Southern NSW apple and berry growing business, N&A Group, has become the latest beneficiary of interest free loans and grants from retailer Woolworths, as the supermarket group helps conventional producers go organic.
N&A Group's Ardrossan Orchards at Batlow will receive a $150,000 interest-free loan to pay for protected cropping infrastructure.
The money comes from Woolworths Organic Growth Fund, which is offering up to $30 million over five years in interest-free loans and grants, plus purchase contracts with the retailer.
"We're seeing double digit growth in customer demand for organic fruit and vegetables, and believe the trend will only continue over coming years," said Woolworths head of produce, Paul Turner.
The organic growth fund offered farmers the certainty of longer-term demand for their organic fruit and vegetables.
The Cathels have operated orchards since 1956 when the family company began supplying Woolworths with conventionally grown apples.
Three generations on and they continue to grow both conventional apples and organic blueberries and blackberries.
The Cathels decided to diversify into organics in 2015 in response to increasing demand for organic produce and the purchase of a new farm.
Coincidentally Round three of the Woolworths Organic Growth Fund is now open and the supermarket is urging other farmers to apply by March 1.
The Woolworths fund was established in partnership with Queensland-based Heritage Bank - Australia's largest customer-owned lender - to help farmers meet the growing consumer demand for organic fruit and vegetables.
Ardrossan Orchards manager, Ian Cathels, said the interest-free loan his business received would significantly improve its ability to produce a more consistent supply of high-quality berries by reducing the impact of heat and controlling pests and birds.
"The nets are particularly important for blackberry production, with high temperatures in the peak production period of January," he said.
"Pleasingly, the same nets can also be used on organic apple blocks to reduce the impact of heat, hail, birds and pests."
The Cathels have strong ambitions in organics and we're excited to see what our funding will unlock for N&A Group and our mutual customers
The Cathels have also built up a detailed understanding of organic production during several trips to the northern hemisphere to investigate new varieties.
He encouraged others to consider applying for funds to establish and scale up their organic production in a more timely manner.
"By providing greater all-round consistency and quality for Woolworths shoppers we can help drive growth throughout the entire category," Mr Cathels said.
Woolworths' Mr Turner was delighted he was working with producers like N&A Group to help boost production and make organic berries much more accessible across Australia.
"The Cathels have strong ambitions in organics and we're excited to see what our funding will unlock for N&A Group and our mutual customers," he said.
Other recent fund beneficiaries include West Australian vegetable grower, Gingin Organics at Neergabby, which is spending a $200,000 grant developing six hectares of new organic farmland and upgrade its packhouse during the next year.
The expansion will allow for an increase in the variety of crops and an improved timeline for cropping on the new farm - leading to quicker supply of organic vegetables to consumers.
"We have a reputation for quality and consistency of supply in varied vegetable lines, including challenging lines such as organic celery, that we want to build on," said Gingin Organics owner, Lynda Harding.
"With the expansion of our farm, we'll be able to grow more organic vegetable varieties and boost our supply to Woolworths customers year-round.
Gingin Organics became a direct supplier of certified organic vegetables to Woolworths in 2014, including carrots, broccoli, celery, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and lettuce varieties.
New Tassie supplier
In Tasmania at Forth, Biofarms Australia received a $500,000 interest-free loan from Woolies to buy new machinery and equipment, and upgrade irrigation systems to improve productivity and efficiency on the 120ha property.
Brothers Chris, Mark and David Benson grow a diverse range of certified organic vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beetroot and pumpkin.
The family initially started in vegetables conventionally more than 20 years ago, but was keen to eliminate chemical use for environmental reasons, opting to start organic production in 1999.
"We haven't looked back," Chris Benson said.
"In the beginning we were quite small and at times it was financially challenging, but we believed in the principles and the product, so stuck with it.
Biofarms Australia expected to be supplying Woolworths stores with organic vegetables in spring this year.
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