Outback Queensland fruit and vegetable growers buck agricultural trend

Quintessential Queenslander homes line the streets of Winton, but standing out among the timber and tin is a backyard orchard teeming with delicious produce.

When date growers Gary and Josie Doak bought their run-down home in the outback town a decade ago, there was not a single tree on the property.

“We planted 40-odd tissue culture date trees just on four years ago here,” Mr Doak said.

“We were surprised actually when we got fruit last year.”

Their backyard business has since blossomed to almost 100 date trees and the Doaks hope it will one day produce 10 different varieties of the fruit.

In this drought-declared shire in central west Queensland, the couple has had to make every drop of water count.

When night falls, a dripper irrigation system with electronic timers comes on, allowing them to control how much water is applied and for how long.

Evaporation of precious water is further reduced by covering the soil around the trees with mulch.

Despite the lengths they have gone to to drought-proof their plantation, Mr Doak said he was always confident they would see the fruits of their labour.

“We knew it was going to work because we’ve seen it in the Middle East; we’ve been in drier, more arid environments than this,” he said.

“It’d be great to see the small towns become more self-sufficient in locally produced foods because that will reduce our reliance on other places, on the travelling involved, on the costs involved, even if it’s only seasonal.

“It’s been well established that the Chinese market gardens had fantastic gardens on the stations well over 100 years ago, so it certainly can be done.”

Mr Doak will head overseas in March next year with Shaun O’Connor, a fellow date grower from Alice Springs, to study practices used in India, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Israel.

Growing groves
More than seven hours’ south in Charleville, where a nearby olive grove has joined the ranks of the world’s best, hundreds of date palms grow in the south-west Queensland soil.

Outback Date Farm owner and operator Mark Hampel, who is also the local Lutheran Pastor, said the outback was ripe for cultivating crops like dates.

“I have always thought there were huge possibilities,” Pastor Hampel said.

“I love them, they’re amazing plants that live in the most hostile environments, on the sandiest soil, in the worst water you can imagine, in an intense heat, and they produce a beautiful fruit, which is in high demand at a very high price too because it takes a fair bit to produce.”

With 430 date trees in the ground, and another 120 almost ready to plant, Pastor Hampel shares the Doaks’ passion for creating a more self-sufficient outback when it comes to produce.

“I’ve always thought it’d be a good supplement for a grazing property because, when the drought is on and there’s no rain, that’s the best time for dates because they don’t really like rain,” he said.

“When you’re looking for an income stream in the off seasons, you could put in a few hundred date palms and learn how to grow them, and you would have a market.”

Diversification during drought
Ben Lyons’ family moved from a mixed grazing business in western Queensland to horticulture 20 years ago.

He has since become the Director of the Rural Economies Centre of Excellence, and said the practice was steeped in outback history.

“It does have a heritage with the Chinese market gardens,” Mr Lyons said.

“That was our first foray into isolated regional production of horticulture, but that was more vegetable-focused than fruit.”

But growing produce in the outback has ts challenges.

“It’s a relatively high-intensity labour requirement, and you have market access challenges in how close are you to the larger metro places,” Mr Lyons said.

“Energy can also be an issue, but the advent of the battery and solar has been a positive.

“It’s a different market and totally different way of operating, and that culture or understanding of a business is also a big hurdle.”