Q&A with Coles Avocado Farmer Peter Howe

Friday, October 16, 2020

When it comes to growing avocados, you might be stuck between a guac and a hard place. The children at Mount Molloy Primary School have asked the hard questions and thanks to Coles avocado farmer Peter Howe from Rock Ridge Farming in Queensland we now have all the avocado answers.

Did you know avocados are in the same family as cinnamon and bay leaves? Archaeologists have recorded use of avocados as early as 7,000 B.C. in Peru. Smashed, sliced or straight out of the shell, Australian avocados can be enjoyed all year round. Read on to find out all the avoca-do’s and don’ts when it comes to farming the beloved avocado.

Lily, 11
Do you trim the trees so you can reach all of the avocados?
We use a hedging machine which has large spinning blades that chop the branches off the avocado trees. We trim the trees down at the end of each avocado season so that they aren’t too big the following season. However, our avo pickers also use a machine called a ‘cherry picker’ so they can reach the tops of the trees.

Elliot, 10
How much do you harvest each year?
The amount of fruit we harvest depends on different factors such as how cold it gets in winter and how hot it gets in summer. If it gets too cold or too hot, then the fruit can drop off the trees and we can’t sell it. But usually we harvest about 500,000 trays (this is about 10 million avocados each year!). 

Astrid, 10
How do you know when they are ripe enough to pick?
We have to do a special test called a ‘maturity test’ or ‘dry matter test’. This is completed by our local Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. We give them a few of our avocados when we want to start picking and they test the avocado flesh (the part that we eat) to see how mature it is. Maturity is based on the weight of the fruit when it is wet and the weight of the same fruit after it is dried out in the oven. This tells them how creamy the fruit is and if the rest of our crop is ready to pick. If you pick avocados too early, they don’t taste very nice, so we have to make sure they pass the maturity test first.  

Hannah, 12
How much space do you need to leave between the trees?
Different farmers choose to leave different spaces between their trees. At Rock Ridge Farming we leave 12 metres between our trees when we are planting them. This gives them enough space to grow without the other trees blocking their sunlight. All trees need sunlight to stay healthy, so we don’t want to plant the trees so close together that they don’t get enough sunlight.

Holly D, 10
Do you harvest all year round, or just certain times of the year?
When you harvest depends on two things:

1. what type (or variety) of avocados you grow

2. where your farms are.

In Queensland, our Shepard avocados are usually ready to pick in February each year. We pick these for a few months until our Hass avocados are ready, which is usually in April. We are usually finished picking our Hass avocados by the end of July each year. This means that Rock Ridge Farming picks avocados from February to July each year.

However, the time that you pick the avocados varies depending on where you live. For example, Hass avocados in Western Australia usually aren’t ready to pick until August or September each year. This means that when the Queensland growers finish picking their avocados, the Western Australian growers are just starting. This works out well because it means that we get to eat Aussie avocados almost all year round.

It’s funny how much the temperature of a certain area can affect when the fruit is ready to pick. For example, we have a farm in Dimbulah in Far North Queensland where we grow Shepard avocados. These avocados will be ready to pick in late January or early February, but our Shepard avocados on our Tolga farm further south in Queensland take another month to ripen because it is colder in Tolga. 

Xavier, 11
How big are your water tanks?
This is a good question, but we don’t actually have water tanks on our farms. Instead, we have built big dams to hold water that comes from the channel. We have a few dams and in total they hold about 120 megalitres of water. This is enough to fill 48 Olympic swimming pools. However, we rely on water from Tinaroo Dam to water most of our crops. If you filled a big 52-seater school bus with water, this would be enough water to keep one avocado tree healthy for a year. We have about 48,000 avocado trees, so we use about 48,000 school buses of water each year!

Isabel, 10
Do you harvest by hand or machine?
We kind of do both! When we are picking avocados, we have two teams. One team is called the ‘Ground Crew’ and they walk through the paddocks picking the avocados. They usually pick by hand, but sometimes if the fruit is just out of reach, they will use a picking pole to bring the fruit down. The other team is called the ‘Cherry Picker Crew’ and they use a machine called a cherry picker that lifts them into the tops of the avocado trees. They still use their hands to pick the fruit, but they wouldn’t be able to reach it without the help of the cherry picker machine.

Jason, 9
How long does it take to grow an avocado?
Avocados start off as little flowers on the trees. From the time we see these little flowers starting to appear, it can take about six to seven months before they turn into full-sized avocados.

Zayvan, 9
Do you grow different types of avocados?
Yes, we do. We grow Shepard and Hass avocados. They look pretty similar on the trees, but very different once they are ripe. This is because the Hass avocado turns a dark purple colour when it is ready to eat, whereas the Shepard avocado stays green the whole time. My family loves to eat the Shepard avocados, but the Hass avos are more popular in the shops. They taste pretty similar though! 

Jordy, 9
How many tractors do you have?
I love this question because I LOVE tractors. At Rock Ridge Farming we have about 70 tractors. We use the tractors for just about everything, including moving the ‘picking’ trailers with the full avocado bins from the paddocks into the shed, slashing the grass when it gets too long and lifting up the heavy bags of fertiliser to tip into our mixing tanks. I also love collecting old tractors. So far, I have about 10 of these special vintage tractors. These were used by farmers a long time ago. My oldest tractor is 97 years old and my favourite brand of tractor is John Deere. 


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