Producer extends business to Allora to boost numbers
AN OPPORTUNITY to extend their vegetable growing season motivated a Lockyer Valley family to expand over the range.
The Qualischefski family began leasing farm land around Allora in 2005 to take advantage of a change in climate, which extended the season for their primary crops by up to four weeks.
This year they have 80ha of leased country under onions and another 160ha committed to broccoli.
We are getting reasonable yields but prices are average and we are getting between $500 and $600 a tonne.
When the Bush Tele caught up with Brad Qualischefski this week, he was overseeing the hand harvesting of onions on the West Talgai paddocks his family farm outside Allora.
He is a regular in the area now travelling up the range to keep a handle on the western edge of the business he runs with his parents Glenda and Russell and brother Troy.
Close to 300 pickers were in action for this year's harvest, picking the brown and red onions into laundry baskets, before tipping them into bins to truck back to the family's Qualipac packing sheds at Gatton.
Time was of the essence for harvest with the family keen to take advantage of a narrow window when Queensland can supply the nation's onions, before produce from southern states comes on line.
"We primarily grow onions and broccoli, along with some other vegetable crops," Mr Qualischefski said.
He said his family had opted to expand its operation to the Southern Downs because of the region's proximity to their Gatton base, as well as its increased elevation and cooler summer temperatures.
"The different climate allows us to extend our season by three to four weeks which, hopefully, allows us to sell our onions ahead of some of the southern states," Mr Qualischefski said.
"Onions are bigger in tonnage but smaller in acreage.
"We work on yields of 25-35 tonne per acre of onions, compared with three tonne an acre of broccoli."
The broccoli season goes for nine months of the year, with the family committed to producing 80/100t of broccoli a week for Woolworths.
Prices for the popular green vegetable have been "very good", sitting at around $2/kg as a result of a market shortage.
"What often determines prices is the seasonal situation in the southern states," Mr Qualischefski said.
On the local front it has been a dry season - although both crops are under irrigation - but "a cool spring and heavy frosts" played havoc with the growing season.
"Onions don't mind the drier climate," he said.
"So we are getting reasonable yields but prices are average and we are getting between $500 and $600 a tonne."
The family has contracts to supply about 500 tonnes of onions a week, primarily to major supermarkets and central markets.
"Gone are the days when you can plant a crop without knowing where you are going to sell it," Mr Qualischefski said.
"We employ someone to handle our marketing.
"So we have produce contracts but our vegetables are not forward sold in the sense we don't have a pre-agreed price."
While the family started harvesting onions the first week of September in Gatton, the picking is only in its second week at Allora.
"Depending on the weather we should finish the week before Christmas," he said.
The family relies heavily on hundreds of pickers who come in to help with hand harvest.
"Around 90% of Australian onions are mechanically harvested," he explained.
"But Queensland weather conditions and the soil types make it difficult.
"If it is wet, it is impossible to get machinery onto these heavier soils.
"We also have a limited time frame of about eight to 10 weeks to take advantage of the market before the southern onions come on.
"So by hand harvesting we reduce drying time and preparation before processing."
And the contract workers, who arrived in their droves with hand shears and laundry baskets, regularly hand clip around 400 tonnes a day, roughly 6-8ha.
"We have two contractors who bring in teams of pickers and they work at their own pace and stop whenever they want too," Mr Qualischefski said.
"Most start about 4.30am and finish about 6pm and we pay on a bin rate.
"Hand picking is an expensive exercise for us as farmers but, at the moment, we believe it is the most efficient way to get our produce onto the market."
Like every element of the family's Qualipac business, close attention is paid to costs and profit margins.
"We lease country around Allora because it works for us to do it that way as opposed to buy.
"What is critical to our arrangements is water because both crops are under irrigation."
So far the "over the range" expansion had worked well.
"At the start I was up here overseeing every stage of the crop but, in the last year or so, we have put someone on fulltime here and it has made it easier.
"We also have an agronomist on site at least once a week.
"So, for us, it works.
"It's been a worthwhile move."