The avo farmer gets a wife

The summer heat is baking Waikerie in South Australia, but Sarah Tucker-Boehm has found relief in an orchard of tall, unruly trees that are native to rainforests rather than the challenging climatic extremes of the Australian Riverland.

“It is magical, especially today, to walk amongst these beautiful plants, which can grow to 6m tall, and feel the temperature drop,” she says. “The trees shoot for the sun and they’re fairly wild and take a bit to maintain.”

In fact, avocado growers have been described as horticultural zookeepers because it looks like we’re trying to tame a wild beast.

Parkes Lane Produce general manager Aaron Boehm among the avocado trees.

Avocados were imported to Australia and grown in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney in 1840 but it took over a century for commercialisation to occur. Now the popular fruit, of which the Hass and Shepard varieties are the most well-known, are grown all over the country, allowing for year-round availability.

Where it started

Forty years ago Mark and Dawn Boehm, saw potential for growth in the avocado industry and planted trees – some of which still bear fruit today – while working fulltime jobs off-farm. The business became Parkes Lane Produce and today also employs their son Aaron and his wife, Sarah, a city girl with a background in retail travel, who contributes corporate skills as office manager.

Dawn Boehm is proud of how the company has grown.

“We grow nine varieties of avocado,” Sarah says.

“Some, like Bacon, are grown because they attract the pollinating hover flies. Others such as Zutano make a hardy rootstock for grafts and then we have the eating varieties such as Hass, Lamb Hass, Gwen and Reed.

Avocado aficionados love our creamy Reeds. They are round avos the size of an emu egg and are ready right on Christmas.

Mark Boehm with some of the popular creamy Reeds.

Avocados are fussy trees

Yet, as with any form of farming, growing avocados comes with challenges. “They are fussy trees, and it is not easy to grow fruit,” Sarah says. “They need the right temperature and the right nutrients, and any stress will cause the trees to drop their fruit – and that could be lack of water, frost or high heat.”

Our biggest challenge is keeping them happy because they’re a rainforest plant growing in a desert environment.

As avocados ripen the Boehms conduct maturity tests to ensure high oil content and, once ready, the four to six month harvest begins, usually in August. Four to five people pick the fruit by hand from elevated work platforms and another dozen employees work in the packing shed before the avocados begin their final journey to market.

Picking crew – Mark, Bradley, Jennifer and Hayden.

Making avocados a staple

Occasionally, this market swings and it becomes more expensive to grow horticultural produce than to sell it, resulting in gluts of discarded fruit that then are splashed across the six-o-clock news.

The Boehms have avoided these gluts by selling fruit cheaper, but realise marketing is the key to ensuring consistent price and demand. “There are emerging export markets into places like India and the UAE but fruit fly and the high cost of freight are currently causing problems,” Sarah says.

“What we really need is more people here in Australia eating avocados.”

I want to see avocados become a grocery staple alongside potatoes and tomatoes.

Packing shed crew – Judy Kuchel, Ashleigh Leauders, Dawn Boehm, Maddie Leske, Betty Kuchel, Lilah Hilton, Sarah Tucker-Boehm and Shae Glacken.

Sarah is doing her bit to increase domestic consumption by sharing her love of avocados and the horticultural industry. She does this through social media, particularly on her avo_farmers_wife Instagram page that has over 26,000 followers, where she can be seen dancing, singing and providing insights into the life of an avocado farmer.

“I earned the title of Avo Farmer’s Wife when I married Aaron who is a fourth-generation farmer,” she laughs. “But I consider myself a farmer in my own right now.”

I love that every day is different, that we are continually evolving and diversifying and that we wear so many hats.

We need to be across budgeting and risk mitigation and marketing and a hundred other facets of farming and business. Farmers have to be incredibly intelligent. When people think of farmers, I want them to forget the stereotypes and instead think of business leaders.”

Mandy McKeesick

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