Margot Black jokes that her family is ‘living the watermelon dream.’
If it’s whinging farmers you’re after don’t stop here, this QLD farming couple are the antithesis of that.
During the June/July school holidays Margot and husband Mike pack up their four children (aged 11 to 5) their three dogs and two cats and travel the 3300km from their Oakey farm, Ruby Downs, to their farm Northern Territory farm, Early Storms.
“It’s a bit of a mission but we get into it and do it in 2.5 days,” says Margot.
“There’s always a drama. One year one of the cats did a poo in the car within 3km of home. Another year the pup chewed the two-way wires. Another time we camped overnight and it rained and our tent flooded. Mike and I laugh and say ‘ear plugs and head phones work a treat.’”
For the next five months the Blacks base themselves in the Territory, where they grow watermelons on a farm that’s 220km from Darwin, and where the Black children take the local school numbers to 11.
The pair is behind the Ruby Red Farming melon brand and produce up to 15,000 tonnes of seedless melons each year for the Australian and New Zealand markets.
“We’re crazy watermelon growers,” jokes Margot.
“Had you asked me 10 years ago ‘Would you let your kids change schools and trip around?’ I would have said, ‘No way, never. I believe in consistency.’
“But the kids love it, they really do. The kids lead such a diverse life. I really feel they lead two extreme lives through the people they meet, the climactic changes and their schooling.
“They’re very adaptable and I love the life we lead, I really do. I’m extremely passionate about it.”
This nomadic life chasing the melon season was never part of the plan for this rural couple.
Both grew up in the country – Margot on a cattle and grain farm new Jandowae and Mike on a cattle farm between Kingaroy and Chinchilla.
Mike was a skilled cricketer, playing Brisbane A-grade and a few seasons in England.
But a horse riding accident put an end to his cricket career and to his horse riding.
Margot says Mike realised the market for seedless watermelons was an attractive one and had much more appeal to him than cattle.
He met Margot, a UQ agribusiness graduate, and shared his passion for melons with her.
Together they have built their business and pride themselves on producing high-quality, well-presented fruit.
“I run our packing shed and I aim for consistency in production and quality,” says Margot.
“I’m a big one for first impressions last. I want the consumer to be thrilled with Ruby Red Melons and to know what they’re going to get.”
Having farms in two states is all about spreading the risk. Margot says they could certainly survive off the income of just the QLD farm but they believe by supplying from two states they not only increase their market share, they also maintain consistent supply for longer and that gives them a competitive advantage.
“We’ve got a little motto – ‘Step up or step aside,’” she says.
“I did an ag degree and was very keen for ag. Meeting Mike and doing it together we have made it happen. We always say we’re very much a team and have the same goals. He wouldn’t do this without me and I without him.
“We choose what we do. We don’t have to do these crazy hours or live this crazy life but we only live once and we want to make the most of it.”
Locale: 971ha at Oakey QLD and 687ha at Douglas Daly in the Northern Territory
Sells: Through the central markets around Australia and export to New Zealand
Varieties: Storm and Maxima seedless watermelons
Season: August to mid November in the Territory and December to May in QLD
Staff: 8 to 10 in the packing shed and 10 to 15 in the harvest crew. Plus a handful of permanent staff.
Paddock to Plate
QLD season: In QLD we generally start planting in September. We aim for a mid December production to hit the QLD market.
Seed: our seed comes from America and Israel. Our main varieties are Storm and Maxima. Over the years we’re tried plenty of varieties. Maxima is extremely new. We’re always looking for something that the consumer likes. Maxima is a much richer red than the other varieties we had been growing.
Seedlings: We plant seedlings into the ground. They are grown by Withcott Seedlings and are delivered to us in the Territory and to Oakey.
Preparation: Before the seedlings go into the ground we lay drip tape and plastic mulch and put fertilizer under the mulch.
Plant: We use a water wheel for planting. It spikes a hole in the plastic, drops some water into it and then a person sitting in a hessian sling seat drops the seedling into the ground and gives the dirt a bit of compression. In a year we use 330,000 seedless plants and 165,000 pollinated plants.
Pollinator: We need a pollinator and the bees to flower the seedless. If the melon price is high we will harvest the pollinator (seeded melons) but usually they get left in the paddock.
Bees: We hire bees to do the pollinating. We hire about 500 hives a year. We bring them in at a certain time, just as the plant is flowering. The bees do their job and five weeks later there will be melons to pick.
Fruit: The fruit emerges behind the flower, just like pumpkins. The bee has to go back to the same flower five or six times to make it fruit.
Weather: On the whole watermelons need good, dry, warm conditions. They don’t like a heap of wind and they don’t like a heap of rain. Our irrigation is very high tech and all automated. We use moisture probes in the soil and check them six times a day via the internet to see where the crop is at. Nothing is left to chance.
Harvest: We have contract picking staff who come in, pick the fruit off the ground and put it onto a conveyer belt into a trailer of bins. The fruit is sized and checked for quality.
Price: The average return to farm for seedless melons is between 70c and 80c/kg. This year in the Territory we’ve experienced some great prices, up over $2/kg. There are plenty of peaks and lows, that’s why we aim for eight to ten months of production.
The Big Issue: There are always challenges. The climactic conditions are out of our control. They’re just normal farming issues – we could all live in a casino, we’re constant gamblers. We choose what we do and we love feeding Australia. We get great satisfaction from that. In the Territory the management and accessibility of freight is challenging. To help alleviate this we own and operate a refrigerated triple road train between Brisbane and Darwin.
Secret to Success: Never give up. Appreciate the sunrises and accept the sunsets. Appreciate every moment.