Dried fruit sales skyrocket as Riverland orchard celebrates centenary


Frank Heward says his father Amos “Jack” probably wouldn’t recognise the orchard he planted 100 years ago.

Just two of the original olive trees – now heritage-listed — that once lined the Monash property in South Australia’s Riverland remain.

Quinces and pecans are also grown on the property, while the fig trees and wine grapes, which were interplanted, stand alone.

“It wasn’t until [Jack] passed away that I was able to get rid of the vines because vines and figs don’t mix,” Frank said.

“They grow up through them and create a lot of work.”

Mr Heward and his family are one of a handful of descendants of soldier-settlers still working on the original farming block.

The family started out by selling dried fruit, but later also moved into glace fruit.

Jack Heward with his wife Margie and workers tend to the orchard’s young trees.(

Supplied: Sue Heward 

)

When Jack passed away in 1970, Frank returned from Western Australia to Monash with his wife Ros and baby daughter Sue.

Frank said he has also dabbled in growing button mushrooms and exported wildflowers to Japan for a decade.

He attributed the longevity of the property to good fortune and his father sticking with figs when others got out of them.

“Dad was one of the few guys that didn’t clear all the Mallee trees away,” he said.

“And we’ve stayed with them.

“Anyone who did clear them has come back and replanted them.”

An old soldier settlement house.
The house that Frank Heward grew up in still stands today. (

ABC Riverland: Eliza Berlage

)

Frank said the introduction of mechanical harvesting and pruning, and improvements to irrigation had been the biggest changes throughout the century.

“It was always a terrible job to have to change the water every two hours to three hours during to watering period,” he said.

“Your water came when they allocated it, instead of now we’re able to ring up and do it on call.”

As to the next 100 years, Frank said because of the large old sized blocks the family would likely move into growing higher value produce when freight prices reduce.

Catering to the city

Frank said he never expected his daughter Sue Heward to come back to the region after moving away.

But after 28 years of global travel, Sue moved with her partner Mark Biram and daughter Frankie from Melbourne to Monash.

Then in 2017 she launched her own gourmet food business, Singing Magpie, using produce from the family orchard.

“She’s certainly seen a market that I was never capable of finding.

“Because of exposure to the city she knew people would be willing to pay that sort of money for the fruit, but we were always on the bulk side.”

A tray lined with different types of dried fruit.
Dried fruit package sales have skyrocketed. (

Supplied: Meaghan Coles

)

Winning awards, being part of shop regional campaigns and the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns have boosted online sales, with Ms Heward flat out packing orders to ship around Australia.

“We’re often packing up to 50 orders a week for Christmas, but this time of the year would normally be quiet,” she said.

When she was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Ms Heward, who is now in remission, said she was initially hesitant to employ more staff to help out.

However, she said stepping back from the production line gave her some much-needed perspective on her role within the business.

Group photo of people wearing hair nets in a fruit packing shed.
In the peak of fig harvest, Frank and Ros employ a team of local pickers and packing shed workers.(

Supplied: Sue Heward

)

Ms Heward said the family had assembled a team of local pickers to get them through the backpacker shortage.

“I did used to pick but I probably won’t in the future because chemo can make you quite UV intolerant,” she said.

“Dad probably won’t want to hear that.”

Ms Heward said being in a low rainfall area, meant it was important to keep finding new ways to operate.

“Pretty much every quince we grow, we use in some way — whether it’s wholesale or sun-dried.

“We also have a sticky quince syrup, which essentially was a waste product.”

With her business continuing to grow, she said the next step was to build a manufacturing shed on the property to accommodate her packing needs.

“We’re working out of a little room in our house right now,” she said.



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