main varieties and they never changed. Nowadays there are varieties on supermarket shelves that are completely unfamiliar to me as far as apples go. Some supermarket chains have now developed what they call club varieties. So a particular variety now might only be found in a Coles or Woolworths supermarket but not in both of the supermarkets. And there is a royalty agreement now attached to those varieties as there is with a lot of other fruits and vegetables that are grown now too. And this fact that you’re always rotating your orchard now means that you don’t probably ever get a large area that’s all producing at its maximum at one time. There’s always going to be trees that are 20 years old and trees that are only two years old on most modern orchards.

Peter Kenyon 

Rob, what is your earliest memory of eating one of your apples from your own orchard?

Rob Tully 

Yeah, that’s a good question. Earliest memories … I think I can answer that. On one of the old orchards someone had grafted a Golden Delicious onto a Granny Smith tree. So we had one tree of Golden Delicious out in the orchard. And I roughly knew where it was when I was little school boy. And because it was all mixed up with the Granny Smiths – before they get the golden colour they’re green like a Granny Smith. So it used not to be that easy for a schoolboy to find that tree until they’d marked it fairly carefully in the orchard. But those Golden Delicious, were the first ones that I’d eaten. And it was a long time before they were popular in the shops. Gee, they were nice apple when all you’d been used to were the sour King Coles and Granny Smiths to have a really sweet apple like a Golden Delicious. One of the apples that is a really good apple, and it’s disappointing that you can’t buy it easily in a supermarket now – and it was widely grown – was Jonathan. Now there’s two or three apples that fall into the same category. They are excellent eating apples: terrific flavour, very distinctive flavour. And you just can’t buy them now because the little fruit and vege shops that used to specialise in fruit and have an intimate understanding of what the product was that they were selling to the customer has gone now. And the supermarkets basically control what we grow now in so far as if you’re not selling to the supermarkets you’re really not commercially viable now.

Peter Kenyon 

You don’t have alternative markets now.

Rob Tully 

No, not the specialist markets that we used to have. So things like Jonathan, Gravenstein, which used to always be the first apple. They weren’t good keeping apples and this is why the supermarkets didn’t like them and I think they shied away from them. But they had a place in the maturity of the fruit when it’s in season. And they were superb eating apples. And there’s another one they called a Five Crown and that was very popular too in the olden days. But they weren’t varieties that lent themselves to the supermarkets as far as ease of handling.

Peter Kenyon 

Rob, what’s the future for your land and the pears that are left?

Rob Tully 

Look, I don’t think there’s a great future for them. I would imagine that we’ll sell this property. But I think when it gets sold, it’s most unlikely that anyone’s going to want to continue to manage a 600-tree block of pears. Pears are relatively easy to grow but there’s still quite a lot of work with it and I don’t think it’d be that attractive to a potential buyer. I might be wrong. But I think possibly in the fullness of time this place will get cut up into smaller blocks and sold as hobby farms perhaps. I’m not sure.

Rob Tully 

It’d be a terrific vineyard, an ideal spot for growing grapes I would think. I don’t know much about growing grapes but I think anyone who does would see a lot of potential here for that.

Peter Kenyon 

Thanks, Rob.

Rob Tully 

Yeah, no, that’s fine.

Peter Kenyon 

Always good to talk.

Rob Tully 

Yeah, it is. It is. I enjoy it.

Peter Kenyon

That’s it for this episode of unpeeled press. Thank you for listening. My thanks also to Charles Sturt University for its support for this podcast’s creation through their Community University Partnership Grants. My gratitude to Dr Sarina Kilham from CSU and Dr Nick Rose from Sustain Australia for their advice and help getting this underway. And thank you as always to Jamie Kronborg for technical advice and great photos. Theme music by Avocado Junkie. And don’t forget to enjoy a local piece of fruit in season! I’m Peter Kenyon. Goodbye.


[1] https://dt-hs.blogspot.com/2019/11/the-orchards-of-doncaster-and.html

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