THE Fankhauser family has been growing apples in Australia for more than 120 years.
Over the years their farm has moved from Hawthorn to Balwyn, then to Wantirna, and now Drouin.
- AT A GLANCE
- Who: Fankhauser family
- What: apple growers
- Why: a family affair
- Where: Drouin
- Report: ALEX SAMPSON
They have been at their site in Drouin for more than 33 years.
Owners Liz and Glynn Fankhauser are third-generation orchardists and son Brad has followed in their footsteps.
"When we took over the Drouin property there were no dams, drainage, netting or decent fences," Glynn said.
"We have expanded over time - about 15-30 acres (6-12ha) a year."
Some trees are 33 years old. "We plant almost every year and are nearly always renewing something," Brad said.
The farm has a stable production of 1000 tonnes of fruit a year across eight different varieties.
Harvesting begins in late February with the royal gala apples.
Then come the jonathon, golden delicious, red delicious, fuji and granny smith varieties, before pink lady at the end of April.
"It's 10 weeks where we're just flat out," Brad said.
The Fankhausers recently started growing jazz apples under licence for Montague Fresh.
Brad said apples were high maintenance all year round.
"During winter we prune and shape the trees to try and get the highest possible yields," he said. "Over spring, new trees are planted and the older trees are thinned.
"Any excess fruit is removed by hand in order to leave the best apples on the tree to achieve the ideal size and quality."
Thinning is done from November to December.
Constant watering is required over summer months and is often done with a limited amount of water.
The trees are monitored every day, and watered only the amount that is needed - usually up to two megalitres a hectare.
The farm holds a water licence and also uses recycled water from Drouin.
There are two dams, one with a 40-megalitre capacity and one with 30 megalitres.
Irrigation is delivered via a pressure-compensated dripper at 2.5 litres an hour.
The Fankhausers are in the midst of spraying.
"We're spraying fungicides twice a week," Brad said. "Blackspot and fungus diseases are a big problem because it's so damp here."
But they have very little trouble with codling moth and use an integrated pest and disease management program to deal with other minor pests.
"We use soft, target-specific sprays that only kill bad bugs. We also have frogs and spiders galore, which is great," Glynn said. "We've been using them for 15 years.
"They're good because they don't suck all the goodness out of the trees."
When it comes to weed management, Roundup is all that is needed.
"We have no trouble with fruit fly," Glynn said.
"It's too cold for it."
But Brad believes plans to declare Queensland Fruit Fly endemic to Victoria will change that.
"It's going to make life hard, especially for exports," he said.
"The industry needs to look at exporting 5-10 per cent of its produce to combat oversupply.
"This need to happen quickly and the Government needs to work with us, not against us."
Exporting to Europe is something Brad and Glynn are considering.
"There is a huge demand in Europe for pink ladies," he said.
The Fankhausers pay $1000 a year for an innovative "weather station" program, which allows farmers to enter variables like the temperature, relative humidity, wetness, rainfall and soil temperature on their orchard, and receive target specific information on when to spray.
"It costs $1000 each time we spray and this program allows us to spray as little as possible," Glynn said.
More than 70 per cent of the farm is shaded with a new hail draping netting technique.
"It's easier to put up, which is good because we're low on staff at the moment," Brad said.
"It's very time consuming and expensive but you get 20 years out of it and it saves us when we get big hail throughout spring.
"There's no edging and so far it hasn't really stopped the bees.
"Birds and bats are a problem for us, but cockies and lorikeets are even worse. No possum trouble though."
The Fankhausers sell about 60 per cent of their produce at the Footscray Market for distribution to green grocers and the other 40 per cent goes to Coles and Woolworths through a larger packing house.
"We have increased the amount we sell to supermarkets as our tonnage has increased.
"We go to the Drouin Farmers' Market as well but that's basically for self-promotion," Brad said.
"It's a community-based company and we like to keep that connection with the community.
"It also helps to educate consumers about our product and us about what they want."
The orchard is planted with 4000 trees a ha, with more than 75,000 trees in total.
"When we started out we bought 4000 trees and planted the whole orchard, now that only plants one hectare," Glynn said.
These days Brad and Glynn plant dwarfing root stocks, which were not available in Australia until 10 years ago.
The condensed trees make it easier to plant intensively.
"There are 120 to 160 apples produced per tree depending on the variety," Brad said.
"This equates to about 456,000 pieces of fruit/ha, all hand-picked."
Employment at Fankhauser Apples fluctuates throughout the year.
"We have four permanent employees and two or three in the shop," Brad said.
"We also have one full-time contractor and 20-30 casuals during picking, thinning and planting.
"They're usually backpackers looking to enjoy themselves."
Brad's wife Darlene and Glynn's wife Liz do the bookwork and wages for the farm.
Of Brad's three children, daughter Isabelle, 8, is the only one showing interest in the farm.
"She seems very interested and is always keen to help her dad out," Brad said.
"Farming is a bit of an adventure I guess.
"Nature can be daunting, but it's a fantastic feeling when you get to the end of the line and have a product that looks and tastes great."
Despite his enthusiasm, Brad said the current state of farming made things difficult.
"It's tough to be a farmer these days," he said.
"You don't get rewarded for doing better or growing more.
"People have lost the idea of what real food is and are too reliant on processed food in supermarkets.
"Consumers don't have any idea what goes into growing an apple."