Sweet success

The persimmon may not be the most common fruit grown in Australia but its popularity is certainly on the rise. The bright orange exotic has been grown in China for centuries and while the original strain was very astringent in taste, the sweeter variety has proved to be quite popular and far more widely grown.

Chris Stillard has a 6ha persimmon orchard on his 160ha Barooga farm, ‘Marboc’. Much of the other area is set aside to grow lucerne, and he said the two enterprises combine remarkably well.“The lucerne and the orchard activities don’t clash. By the time I finish cutting and baling, it’s time to start picking.“I’ll be harvesting lucerne up until Christmas, and after the break I can focus on the persimmons so it works out perfectly.”Mr Stillard’s persimmons mature in late April to May, although across Australia the picking season starts anywhere from mid-March and finish in the depths of winter, around late June.“They are not hard to grow but the challenge is in getting good quality, commercial sized fruit with no marks or damage from bugs or fruit fly over that long production period,” he said.“It’s really fulfilling and a big confidence booster when we get feedback from buyers on our product.“It’s something we take pride in, providing a good product gives the market, seller and us a boost.”The long maturing season sees the fruit demand more water than stone fruit. Mr Stillard estimated in a normal year he pours about 89 megalitres per hectare on the trees. He said that volume has increased this year due to the dry conditions.Much of ‘Marboc’ has a slightly sodic sandy loam and heavy clay soils with a pH around 5.5. In a normal year it receives about 450mm of mostly winter rain.“Our yield this year is looking good. Apart from some small hail damage the fruit is growing nicely.“We have good fruit soil in Barooga, and it’s good for other crops too.”Mr Stillard mainly grows sweet persimmons — Jiro, which ripens earlier (late April to mid-May), and Fuyu (May to June). Planting distances for persimmons vary. Dwarf cultivars can be planted at 5m by 2.5m, or 800 trees per hectare, and semi-dwarf cultivars such as Fuyu at 5m by 3m, or 660 trees per hectare. Trees can reach 15m in height, but Mr Stillard said he keeps his at 4m for easy harvesting.“We prune twice a year, when the plant is dormant in winter, and a few months before picking in January and February.”Mini sprinklers are used for irrigation, watering mainly from September to May. All trees are grown on a trellis structure.“This helps me to generally manage my trees better and it does mean that I can get a commercial crop quicker. I have found the tree structure and the wires help support fruit load.“Trellising might be a lot more expensive to set up, but you do get an earlier return on your money.”Mr Stillard’s orchard yields about 17t/ha on average, and can gross up to $80,000/ha on a good year. Persimmons tend to be a biannual bearing crop, which means they crop heavy one year and less the next. Trees take up to five years from planting to bear fruit, and to ensure the security and longevity of his farm, Mr Stillard has trees ranging from three years old to 25 years.“The key is to monitor the fruiting of the older trees. We don’t replace them but cut them back.“There’s nothing better for producing good fruit than a young tree.”Last season the business planted another 1500 trees in addition to the 5000 mature trees already established in the orchard. Another hectare of trees will be added in 2021.The seasonal conditions play a large role in the production of persimmons, with cold weather finishing a crop as it nears maturity in the Southern Riverina. Cooler temperatures help to colour and add flavour to the fruit. Although the cold nights are essential for their ripening and appearance, like most fruits they are at high risk of frost damage.“One year we did lose a lot, maybe 100 tonnes of fruit, when we had an early frost in October. That was a loss of $250,000.”That prompted a $60,000 investment in a frost fan, which can protect about 16ha. The Barooga-grown fruit is supplied to markets in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Mr Stillard also offers a limited export run of his production to Singapore and Malaysia. He said buyers also send some of his product to the Middle East region.There are about 80 persimmon growers Australia wide, and Mr Stillard described his business as middle-sized.“My uncle began growing persimmons after a lot of research about 25 years ago,” Mr Stillard said.“When he retired, I leased the place for five years and then took over the management.”“The bulk of lucerne hay I produce is sold to dairy farmers, but I also do a small number of small square bales for the horse market.“I prefer horticulture. It sounds simple enough, but it is really rewarding when you get good customer satisfaction.”And if the farm did not keep Mr Stillard busy enough, he was recently elected to the NSW Farmers Association board. In 2019 he was also elected president of Persimmons Australia Inc, the peak industry body representing persimmon growers across Australia.