During 1989 the writer undertook an investigation of exotic fruit growing in the Hinchinbrook shire. This was part of a Master of Arts qualifying course in the Geography Department of James Cook University, and is being extended as a more advanced study to the north coast and tablelands this year.

The main aim of the study was the examination of the extent of diversification into exotic fruits, mainly by cane farmers, as a potential means of raising additional income. The investigation covered the following aspects:

• The practical necessity of diversification to offset fluctuations in cane prices;

• assessment of whether exotic fruit growing is making use of marginal lands and lands unsuitable for cane;

• examination of the commercial stage the industry has reached;

• the need to know and understand the main problems;

• necessary inputs and incentives required;

• future prospects, patterns and trends.

Ten farms were investigated. Most had sugarcane as the main crop, and areas of land allocated to exotic fruits ranged from 0.5 to 54 hectares. The exotic fruit tree holdings ranged from one to nine different types, with lychees, closely followed by mangoes, the main fruits. On those farms with a wide variety of fruits, the farmers were merely trialling and selecting the better prospects for the future.

The cultivation of exotic fruits on most farms has taken place since the 1980s and, as of January, 1989, more than half of the farms had fruit trees in the bearing stage. Despite this early introduction, some farms have few mature trees, which would suggest gradual planting and experimentation, as well as a reduction in survival rate due to attacks by pest and diseases.

The majority of farms considered the availability of suitable soils, basically well-drained ones, as important for fruit cultivation, and sandy and stony soils were considered to be much more profitable under fruit than cane. Slopes, especially those that offered adequate drainage, were considered suitable sites. The existence of cool to warm temperatures with an adequate water supply fulfilled the essential needs of a favourable natural environment.

The existence of a well-laid out irrigation system of pipelines and sprinklers is common on all farms. The application of fertilisers on less rich soils, as well as the use of various chemicals like insecticides and herbicides, plays an important role on these farms.

The availability of tractors as well as of different specialised equipment indicates the important function fulfilled by mechanisation.

Diversification into exotic fruits has made use both of marginal land and of former cane land. In this respect, exotic fruit growing has not replaced cane on fertile lands, but has taken up former grazing and tobacco land as well as woodland. The cultivation of exotic fruits has given the farmers an alternative option for the use of land which would be uneconomic under cane. Interestingly enough, the cultivation of fruit trees on river banks and slightly steeper slopes on farms reveals an ecological awareness of the important role that can be provided by trees in reducing soil erosion and the 'greening' of desolate and impoverished areas.

On the marketing side, at least one or two fruit types have been sold mainly in the form of fresh fruit. This dominant outlet channel indicates limited juice sales and the non-existence of a canning industry. Most of the fruit output is sold within the local centres of Ingham and Townsville. Nevertheless, some farmers do send their fruits on a limited basis to Brisbane and Sydney. The volume of fruit harvested is still low, but is likely to rise as orchards mature.

From an economic point of view, most growers indicated positive outcomes with a small profit margin after covering production costs. Despite gloomier early expectations, most farmers are optimistic that their conditions will get better as their orchards mature, permitting larger volumes of production. In their pursuit of this new economic development, most of the help the farmers get is technical advice from the Agricultural Department, the Department of Primary Industries, the Rare Fruits Council and to some extent, local experimentation. Farmers' decisions to take up these fruits were overwhelmingly economic, with the anticipation that they will offer an alternative source of income should cane production drop.

The most important incentives for the growers would be the availability of local and domestic markets, the existence of efficient and reliable transport services, the promotion of fruits locally, a search for external markets and technical advice. Since the industry is in its infancy, the first priority lies in the creation of good and dependable markets both locally and at the national level. The existence of such outlets would ensure and guarantee the farmers' interest in the development of exotic fruits. Closely associated with the availability of local markets is the need for the availability of efficient, reliable, truck and train services from the region to potential market centres. This development would not only enable the delivery of fruits on time but transport of quantities of fruit without the threat of diminishing fruit quality and value.

The promotion of fruit, especially of the most recent entrants e.g. the abiu and sapodilla, is important, as the development of markets will depend on consumers' awareness of the fruits and knowledge of the various recipes in which the fruit could be used. The development of external markets would be another important incentive, especially when more orchards have matured and the volume of production increased. The availability of an external market would be particularly valuable if local markets were glutted by overproduction. As most of the fruits are new entrants into the Australian farm environment, farmers need substantial technical advice on planting techniques and also on the important aspects such as soil, climate, drainage, pruning and the necessary treatment and application of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides.

The major problems facing the infant industry appear to be natural ones, such as the impact of various pests and disease on the trees and the fruits. Unpredictable climatic conditions, especially torrential rain, flooding and extreme temperatures, harm trees. Transport costs are a major economic problem, especially the expenses involving fruits leaving Ingham for Brisbane or Sydney. This also relates to problems concerning the quality of fruit, as most of these fruits are perishable, and they have to be transported in well-protected containers to avoid bruising.

Overall, the research revealed an interest in agricultural diversification within the shire, especially the need for an alternative source of income to compensate for any fluctuation or decline in cane production. The putting into use of marginal lands and those less suited to cane showed how some of these lands could be used profitably under exotic fruits. Despite their recent entry as a commercial commodity, exotic fruits seem likely to play an important role on the farms, given the essential incentives of reliable local and national markets, fruit promotion, the existence of efficient and reliable transport services, the availability of technical know-how, and the development of new external markets.

The results of this research would not have been achieved if it had not been for the contribution and assistance of many people; First, I would like to thank Mr. John Way (previous Chairman of the Rare Fruits Council, Ingham) for his time, provision of transportation to and from the farms, and for establishing contacts with the farmers. Special thanks go to all those farmers who responded positively in the provision of the information that formed the essential data for the research. I hope that their efforts as pioneers of a new agricultural industry in the Herbert area bring them and their district much success. Their assistance has provided a good base of experience for broadening this study, both in terms of the area of North Queensland covered and the detail of the investigation to be undertaken.

Esera Lafi, Department of Geography,
James Cook University, Townsville

DATE: July 1990

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