Life’s sweet: Ben swaps schoolroom for pineapple patch

Grower Ben Clifton, Pineapple Patch, near Yeppoon, QueenslandWhich is more challenging – working with a room of school children or with Mother Nature?
Pineapple farmer, Ben Clifton, has done both and says: ‘Both have their challenges.’

This Yeppoon farmer started his professional life as a physical education teacher but when he married the daughter of a pineapple farmer Ben knew what he must do.
It was a sweet decision, easy to make – he would join the family business and help steer it into the future.
Now Ben, his wife Michelle, together with brother-in-law John Cranny and his wife Colleen, produce a whopping 1.6million pineapples a year.
“Some of the old blokes were getting a bit long in the tooth to keep farming so my brother in-law and I decided to buy one of them out and have a go ourselves. Now they’ve all retired.
“I’d done a bit of of pineapple picking and packing in my younger days and I knew it wasn’t for the faint hearted.”
Urban development was encroaching on the family’s original 700 acre farm, so the search began to find new ground.
Soil type and good drainage were important because, as Ben explains, pineapples don’t like getting their feet wet.
Another important aspect of pineapple farming is to be patient. If you like to see quick progress find another crop – pineapples take four years from planting to fruiting.
“There’s a lot of good experienced farmers in the industry and they’ve all been really happy to share their opinons with us,” says Ben.
Flowering pineapples at 18 months“We’ve turned a cattle block into a pineapple block which has been massive work.”
While the family harvests pineapples year round their peak production time is in January and February.
In years gone by many of the pineapples growing the region found their way into a can but consumer demand for fresh fruit has changed that.
That’s led to innovations in varieties and the way pineapples are sold. A big proportion are now sold with the tops off which is a win-win for cutomers and famers.
The tops are retained and planted for the next round of crops, while customers find topless pineapples more manageable.
“Over the last 50 to 60 years a massive proportion of our fruit went to Golden Circle,” says Ben.
“We’d always have those tops left over to plant. Only a quarter of our fruit went to the fresh market. Times have changed now and most farms are geared more towards the fresh industry so retaining that planting material is really important to us.
“That said, people still love to use a pineapple as a display fruit and they want the top on it.”
Like most farm businesses this one has experienced its own challenges. Labour and input costs are rising so much so that the family has looked towards mchanisation and better use of science to ensure they give their plants the food they need exactly when it’s needed.
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