Talk about watching the grass grow.
It's damned quiet on Nelson Bay Road during the current COVID pandemic lockdown. Two of the three major avocado farmers at Bobs Farm bought their farms in the last year, and are adjusting to a difficult business climate.
Andrew Hills took over A & B Sandy Hills Premium Avocados operation in November 2020. The business was built on selling to the local restaurant and hospitality trade, Hills says. After finding his feet, and coping with a food industry in dire straits with no tourists coming out of Sydney, Hills is selling his crop through wholesaler Costa, which does a regular run that picks up his fruit.
"Last year was hard," says Hills of his first season. "I was picking, trying to sell. There was a lot of running around. I've got myself on to Costa's now. I have a cool room. I let those guys worry about them, they take small and big [fruit]."
On the very positive side, Hills has a good crop. He's coming out of his Fuerte variety and now into harvesting his Hass avocados.
Of course, there have been strong crops in Queensland and Western Australia, and avocado prices are down for farmers as a result. "You've got to wait for someone to have a bad year to have a good year, " Hills says.
"I don't think we'll get over $1.50 for an avocado," he says.
You can't let it get to you. You've got to be optimistic.Chelsea Neely of Bobs Farm Avocados
Hills has almost 600 trees, although he lost about 100 trees due to flood waters last year. Besides the popular Hass and Fuertes, he's got Reed, Bacon, Sharwil and Zutano varieties.
Sharwils are "real creamy, real big, real nice," Hills says, but the supermarkets don't take them because they bruise too easily.
For Hills, the property is about the farm lifestyle.
"I was a landscaper," he says. "My wife [Bunsom] and I had a grocery shop and takeaway. I laid grass. I was fortunate enough to buy the farm. For us, we just wanted to live on the farm. It's a hobby farm, only when you are picking are you flat out. It's only a couple of days a week, getting rid of weeds."
It will take too long to replace the lost avocado trees and Hills is considering growing vegetables to sell at farmers' markets, and pawpaws.
By gentlemen's agreement, Hills and the second farm along the road do not sell at the roadside stall that belongs to the avocado farm in between them.
That middle property was bought by Chelsea Neely and Joel Graham, the couple moving from King Island in Tasmania to Port Stephens a year ago with their two sons, Mason, 4, and Coen, 3. They opened the business in June this year.
"I wish I had a good news story, but unfortunately, it's has not been great," Neely says. "Eighty per cent of the business comes from Sydney [tourists], and we just sell from the shop. It's been really quiet."
Neely and Graham both have jobs in Newcastle. In Tasmania, Graham worked as a cray fisherman and Neely worked as a photographer.
Their farm has about 300 avocado trees on five acres.
On the positive side, avocados can stay on the tree for about six months, an extremely convenient storage method when there are no customers due to a pandemic.
"It's not worth opening for two or three customers a day, so we are leaving the fruit on the tree," Neely says. "And we hope Newcastle gets out of lockdown."
They are also having a good season, crop-wise, with Hass coming ripe now and running through December, and expecting Sharwils ("they are really creamy, beautiful") in October and Reeds by the end of December.
"We are new, and going off the advice of neighbours and an arborist," Neely says. "But we have a really good crop, in really good condition."
Like their neighbour Andrew Hills, they have other plans. Bobs Farm Avocados will be adding gourmet products, grazing foods and King Island cheeses soon. They've purchased a food truck to operate onsite, and, pending approval, will offer good coffee (Allpress) and gourmet sandwiches.
"We will do egg and bacon rolls, avo with gourmet sandwiches, with King Island products," Neely says, plus steak sandwiches, and vegetarian with avocados, haloumi, rocket and fetta.
"It was part of our vision to do sandwiches, we've probably brought it forward," Neely says. "Hopefully it brings more of local crowd. We want workers to grab a coffee and quick bite to eat. Make it a quick, easy stop for anyone travelling on Nelson Bay Road."
They now offer contactless sales and pick-up of produce (order on instagram).
Of the current conditions, Neely says, "You can't let it get to you. You've got to be optimistic. We have two young kids. You have to set a good example and be positive. It's been a rough start, it's only up from here."