Australia’s first certified organic cidery, the increasingly successful Willie Smiths grew out of a period when the Tasmanian apple industry was on its knees.
Story by Ken Eastwood
The apple cart was well and truly upset by the time Andrew Smith came along. A fourth-generation apple farmer in the Huon Valley, Tas, he had watched his father work harder and harder in an industry that was collapsing around them.
“There were 1000 producers here when I started and there’s now 20, so I’ve watched 980 go out of business,” Andrew says. “Tasmania was the largest apple producer in the Southern Hemisphere in the 1960s and now it doesn’t rate. We’d be lucky if we produced a quarter of a quarter of 1% of the world’s apples.”
After a trip overseas in the 1990s, Andrew says he realised the family business was having to drive its workers harder and harder and “treat people like robots” in order to make ends meet. “I just dreaded coming back into the business,” he says. Deciding things couldn’t continue that way, he suggested a new business model to his father, and was given a short period, and a short leash, to make it work.
“In 1998 I took the extraordinary step of increasing our cost of production to go certified organic,” Andrew says. “It was like jumping off the cliff. Being organic to me is not just using non-synthetic herbicides and pesticides. It’s how you treat your staff, it’s how you treat your customers, it’s how you treat your suppliers. It’s being ethical in everything you do.”
To increase the scale of production, Andrew redeveloped the entire orchard, from 600 trees per hectare to 2800 trees per hectare. He changed many of the varieties so they have fresh apples for a longer season, and installed enough organic cold storage for 2500 tonnes so apples can be provided to market for 10 months of the year. “We’re now the largest organic apple producers in Australia,” he says. “We haven’t got a lot bigger, we’ve just got smarter.”
Andrew says he became an “early adopter of technology”, investing in innovations such as a robot with a camera that can sort nine apples a second, watching for blemishes, size and colour.
The orchard is on 46 hectares of rolling, well-watered country 30 minutes’ drive south of Hobart. It’s marked by a thriving tourist landmark – the Apple Shed, which is a 1946-built apple-packing shed that the Smiths have converted to a funky cider house, café and apple museum.
About 70% of the apples are sold as fresh produce, mostly to Woolworths, with others exported to Taiwan and occasionally Hong Kong. “If you haven’t got Fuji, they’ll take Fuji,” he says with a laugh. The other 30% is used to make organic juice and, since 2012, the award-winning Willie Smiths organic ciders, which are made, matured and bottled on the property.
This story excerpt is from Issue #109
Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2016