27 July 2022

Wet weather and floods land pumpkin grower in the soup

| John Thistleton
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Pumpkin farmer holding a pumpkin

Luke Bartlett with some of his pumpkins. Although the yield was low, he still has plenty to sell. Photo: Ben Latham.

Amid spiralling vegetable prices, it’s almost jarring to see a wheelbarrow full of plump Queensland blue pumpkins selling for only $5 a pop.

But it’s not a glut of pumpkins that has triggered the sale – it’s a fast-closing optimal window on the produce.

“They start to break up at this time of the year,” district farmer Luke Bartlett said.

From Brayton, a settlement between Marulan and Goulburn, Luke has once again turned to his mates in Goulburn, Wayne and Ann Horder, to help offload his pumpkins quickly.

There’s a wheelbarrow loaded with them out the front of their home on Union Street and plenty more pumpkins waiting in the shed to go on sale.

The Horders began helping Luke about a decade ago, offering to put his freshly-dug veggies on their front verandah. In the years since they have helped him through the highs and lows of the seasons and markets.

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Old picture of farmers in machinery digging potatoes

Luke’s grandfather and grandmother digging potatoes in 1977. Photo: Supplied.

Three years ago when supermarkets’ fresh produce stocks dropped alarmingly during COVID-19, the Horders urged Luke to bring in his potatoes.

When he arrived with a truckload, a crowd of eager shoppers swelled on the edge of the road so swiftly police were called to sort out the congestion.

“He just works so hard,” Ann said. “He has been around here at 8 pm dropping off produce and he is just finishing work.”

Luke grows his veggies in the deep loamy sand along the Wollondilly River flats. He has lost count of the floods that have swept through his crops this year.

“Sometimes we plant along the river because we run livestock here as well,” he said.

“We had a lot of run-off coming into the paddocks, washing big gutters through them.”

Although his pumpkin and potato yields are down, the quality has been good.

“We had to get rid of them at a lower cost to try and cover our costs,” he said.

But he perseveres and will soon begin another season of planting a wide variety of potatoes. He will plant cauliflower and sweet corn later in the year and he also grows carrots, garlic and onions.

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The secret to growing quality veggies is looking after them, according to Luke. He sells much of his produce at the Capital Region Farmers Market at Exhibition Park in Canberra and two fruit shops on the South Coast.

“Since the drought’s broken it’s been a tough year,” he said.

“We prefer a dry year because we have more control growing the crop, we have irrigation here, we can control how much water we need to give the crop. Once we have a wet year like this, the weather just breaks your heart.”

Pumpkins in a wheelbarrow and a sign that reads $5

Pumpkins on sale in Union Street, Goulburn. Photo: John Thistleton.

Luke said high input prices like diesel, fertilisers, chemicals and packaging costs are causing some growers to quit.

He has one other person, Ben Latham, working for him and said few people are willing to put in the hard yakka.

“There is always something different every year in the vegetable game,” he said. “You don’t have a crop until it is out of the ground, then you have to pack it and on-sell it.”

Each season brings challenges.

“Timing in different years changes,” Luke explained. “Trying to time when you have to get the weeds out, fertilise, watering, your roster always changes around the weather. You might be going to fertilise next week but cannot get into the paddock; it’s too wet. So you are on the back foot sometimes.”

Luke does not compare his prices with supermarket prices. Instead, he heroes one simple value – fairness.

“If you have a fair price people will always come back because they know they are getting something good,” he said.

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