You know your strawberries are high quality when a major supermarket chain commits to taking all your produce and supports your business, making it more profitable. That's the story of Merv and Marilyn Schiffke, who, in conjunction with a partner, Jane Stothard, operate two Taste 'n See strawberry properties near Caboolture. Mr Schiffke, who has grown strawberries for the past 40 years and was previously involved in a grower co-operative, said Coles now took all of their produce, which a local agronomist had claimed to be the best in Australia.
Taste 'n See strawberries have hit retail shelves in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and north Queensland. Consistency of quality and good shelf life have been the key - something Merv and Marilyn Schiffke take pride in.
"Taste is critical, and if you have Brix (sugar) levels above 13, you have shelf life," Mr Schiffke said.
"Coles actively pursued us and, after a trial period, we proved the businesses had a great working relationship. We then committed all our produce. Coles allowed us to pack our 350-gram punnet that accommodates all sizes easily, making our sheds 17pc more productive.
"The larger punnet was taken into north Queensland and sales more than doubled - it was due to the presentation, flavour and consistency."
He said their farming system was more expensive, but that allowed for better quality. They grow about 2.2 million strawberry plants over 33 hectares.
"We space our plants out more in twin-row beds to allow more airflow and sunlight, particularly for winter, when prices are at a premium.
"The smaller plants and 100pc of the fruit is in the sunlight.
"We plant at the end of March and we don't want to have big bushes. We grow for a steady June-July-August flush with a bit of a bump at the end. We don't plant early and give them a big push."
Dependent on conditions, the first picking can occur at the end of May and run through to mid-November and into December. Significant compost is applied on the properties' red-clay loam through to sandy soils, with cow manure used previously and cotton compost applied more recently.
"The cotton compost has really broken down and provided for a good soil-carbon level."
They also grow four to five deep-rooted legume blends as cover crops to help break up soils.
"We then chop and hoe, and can lay the plastic in two weeks."
After applying a particular brand of controlled release fertiliser for many years as the base plant nutrition on their two main soil types - one which has a soil pH of 5 and another with a pH of 7 - they have since switched to using two custom Ferticote, eight-month controlled release blends from Barmac.
"With the previous fertiliser we used, you got what you got, but we are now custom blending to what we want.
"It's more a straight NK-controlled release blend for the pH7 soil type, while more trace elements, including magnesium and calcium, are added for the pH5 soil to help balance the nutrition."
Mr Schiffke said they sit down with Barmac territory manager Renier Scheepers every year and adjust the blends.
The company's Ferticote fertilisers use Haifa's Multicote controlled release technology to ensure growers receive the highest quality ingredients.
"The basic analysis of our blends is about 8.3pc N and 21pc K. We used zero phosphorus this year. In the third year, we will probably go with a bit of NPK straight away. Our rates of N and K used to be huge, but they have now been cut by about a fifth. With the compost, we went from 19pc N to 15pc, and we are now down to 7pc."
As they are not targeting big bushes, the fertilisers are applied at a rate of 450 to 550kg/ha, supplying about 15g/plant.
"With the controlled release blends, they aren't leaching out, whereas with a lot of rain on Nitrophoska, it will just leach out. We have had reps come out and they have noticed how green the plants are after rains ... that's controlled release fertiliser. Nitrophoska is cheaper by the tonne, but it runs out.
"The Ferticote goes through until around the end of August and supplies about 85pc of the plant nutrition."
- Fertigation through overhead and T-tape systems - the latter installed down the middle of the rows - begins in July-August with applications of zinc, boron and calcium.
- "In spring we keep the calcium and potash up. We haven't needed any N; there's been enough in the soil," Merv Schiffke said. "The overhead and T-tape means we can fertigate to every growing tip and root system."
- Mr Schiffke says the plants probably don't produce much more than 1kg of first-grade marketable fruit. "But we are getting an increase in size and a decrease in the amount thrown away - and we reject hard."
- "We produce less than other growers, but our plants go for longer, right through until mid-November and into early December." He says some varieties cannot sustain that fruit load. Their operation grows the earlier variety, Fortuna, as well as Festival and Camarosa strawberries.