Coming to Tasmania was a bold move for avocado growers from Western Australia, but Paul and Maria Bidwell have proven the doubters wrong. Karolin MacGregor reports
WHEN Paul and Maria Bidwell moved to Tasmania in 2009 they set themselves the challenge of becoming the state’s first commercial avocado growers.
Six years after they planted the first avocado trees on their North Motton property they have well and truly achieved that goal, with the rich red basalt soils and mild climate proving ideal for avocado production.
Mr Bidwell said they became interested in moving to Tasmania after holidaying here in 2006. The couple ran a successful avocado-production business in Western Australia for about 25 years, but after their children left for the eastern states they decided it was time to move and downsize.
Mr Bidwell said after researching different areas of the state, it was the top-quality soils in the North-West that appealed to them.
Despite encountering a fair degree of scepticism about growing avocados on a commercial basis here, the couple have proved the doubters wrong. Not only have their trees been growing at an unexpected rate, the amount of fruit is much higher than predicted too.
“We looked into the market here and realised there weren’t any commercial- scale producers, so we thought there would be an opportunity to supply locally grown fruit into the artisan-type market,” Mr Bidwell said. “We didn’t know from a supply-and-demand situation how that was going to go.”
The couple are selling their avocados at the Launceston Harvest Market and have also joined the Fork to Fork online network.
They now have 1260 trees spread over 3ha of orchard and Mr Bidwell said production levels were far higher than they had anticipated.
“They have just gone crazy,” he said.
“The amount of growth we’re getting and the fruit production is much more than we would have expected for trees which are still very young.”
Across the industry average production per hectare is 8 to 10 tonnes.
He said judging by how the trees were performing, that would definitely be achievable in Tasmania too.
Despite a reputation as a tropical species, Mr Bidwell said avocados actually grew in the highland areas in their region of origin, so they do need a chill period during winter to set them up for flowering and fruiting.
Though susceptible to severe frost, Mr Bidwell said the trees handled chilly conditions quite well.
Avocados are affected by heat stress once temperatures reach more than 30C, so the mild North-West summer conditions suit them well.
The main variety in the Bidwells’ orchard is Hass. They also have a small number of Bacon trees used as pollinators andseveral Reed varieties to see how they perform.
About 0.5ha of the orchard is under netting in an experiment to help protect the trees against wind.
A major benefit this season has been a significant increase in pollination with bees confined to the netted area. Mr Bidwell estimates this has potentially doubled the production of trees in the netted area for next season.
“This is the first time I know of anyone growing avocados under netting, so it really is unique and we’re very interested to see how it goes.”
Avocado trees in Tasmania flower in November-December and this is a crucial time for fruit set. Mr Bidwell said this year’s warm and dry spring had been ideal.
The fruit takes 14-15 months to grow and mature so the couple will harvest fruit from the 2015 spring flowering until January next year. Each tree has two years of fruit on it at the one time.
Unlike most avocado producers, the Bidwells leave their fruit on the trees until fully mature. This ensures the avocados have a high oil content, which produces a rich creamy texture.
“The advantage we have here is that because we’re selling into the local market, we can pick the fruit when it is at its peak quality and that makes a big difference to the flavour and the texture,” Mr Bidwell said.
“Because most of the fruit here is brought in from other states, a lot of people probably haven’t even tasted an avocado that has been allowed to fully mature naturally on the tree.”
Once mature, the fruit will not ripen until it is picked. This means the Bidwells can leave fruit on the trees and harvest them when needed.
Mr Bidwell said in hot climates such as Queensland, the oil content caused the fruit to go rancid if left on the trees.
“Here it’s like they are in a suspended state, the quality stays the same even once they’re fully mature.”
Because of the cooler climate Mrs Bidwell said it took about 10-14 days for the avocados to ripen once harvested — something they have been educating their customers about.
Tasmania is also relatively free of pests and diseases for avocados.
Demand for avocados across the country has been increasing steadily thanks to marketing by industry body Avocados Australia. This, combined with cyclone damage to some Queensland orchards and the push from major supermarket chains for locally grown fruit, has seen prices recently skyrocket.
“They have done a very good job of marketing and that has definitely boosted demand,” Mr Bidwell said.
“Avocados have really gone from a luxury item to a staple.”
Because of their ability to grow two lots of fruit at once, Mr Bidwell said the trees required careful nutrient management. Moisture-monitoring technology has been installed around the orchard and nutrition is managed through fertigation.
Mr Bidwell has weather stations across the orchard to prevent frost damage and to record wind speeds.
He said soil quality was critical for avocados and this was likely why their trees performed so well. The Bidwells will be harvesting fruit right though until April this season.