WARREN Lloyd could say he’s in the grip of the grape.
His family’s fruit-growing operation began in 1890 when his great-grandfather, Ted Lloyd ran away from home at the age of 17 and put a £10 deposit on 4 hectares of land in the new irrigation colony of Mildura, Victoria.
“We have survived over four generations of farming and more than 125 years to grow the original holding to 40ha,” Warren said.
“I believe this makes us one of the oldest families that have continually irrigated in an irrigation colony in this country.
“I returned to the family property in 2005 after attending university in Adelaide and receiving a degree in secondary Art and Design teaching.
“I worked as a teacher for 18 months in SA country (Clare and Victor Harbour) and then returned home to Irymple where I worked for seven years at a local school.
“I manage the property with my father, Edward Lloyd and my uncle, Owen Lloyd and work full time on the property.
“We also employ a casual worker for 12 months and have two to three individuals working for two to three weeks during harvest and a team of three to six during the pruning period (June-August).”
AROUND 32ha of the property is in production under grapes for dried vine fruit while around 5ha is abandoned – a product of the debilitating impact of the millennium drought – and will be brought back into production over the next three to four years
Plantings consist of sultana – 44 per cent, Natural Sultana – 25pc, Sun Muscat – 11pc, carina (currant) – 15pc and SunGlo sultanas (in various stages of development) – 5pc.
“We have good soils, access to irrigation water, use strong trellis like Shaw swing-arm system that promotes fruitfulness and reduces disease by opening the canopy,” Warren said.
“This allows our harvest to be completely mechanised and has drastically reduced labour requirements.
“Modern high-yielding varieties like Sun Muscat, Carina and SunGlo can consistently produce large crops (in excess of 7.5 tonne/Ha/year).
“We use drip irrigation and low level sprinklers as we get better crops off the low level sprinklers but use more Ml/ha.
“Our main problems are spiked weed seeds, snails and fungal diseases predominately powdery mildew in all varieties, botrytis particularly in Sun Muscat and in adverse weather conditions downy mildew.
“The only other major problem is the ability to get consistently high yields – 65pc of our property is sultana which is the mainstay of the industry but notoriously inconsistent from year to year.
“For example our yield in 2017 was 60 tonnes down on last year’s harvest (244t) which can solely be attributed to sultana. The sun muscats and carinas produced slightly more fruit than the 2016 harvest.”
VINES are pruned by hand on a pruning platform as the trellis system is quite tall – the trellis is “swung” over and then canes are wrapped down in readiness for the upcoming season.
The new canes grow from the top of the cordon where they receive maximum sunlight to increase fruitfulness.
Bunches along the cordon during spring time are sprayed out using calcium nitrate which enables to grow the crop in a fruiting zone so it can be mechanically cut to begin the drying process.
“We apply a drying emulsion to the fruit to assist in the drying process and produce light coloured fruit,” Warren said.
“We then cut canes mechanically allowing the grapes to dry naturally where they grew. It takes approximately three weeks for it to dry when it can be picked using a mechanical harvester.
“We then finish dry the fruit using a dehydrator until it is at 13pc moisture. We riddle the fruit to remove impurities and then send the finished product to the processing company – all without being touched by human hands.
“The biggest problem is rain during the drying phase. This darkens the fruit and lowers the quality and makes the rest of the process – harvesting, dehydrating, riddling more time consuming and costly whilst lowering the value of the fruit.”
AS a general rule the more high-yielding the variety the later it ripens. Sultanas are first to be cut in early to mid February, then carinas in late February with sun muscats and sunglo in early March with the aim of completing all the cutting by March 10.
“The highest quality fruit is that with a light golden colour. We have struggled to achieve that so we aim for amber brown fruit that is plump, full of flavour, friable and free of contaminants whilst also being high yielding,” he said.
“Cheap imported fruit places downward pressure on the price that Australian growers receive. All of our major competitors have far cheaper labour costs (I think the standard hourly rate in South Africa is around $1.26).
“This is why the Australian industry has become so mechanised – to dramatically improve on efficiencies and save on labour.
“I wish that country of origin had to be put on a label. I think the majority of consumers pick a product based on price.
“However if they knew that the product came from China, Uzbekistan, Iran or Afghanistan they may be more discerning on choice.
“I find it ironic that the future of the industry may lay in export markets where other countries like China are prepared to pay a premium for quality produce from Australia rather than eat food from their own country, yet our price is based on how cheap imported fruit can land here.”
THE Lloyds are contracted to Sunbeam, the largest retail brand for dried vine fruit in Australia, who then markets and sells their fruit.
The best quality is exported, the next best quality goes into retail packs and then the lower quality is sold for industrial purposes like the bakery industry.
“Our only expansion will be bringing the 5ha of abandoned land back into production. Anything that is planted now must be a proven high-yielding variety like carinas, sun muscats or sunglo. We also need to replace our existing sultanas with these varieties,” Warren said.
“We are a very old, resilient and proud industry and the growers within it are incredibly supportive of each other.
“There has always been a sharing of ideas to try to improve the way that we do things. This has been enhanced by strong leadership over a long period of time.
“It is a very challenging industry that has suffered over the last 25 years from a range of factors including the wine boom and the millennium drought.
“In the early 90s we produced 90,000 tonnes of dried fruit. By the time I entered the industry that had fallen to 25,000.
“After the millennium drought broke we hit a low of 7000 tonnes. The industry is growing again (I think the 2017 harvest will be around 17,000 tonnes) but still faces significant challenges into the future including addressing an ageing farmer base.
“I am very proud to be part of this industry and to continue our enduring family operation.”