By ERWIN CHLANDA
The Rocky Hill vineyard last year produced 1000 tonnes of table grapes. At $3 to $4 a kilogram that’s worth $3m to $4m.
Undoolya Station produces 1000 tonnes of beef a year. At $1.50 to $1.80 a kilo that’s worth $1.5m to $1.8m.
The grapes are grown on 70 hectares, the beef on 140,000 hectares.
Is there a message?
Sure looks like it: go horticulture!
The pioneering Hayes family, who in 1907 took over Undoolya, just to the east of Alice Springs, can write the book on cattle as well as grapes.
Growing plants there, strictly speaking, dates back to the days of the NT’s first Chief Minister, Paul Everingham, who encouraged cattlemen to apply for freehold plots on their pastoral leases. Ted Hayes got a block south-east of Alice Springs, straddling a major ground water basin.
It was first used for growing lucerne grass, cattle and horse fodder. The idea of growing grapes there came from a grower operating in the TiTree region in 2000.
That didn’t work out, and neither did putting in a manager. So Ritchie Hayes (pictured) rolled up his sleeves and switched careers from raising cattle to growing grapes.
The good news was that Rocky Hill grapes are ready for picking in December, in time for Christmas tables in the big cities.
That’s well before the grapes “down south” are ripe.
The bad news was that the industry he went into was full of traps set by the buyers: the grapes, so he was told, weren’t good enough. They didn’t come on time. The market had just dropped. And so on.
Mr Hayes found a solution to that: he appointed as his agent a Mildura-based grape grower and trader with massive store rooms n in Mildura and Sydney. These are largely empty when the Rocky Hill grapes come off the vines.
This agent can now stage the release onto the market of the grapes when the time and the price are right.
With these arrangements in place Mr Hayes could begin to focus on production – from scratch. He and his small crew – three or four people outside pruning and picking times – cleared the land, built the trellises and planted the vines.
And they did it on a massive scale.
There are now 67,320 vines in 132 rows, each 1.25 km long. Put end to end they would almost reach TiTree. More than 800 kilometers of wire is strung out on the trellises.
To get electricity onto the block cost $1m. A bore costs $140,000, and there are two of them. That’s not counting the cost of pumps and reticulation.
What you put into your shopping trolley is actually put together in the vineyard by the pickers: bunches of grapes are placed into boxes or bags as they are snipped off the vines. The containers are then transported to a shed for quality inspection. From there they go into coolrooms and are chilled to 1.5 degrees C, exactly. Freezing them would harm or destroy them.
The boxes, stacked about two metres high, in the early morning when it is still cool, are fork-lifted into refrigerated pantechs for transport to Mildura.
The timing of the picking is crucial: once they’re off the vine grapes don’t ripen further. Sour grapes is what you have when you get it wrong.
There are two times of high activity: pruning, needing about 20 people mid-year for a few weeks, and picking, needing about 60 people – 40 pickers and 20 shed hands – for a month, transporting the boxes from the vineyard, checking quality and stacking the pallets in the coolrooms.
The labour issues are instructive on local sociology. Mr Hayes says it’s no secret that there are hundreds of unemployed people in Alice Springs and St Teresa – each about 50 kms from Rocky Hill: “Not one of them has put up his hand for a job.” (See break-out below.)
The pruners and pickers are each year recruited from a contract labour firm in Mildura. These days they are usually Asians. They make their own way to Alice Springs, some 2000 kms. They stay at the workers’ quarters, look after their own food and are paid by the box.
They start work before sunrise and knock off after sunset. They are great workers, says Mr Hayes.
At times the camp is raided by police and immigration officers, several carloads, looking for illegal immigrants. Only one suspect has ever been found.
It is not known if Centrelink is investigating local dole recipients not making themselves available for the work. (Alice News Online has asked Centrelink to let us know.)
The handsome profit potential of Rocky Hill has a flipside, requiring nerves of steel to stay in the business. Just one rainstorm at the wrong time, or hail, worse still, can ruin an entire crop in a few hours. The grapes would split open and be unsalable. A year’s work would be down the gurgler.
Mr Hayes says he now has plastic sheets to cover the entire vineyard if rain is threatening. One year he had a low flying helicopter crisscrossing the vineyard to blow-dry the grapes.
The overall success of the venture is a powerful lesson of how horticulture could be a boom for The Centre and put an end to the notorious welfare dependency of Aboriginal people.
This applies especially to that half of the country that is held under Aboriginal freehold.
It’s around 500,000 square kilometers of Central Australia.
A well informed source says these Aboriginal owners would not have to deal with two major obstacles. Anyone seeking conversion of sections of pastoral leases to freehold suitable for horticulture now faces negotiations with native title holders that could last a decade. On the face of it Aboriginal owners would not be fettered by that – because they themselves would be the owners of the land. Nor would they have to battle with sacred sites custodians, for the same reason.
And secondly, a conversion from pastoral lease would not be needed because Aboriginal land granted under Land Rights is already freehold.
Aboriginal horticulturalists would still need to run the gauntlet of seeking permits for land clearing and preparing reports on weed management, erosion risk, feral animal management. A water license would need to be applied for.
But these are minor hurdles in contrast to the resolution of social problems that have dogged the region for decades.
(Alice Springs News Online has asked Centrefarm, linked to the Central Land Council, about its activities and projects. We will report on those when they come to hand.)
Photo below: A few hundred cabbages and cauliflowers are a nice sideline.
From our archive:
June 7, 2000: LAND COUNCIL SEEKS GROUND BREAKING DEAL. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
August 8, 2001: ABORIGINAL CITRUS DEAL AT UTOPIA FALLS THROUGH.
When spin becomes an artform
We tried to find out why year after year, contract pickers and pruners have to be brought in from 2000 kms away while there are hundreds of unemployed people within 50 kms of Rocky Hill. Here is an excerpt from our email correspondence.
News Online to Centrelink:
The Rocky Hill table grapes operation needs pruners and pickers once a year, some 20 and 40 people, respectively. They are getting no applications from Alice Springs nor St Teresa. What initiatives does Centrelink have to refer unemployed people to that opportunity, which would save paying some benefits?
Centrelink Media to News Online:
Job Services Australia providers in Alice Springs are the appropriate organisations to direct your query to. Centrelink assists job seekers by providing:
• information about Job Services Australia providers and services
• a referral service to Job Services Australia providers
• employment self help facilities to help job seekers with their job search efforts.
Job seekers claiming Newstart, Youth Allowance or Parenting Payment (with participation requirements) will immediately be referred to a Job Services Australia provider at their first contact with Centrelink to help them find employment.
Job Services Australia is a national network of organisations dedicated to helping job seekers to find and sustain employment.
Job Services Australia gathers vacancies from employers and matches the skills and experience of job seekers to job vacancies.
News Online to Centrelink:
Thank you for your email. I directed my enquiry to you because, on the face of it, it is Centrelink that is paying money to people who have an opportunity to work. If that is so, then the Job Services Australia providers aren’t doing their job. But it’s not they who are paying out public money, it’s Centrelink. This, it seems to me, is where the buck stops.
Centrelink Media to News Online:
I’d advise to you to contact the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations if you would like additional comments for your story. Our role is explained in the lines Candice provided yesterday afternoon, and as such we can’t comment on the work of the providers – this would be for DEEWR to address.
News Online to DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations):
Hi … see our report at www.alicespringsnews.com.au and the email exchange below. Be great to finally get some answers!
DEEWR Media to News Online:
As discussed, I’m not sure what information I could give you that would assist you in your story more than you have already received.