HOPEFUL: Pinata’s Stanthorpe farm manager Sean Riley has his fingers and toes crossed the season holds firm until May.
HOPEFUL: Pinata’s Stanthorpe farm manager Sean Riley has his fingers and toes crossed the season holds firm until May. Emma Boughen

Strawberry season far from ideal

STANTHORPE strawberry growers sweated out this summer season as temperatures soared to record heights.

At the start of the season in August last year Stanthorpe welcomed four new growers expecting to take advantage of Stanthorpe's renowned 'cold country' summer.

What they actually got were scorching heatwaves followed by flooding downpours.

Although Pinata was one of the operations to break new ground, their farm manager Sean Riley has five years in Stanthorpe under his belt already.

"Everyone got hit pretty hard," Mr Riley said.

"I've not seen a weather pattern like this in Stanthorpe before."

Picking started in late September, a spring plagued by uncharacteristically high temperatures.

"The heat stress meant the plants struggled to get enough root structure," Mr Riley said.

"The fruit we were getting was very small. You want your fruit to do a lot of growing in the spring."

Instead, the plants retreated into a vegetative state, growing out runners instead of fruit and flowers.

279.4mm of rain fell on the Granite Belt during December, accounting for almost one third of the region's 2014 total, essentially drowning the plants.

"We had just started to see a turnaround in early December when the rains hit," Mr Riley said.

"We managed to still get some yield but the plants were spoilt.

"The rain meant a lot of soft fruit, and a lot of wastage."

Yield was reduced from a pick of around five tonnes per day at the beginning of the season down to about two tonnes per day by mid-December.

"I wasn't worried as it was just a matter of time," Mr Riley said.

While the hot days weren't ideal, it was the hot nights that proved the real challenge.

"The flower doesn't fill out and the fruit grows smaller so it's no good to us," Mr Riley said.

"We need larger, marketable fruit."

Last week Pinata pickers reached approximately six tonne a week.
Last week Pinata pickers reached approximately six tonne a week.

To survive, Mr Riley said the team changed up their practices and took a few risks.

"This time it paid off," he said.

"Our practice this time around was a bit different to a normal season but we had nothing to lose."

Implementing overhead sprinklers to keep the fruit cooler was one simple tool.

It took the plants four to five weeks to start producing saleable size fruit in good quantities again.

Last week they reached six tonne per day from their 250,000 plants.

As the temperature drops now though, so too will yields and with just over three months left until the season ends in May, growers are hoping current conditions hold firm.

"We should hopefully see consistent yield from here on out," Mr Riley said.

"It was a tough start-up for Pinata but we weren't expecting miracles in our first season.

"One thing we can't control is the weather."

When the Stanthorpe season comes to an end for Pinata their Waymuran property on the north coast will kick in.

In preparation for next year the Stanthorpe property has prepared a further nine hectares of ground ready for planting in May, setting aside five hectares for a rest season.

Pinata currently has on staff 25 packers and 40 pickers.
Pinata currently has on staff 25 packers and 40 pickers.

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