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Farmer In Focus – Willayoung Orchards

We recently had the pleasure of talking to Andrew Ricketts from Willayoung Orchards one of our stone fruit producers who comes each week during the summer season from Young NSW. Andrew gives a great insight into the life of a farmer and the history behind his family selling at Capital Region Farmers Market.  

Willayoung Orchard is located about 3 kms south of Young.  We lived off Willawong Street –  hence the orchard name, being a combination of that street and Young.

We grow cherries , apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, figs and table grapes.  Our orchard was planted in the early 1990s.  At that time we concentrated on supplying fruit to the Sydney wholesale markets.

We specialize in tree-ripened fruit which means we pick our fruit as close to full maturity as possible.  This maximises fruit flavour   – once a piece of fruit is harvested its sugar level is fixed, it cannot increase, so if fruit is picked ‘early’ it will have a lower sugar level.  (After harvest the only aspect of flavour that can change is the acid level which will reduce, especially if the fruit is left at room temperature.  Thus the sugar level has an increased percentage of the flavour component, so the fruit will taste sweeter.  By leaving fruit on the tree to maximise true flavour creates work for us – we pick all our varieties up to 4 or 5 times, each time picking only the fruit which we judge to be near full ripeness.

Both of us grew up on the land.  I spent my early years on a mixed farm near Young – sheep cattle and cropping.  Helen was raised on a cherry and plum orchard on the northern outskirts of Young.  We initially ran a fruit-tree nursery which initially was very successful.  However, with the majority of varieties being controlled through patents by two Australian nursery enterprises we found we could not compete with these big players.  Hence our sales diminished and we decided to commence planting our orchard. 

The single biggest challenge we face is the weather which dictates our daily work practices.  The next biggest factor that affects orchardists is the power that the supermarkets exert over prices. We have experienced situations when a supermarket chain has effectively reduced wholesale prices.  In one instance we were informed by our Flemington Markets agents  that one of the big chains was putting white peaches on special during the next week.  Consequently the price of white peaches fell by about 25%. 

We initially did not have a packing shed, relying on using other grower’s facilities to get our produce to market.  In 2002 we decided to build our own shed.  It was a move which changed our whole attitude towards orcharding.  When we opened our shed we placed ads in the local newspaper, and a trickle of customers started to flow.  This was an eye-opener for us, as we are located on a quiet dead-end side street with no passing traffic.  We quickly realised the benefit of selling direct to the public by eliminating the heavy cost of sending produce to Sydney.  (Between the cost of packaging, freight and agent’s commission we were ‘losing’ over 25% of our gross income.  In other words for every four boxes of produce we sent to Sydney we would ‘lose’ one of these boxes to the afore-mentioned costs.

Our priority quickly became one of securing sales direct to the public.  This meant trying to have a large range of fruit to cater for the public over the whole season.  This was both for shed-door sales in conjunction with supplying Canberra markets. 

Our priorities as orchardists has been to do things properly, with the goal of producing a superior product to our customers.  We get great satisfaction when customers compliment us on the flavour of our fruit.  It is also rewarding to have had some customers of over 20 years standing.

We have many varieties which we regard highly.  Our late cherry, Sweet Georgia, is one of my favourite varieties.  It will be available for the last 3 pre-Christmas markets.  We have several yellow nectarine varieties that we regard as well above average. There are the Orion and Western Sweet – both January varieties,  We also have a new “kid on the block”, June Sweet, which will be available for the 16th and 23rd December markets. 

Two yellow peach varieties that we hold in high regard are Elegant Lady(which we have grown for almost 30 years) and Summer Lady.  These are two traditional peaches which eat beautifully and are also excellent for bottling/stewing.  These should be available from mid-January until mid-February.

Last but certainly not least is the white nectarine, Zephyr.  This is an outstanding variety with a smooth, velvety texture.  It ripens late January/ early February.  We have grown these for over 20 years and it has proven to be very popular with our customers.  It is very close to being the No. 1 variety that we grow.

We have been at CRFM for about 6 seasons.  We have been attending markets around Canberra since 1997.  Some of our customers have been with us for over twenty years.  That is very satisfying to us.  We have come to know some customers very well – some feel almost like family.  I enjoy a bit of banter – it is the light relief from getting out of bed before the sparrow’s have even thought about waking up.  One of my well-used lines is when someone hands over a $50 note for a transaction that might be less than, say, $15.  This is often done with an apology for only having such a big note.  In a reassuring tone I say “that’s OK, that just covers it.”  Most people burst out laughing at the absurdity of my hollow reassurance.  However, a couple of years back one woman of about 30 years of age, took me seriously and replied: “Are you serious?!”   She was almost trembling.  It must have been all too much for her for I don’t think I have seen her since.

Undoubtedly my favourite exchange with a customer involves one of our very long-term customers by the name of Elizabeth.  This lady is a regular at the markets and is one of our favourite customers due to  her sunny disposition and empathetic ways.  When I was at another market around Christmas time I was spruiking about the Solar mate apricot. This is a quality variety.  Its skin colour is average but its flavour is excellent.  It is Helen’s  favourite apricot.  Anyway I was prattling about the Solar Mate.  “This is my wife’s favourite apricot, and she is a woman of impeccable taste.” I declared with gusto.   A voice from an intending customer replied, “She’s only made one slip up.”  I pretended to be insulted but underneath I was enjoying it all.  It turned out that the lady in question was Elizabeth who was a new customer at that time.  It took several years before I discovered the identity of that woman who had knocked the wind out of my sails.  The lesson is not to indulge in the shameless art of self-promotion.        

Thanks to Elizabeth for such a special moment and keeping my feet on the ground.

Thank you Andrew for your time and for your wonderful insights! We know your customers thoroughly enjoy their experiences shopping with you as well. You can meet Andrew and his wife Helen every Saturday during stonefruit season at the front entrance of the market. Be sure to say hi!

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