YUM: Terry O'Leary is excited to start harvest soon.
YUM: Terry O'Leary is excited to start harvest soon. Jessica Schremmer

High hopes for melon harvest

CHINCHILLA watermelon growers faced tough times over the last years with the floods, hailstorms, and two record years of drought diminishing their harvest enormously.

Although it is still too early to say, this year looks promising for watermelon growers in the region, with harvest starting in two weeks.

Chinchilla watermelon grower Terry O'Leary said vine health was exceptional and yield could be higher for this year's harvest.

"Usually we would start harvest next week, but because it has been so cold in the last six weeks, where we had on average six degrees lower than usual for night time and day time temperatures it pushed us back about 10 to 12 days,” Mr O'Leary said.

"But it also allowed the vine to get very well established.

"We had a lot of rain in October so they (the watermelons) have grown just very slowly and strongly.”

The O'Leary family has run their 3500 acre farm over the last 60 years and hope to continue their legacy.

"This was my grandparents' farm so it has been in the family for a long time,” Mr O'Leary said.

"Chinchilla growers have got a very good reputation that was built over decades and it is a legacy to keep going, and to make sure if someone eats a Chinchilla melon it is gonna be one of the best ones they have.”

Back in the day Chinchilla had about 23 growers producing 25 per cent of the nation's melons, but today there are just five growers left and they are lucky if they produce five per cent of the nation's melons.

Mr O'Leary said the drought in the 1990s made a lot of growers stop farming watermelons as price fluctuations were strong.

"Back in the early 90s everything was grown on dry land, so unirrigated, and that meant that everybody planted on the same rain we picked watermelons on the same heatwave, so it was very up and down with the price you get,” Mr O'Leary said.

"You always have to consider it on an economy of scale.”

Mr O'Leary said their harvest today depends on various environmental factors as well as hailstorms in the area.

"Our worst year I think was on a thousand tonnes, best year we have done was nearly three thousand tonnes,” he said.

However, issues watermelon growers in Australia face today are the increase of change to industry standards and compliances such as food safety standards and Horticulture Innovation Australia introducing new, costly food auditing programs.

Mr O'Leary said it was great to focus on quality produce, but a lot of growers are now facing a minimum of $8000-9000 in compliance cost and testing every year.

"So that's a lot of money that you don't get paid for and you have to recoup through your own cost,” he said. These compliance costs are a major concern for smaller growers.

Mr O'Leary said he thought the industry might find there will be more large and medium size growers, which was unfortunate to see. "Small growers are really the backbone,” he said.

"If you have 20 small growers, they will produce as much as one very big grower, but if one really big grower has quality problems then that shows in the market a lot more than 20 small growers because of the geographical spread.”Mr O'Leary said he hoped that it will be a good year for all growers in the region.

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