When most people think of Bundaberg the first things that spring to mind are ‘Sugar Cane’ and ‘Bundy Rum’ and I was no exception. I made the trip to Bundy to interview a ‘Sweet Potato’ farmer who has a long standing business relationship with the Norco Rural Bundaberg store and came away with a whole new perspective on Bundaberg and the Wide Bay-Burnett region.
John Damiano, the Norco Rural Bundaberg agronomist, introduced me to a ‘Sweet Potato’ farmer, Duane Joyce and no sooner had I said g’day than another three men came into the room, I was also introduced to Dave Fisher, Mick Prichard and Troy Prichard, three more ‘Sweet Potato’ farmers, and first cousins into the bargain. Not only are they sweet potato farmers and cousins, they all originate from Cudgen in the Northern Rivers, this day just kept getting better!
Over an eight to twelve year period all four Cudgen boys and their families moved north to Bundaberg in search of more land to farm; they also brought the family tradition of getting together for smoko each day with them. I listened to them reminisce about being at their grandfather Prichard’s farm at smoko when they were kids remembering the farmers discussing what was happening ‘on farm’ that day and as young grand children sitting around the massive family table eating their grandmothers’ goodies, especially the ‘Jam Drops’ which seemed to be everyone’s favourite. The youngest of thirteen children from the Prichard grandparents is Crow Pritchard also known as ‘The Guru’ by his four nephews and the catalyst for their farming careers. “Crow was always excited about farming and still is today, there’s no stopping him; there’s at least five blokes who have worked for him over the years who now own their own really decent sized farms, he’s just a great motivator and mentor” said Duane. After speaking with the Cudgen boys it became apparent that there is a lot more being grown on their farms here in Bundy than Sweet Potatoes; Macadamias, Zucchinis, Avocados, peas, snow peas, just to name a few!
Norco Rural’s John Damiano has had a thirty year business relationship with these Bundaberg farmers, and Duane was happy to say “John’s a good operator and delivers the Norco process with integrity and professionalism. As farmers we’re looking for the most cost effective way to run our business and increase our profits but sometimes, it’s not always about the dollars, he makes a good coffee at smoko too, we’re loyal to John and ultimately Norco ”.
Duane took us through to the packing shed where the sweet spuds were brought in, washed, dried, graded and packed into boxes ready for shipment to many states. Packaging is a vital part of their business, ensuring that their fresh produce arrives at its final destination intact and the sweet potato boxes are supplied by Orora. Norco and Orora have a long standing business relationship spanning 20 years and Kel Treseder, Orora’s Regional Territory Manager dropped by while we were there to ensure that all was well and offer any support that may be needed.
After catching up on the daily business at smoko everyone went back to their individual farms and Duane took us to where one of his crews was harvesting the sweet potatoes. The rich red soil is ideal for their growth and apart from drip irrigation they require very little attention and never having seen sweet potatoes growing I was surprised at how quickly the big plastic bins were being filled by huge quantities of this super veg.
Crow and his son Daniel took time out from their day to visit some of their farms which are located at the Hummock. The Hummock is a dormant volcano that last erupted some 900,000 years ago resulting in the rich red volcanic soil which is now home to a wide range of farms producing an array of produce including sweet potatoes. Seed beds are planted away from the other crops; new seed stock is purchased each year to ensure that the plants are nematode free promoting disease free crops. From these seed plants it is a simple process of taking slips from the sweet potato and planting into the prepared irrigated soil and off they grow vigorously!
Mick Prichard invited us to check out his farm where he grows a selection of produce including sweet potatoes and zucchini’s, Mick and his son Ben run the operation and they kindly showed us through the Zucchini processing and packaging shed; Ben said “this is an older and smaller set up but it can still manage to pump out 10 pallets of Zucchini’s a day, not bad eh” they are then shipped to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Also Ben runs the On-Farm shop called Mr B Fresh which attracts both locals and passing trade; needless to say I came home with a boot full of beautiful fresh local Bundy produce.
Next stop was a visit to The Lowe farm to see Kevin Grima, another Norco customer that John works closely with. Kevin has KC Herb farm and also manages The Lowe farm which grows a wide range of salad leaf. When I commented on my surprise at the range and variety of farming in Bundaberg he said “recently Bundaberg held a massive produce festival drawing a crowed of around 10,000 people and still many locals from the Bundaberg area said that they weren’t aware of the variety of produce that is grown here, hard to believe I know!”
The Bundaberg region is blessed with an abundance of Backpacker labour, available through agencies who handle everything from visa’s to accommodation. This allows local farmers the peace of mind that they always have the man/woman power available when required. It is absolutely unanimous that these workers are happy, efficient and have an incredibly high work ethic and what business owner doesn’t love that!
Bundaberg is a producers’ dream environment that produces 75% of Australia’s Sweet Potatoes, 25% of Australia’s Macadamias, is known as the Tomato capital, has an abundance of fruit from Strawberries to Star fruit and everything in between, with a huge array of vegetables such as Corn, Capsicum, Beans, Cucumber, Chillies, Squash, again to name but a few; throw in some of the best seafood which comes from the southern Great Barrier Reef and of course we can’t forget Sugar Cane and Bundy Rum; all this surely makes Bundaberg ‘One hell of an Amazingly Diverse Food Bowl’.
I went to Bundy to interview one ‘Sweet Potato’ farmer, Duane, and got the bonus of meeting an additional six farmers; Crow, Mick, Dave, Troy, Ben and Daniel; seven blokes from the Prichard family who generously took time out of their day to share a snippet of their family history, their journey from Cudgen and their businesses today. I also had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Grima, a young dedicated and enthusiastic local farmer building his own family business with his wife and children. Thank you all also I hope the ride from Cairns to Darwin went well for you both Duane and Crow, I’m sure it was awesome! I would also like to thank John Damiano for making it happen ... keep making those good coffees JD!