After we landed in Sydney airport, our first visit was to a persimmon grower located to the southwest of the city called Brett Guthrey.
Brett was an interesting character whose family had been in the area since 1958 and the farm was purchased by his grandparents.
Back then, it was well outside the city, but the passage of time has taken it into suburbia and all the changes that that might bring for a farm.
His grandparents bought the farm and used it initially for vegetable production. They then moved on to stone fruits and grape production targeting specific markets. Those enterprises proved to be very lucrative back then but imports into Australia and interstate trade within Australia have created more local competition and challenges.
Brett himself has been farming since 1990. He and his family before him were always innovative and willing to plant new crops and to explore new opportunities.
Increasing Asian trade with Australia generated particular demand for the persimmon and for fruit in general. Initially people came to him asking him to grow specific products and they were willing to purchase directly from him.
But as the business grew, selling all the produce became a bigger task. But stone fruit caries a lot of risks, not least of which is access to labour and its cost.
The move to persimmons
At one point he made a total swap to persimmon production. This is an autumn fruit which is also known as Sharon fruit.
There are two overall types of fruit, those which are referred to as astringent and those that are non-astringent. The astringency characteristic means such a variety is not edible while the fruit is still firm. It needs to ripen completely before eating.
Like any other fruit, they have their season and Brett said that they are best eaten when the heat makes the mouth feel very dry.
Nicer to eat
The fruit must be allowed to ripen/mature and when this happens the tannins break down, leaving them much nicer to eat. So, as is the case with potatoes, it is important that the consumer knows how best to use them and when.
A non-astringent persimmon can be eaten before it is fully mature because it does not possess that bitter flavor. These are very different to the previously mentioned fruit.
Like any other type of farming, there have been real challenges in this business. After planting, one must wait about eight years for fruit to be produced but this can take up to 15 years for a good crop of astringent types.
Brett said that it is possible to use CO2 for 24 weeks in storage to remove the astringency. This can also be done by dipping the fruit in alcohol.
Growing the trees
Some of the crop is grown under nets but more of it is grown in the open. He said that nets cost about AUS$80,000 (€52,000) per hectare and he has four hectares covered. The nets help protect against damage by flying fox bats and some troublesome birds. Brett told us that hail had destroyed his crop in 2019 and it also damaged the nets. These then had to be re-tensioned over the plantation. This cost a lot of money at the time but he deemed it to be a good risk mitigation measure.
Brett described persimmons as not being an easy crop to grow. Top-quality fruit will sell for $50 to $60/4kg tray but even slightly lesser quality would be back to half this place.
Given the investments over the years he said that one of his major objectives is to try to lower and remove his farm debt. He also told us that land is his main asset and he openly stated that being able to stay in business helps to increase his asset value.
Professionally, he is involved in farming politics to get some help for different sides of the business.
One of the serious threats to the crop is fruit fly. Just like the situation here in Europe, he has lost many insecticides in recent times. Now he has much greater dependence on the use of pheromone traps which can be used as a threshold indicator for action (spray if >4 insects per trap).
They also use pheromone traps for months. These attract the males and their behavior changes fundamentally when there are no females to be found despite the pheromone signal.
Planting and picking
Persimmons are hand-picked because they are a delicate fruit. Individual fruits must be cut from the trees and handled gently. The trees themselves fruit can last for quite a long time and their wood is regarded as being very hard. The fruit itself stores quite well too. Technically a persimmon is a berry rather than a fruit.
The plants used to replace or expand the existing operation are all homegrown. The trees are grafted on to a separate rootstock and the process is very difficult.
Brett is always looking for better rootstock on which to set the plants of the different varieties and he is trying to develop clonal propagation. The crop is now grown in a lot of Australia, but labour remains one of the bigger challenges.