Woolies pays growers $1m to expand organic fruit and vegetable output

Woolies pays organic growers $1m to lift organic produce output

Agribusiness
 Luke Cantrill with children Jack, Alannah and Ava on the family property at Nashdale in Central West NSW.

Luke Cantrill with children Jack, Alannah and Ava on the family property at Nashdale in Central West NSW.

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Woolworths has budgeted to spend up to $30 million over five years to encourage more organic production.

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Supermarket group Woolworths is paying more than $1 million to four of its horticultural suppliers as part of a fresh round of grants to promote organic production.

Woolies is also seeking more applications for it's next round of Organic Growth Fund grants and interest-free loan payments to support organic farming initiatives.

The supermarket, which has demand for organic fruit and vegetables growing at 20 per cent a year, has budgeted to spend up to $30 million over five years to encourage more organic production.

One of the operations benefiting this year is a northern Victorian conventional orchard business supplying Woolworths for 50 years which is now expanding into organic plum and pear production.

Kalafatis Fresh, based in Victoria's Goulburn Valley, will use its $500,000 grant to help purchase orchard infrastructure to farm organic pears and plums.

Other payments will go to a big organic farming operation established by Nathan Free who won 2017 emerging leader title in Rabobank's prestigious leadership awards.

He started growing vegetables commercially when he was 15 and his Wattle Organic Farms partnership at Lake Boga near Swan Hill is now Victoria's biggest organic farming venture.

Other recipients in the third round of funding are Australia's biggest organic cherry producers, the Cantrill family at Orange in NSW, and Western Australia's and Prime Organics.

Fast rising demand

Woolworths' Organic Growth Fund was established in 2018 in partnership with Heritage Bank to help farmers meet the fast growing consumer demand for organic fruit and vegetables.

Fruit and vegetables general manager Paul Turner said customer demand for organic produce was on track to double every five years.

"We're working in close partnership with local farmers to ensure we can meet the growing demand with Aussie grown products," he said.

"As we look to the next round, we'd like to encourage more applications from conventional growers who are looking to diversify crops and convert to organic production."

He was excited to see Kalafatis's deep relationship with Woolworths branch out into organics.

Jimmy Kalafatis' father had started the family's orchard business and these days his daughters were involved, too.

Jimmy Kalafatis with daughters, Sarah and Emily.

Jimmy Kalafatis with daughters, Sarah and Emily.

"Consumers are putting more organic produce into their shopping baskets every week," Mr Kalafatis said.

"That's what we're seeing and what the statistics are telling us."

"Australians are becoming more educated about how their food is produced and are looking more to methods of growing produce that don't require chemicals or pesticides."

Mr Kalafatis also plans to establish an irrigation system above the orchard floor to allow for mowing and mulching between trees, a critical task when herbicides cannot be used to suppress weeds.

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He will also build a vertical espalier trellis, covering the crop with pest-proof netting.

A commercial-sized mower and sweeper will be purchased to mulch leaves and reduce the risk from fruit diseases like black spot and canker.

The Jarvis family at Prime Organics at Donnybrook, WA will use $300,000 from the Woolworths fund to develop a new orchard in the heart of the Geographe fruit-growing region, south of Perth.

More apples, solar panels

Also long-time suppliers to the retailer, the grant will help increase availability of their certified organic apples after planting the new orchard and renewing plantings in family's existing rows next year.

In NSW, Cantrill Organics at Nashdale traces its farming heritage in the Orange district almost 170 years.

The Cantrills transitioned to become fully certified organic about 12 years ago and not only grow a lot of cherries but a variety of other organic crops.

Cantrill Organics has secured a $170,000 to purchase earlier maturing cherry varieties which will bring their harvest season forward.

The funding will also cover infrastructure upgrades to solar panels, the packing shed and a dam water supply.

Wattle Organic Farms, run by Nathan Free and his parents Kelvin and Deanne has 130ha of certified organic land devoted to the year-round production of vegetables and stone fruit.

The $80,000 Woolworths fund grant will allow the Frees to expand and improve the farm's most in-demand stone fruit lines.

Round Four of the Woolworths Organic Growth Fund is open for farmers to apply for financial assistance until October 11.

Heritage Bank will service successful applicants who secure an interest-free loan through the fund.

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