Batlow apple farmers Ralph and Judy Wilson have emerged from the wreckage of 2020 knee-deep in one of the best seasons they’ve experienced in years.
Among the last of the smaller growers in the Batlow region, they’ve been farming apples for nearly 40 years on a block that has produced apples for more than a century. Ralph says the milder summer, timely falls of rain and continued cooler weather have conspired to deliver a jolly jumbo crop, which is a welcome change from the triple whammy of drought, fire and COVID-19.
The apocalypse that was 2019-2020 could have wiped them out, but for one change they made a decade ago.
Ralph is the first to tell you that growing apples is the one job you can work at seven days a week and make no money.
He says it’s a form of madness that compels him to continue growing the fruit.
“It’s a little bit of madness, but it’s my madness,” he quips.
The Wilsons’ route to Wilgro Orchards, with 9.5 hectares of apples and 2.5 hectares of cherries on Batlow Road, unconventionally started in Wagga Wagga as urban life gave way to a quest for a better lifestyle.
“My wife and I were not from farming stock – although we had grandparents who were – but we were living in Wagga Wagga when we bought the block,” says Ralph. “It was always about having a lifestyle we enjoyed.”
A living that helped raise and educate their two daughters through university, the Wilsons have seen the number of apple growers in the region drop from around 75 in 1995 to just 12 growers today.
“The industry has shrunk dramatically in the past 15 years,” explains Ralph. “Kids are not coming back to orchards because there is no profitability, and there are wages they can earn somewhere else.
“My daughters say, ‘Dad, why would we come back and work seven days a week for very little money when we can work five days a week and get paid holidays and that sort of thing?’”
For Ralph, it’s different.
“I don’t need to be working seven days a week, but I am my own boss,” he says. “I get up in the morning and it’s not about going to work. I get up and I want to do this. It’s not about the money, it’s a lifestyle and if you don’t do what you like doing, life isn’t very fulfilling.”
However, Wilgro Orchards is no longer about just apples.
Today, the Wilsons are almost falling over each other to keep up with demand for their natural, alcoholic Batlow Road Cider, a dry brew that sits just ahead of their cherries in terms of popularity.
Wilgro Orchards is one of two producers near Batlow that grows, picks, crushes, ferments, bottles and labels its own brews – the other being Crafty Cider – as the region enjoys a renaissance thanks to Australia’s broadening taste for a wider range of alcoholic beverages.
Boutique compared to the Batlow-branded household names – The Apple Thief and Batlow Cider Co – the mere thought of cider and Batlow attracts visitors to the district from the ACT, NSW and Victoria for the annual Batlow CiderFest, which will be held on 15 May, 2021
The cider route is one Ralph embarked upon several years ago when the family discovered the cost of hail nets was far outweighing the profit from apples.
“We sat down and asked ourselves what we were going to do,” he says. “So we made a plan to value-add with whatever we produced on the farm and sell direct to the public.
“So we started making vinegar, cider, jams, pies and dried fruit. We did up the shop and now we’re a cellar door, doing light meals and coffee.
“That has changed our business quite dramatically. That side is making good money while the other side is dragging the chain.”
But there have been setbacks. The Black Summer bushfires that took out some of their apple trees and fences also took out their cider shed, cider-making equipment and all cider in stock.
COVID-19 delivered another immediate blow with visitors to the farm gate store slowing to a trickle from February to June, 2020.
But a new shed and a 50 per cent increase on pre-bushfire numbers coming through their doors has more than made up for the challenges.
“Diversification has paid off,” says Ralph. “Without it I honestly believe we wouldn’t be here. We’d be living off bread and dripping.”
With apple harvest now mid-season, Ralph is just looking forward to those drizzly days he can spend in the cidery.
In a 2019 article on realciderreviews.com, Hugh McKellar described Batlow Road Cider as the type he had been looking for.
“Something simply made doing a lot with limited apple choice,” he wrote. “Something that plays with wild yeasts, something honest, something that packs in so much flavour.”
Visitors to Batlow CiderFest will have the opportunity to sample this drop and some of the best boutique ciders across the country, as well as local craft beers and cold-climate wines.