This time last week, I loaded the girls in the car and under my friend Soni’s directions navigated forestry tracks and dirt roads to Di West’s strawberry farm. We sat around her kitchen table and while the kids ate their body weight in strawberries, I asked Di and her sister Jodi your questions and a few of my own.
Have you always been a farmer?
Di and Jodie were born into a farming family. They think it’s probably easier to be a farmer if you’ve grown up with the lifestyle. Farming is a no-knock-off time job – even after you’ve finished there’s always something that needs to be done. The girls think that it would be difficult for someone used to a 9 -5 lifestyle to embrace what they cleverly describe as working 5 -9.
Di and Jodi’s Dad started growing strawberries originally. Winter on the Sunshine Coast offers consistently favourable conditions for strawberry farming.
How is this year shaping up?
The conditions this year will produce sweet berries. Cold nights, warm days and no rain are ideal growing conditions for strawberries. It’s not all good news though, the dry conditions mean that some farmers are already running out of water. All in all, this year consumers can look forward to great strawberries at a reasonable price.
Tell us about the process of growing strawberries.
Strawberries grow from runners that must be bought each year. The runners are $1 per plant, which makes strawberries an expensive crop to get into. There are many varieties of berry to choose from and more become available each year. Each variety has different chartestics; some berries ripen at the beginning of the season, others are more rain tolerant.
Before they plant, Di and Jodie sit down and look at the long rain weather forecast six month rain prediction. They consider what varieties are likely to suit the season and plant accordingly. This year Di’s favourite variety is Splendour, a dark red, almost purple berry.
Strawberry runners are planted in straight, raised beds sealed with black plastic. The plastic helps to reduce water loss to evaporation and keeps the berries off the ground, preventing spoiling.
Strawberries are picked by hand, using specially designed strawberry carts.
How do the berries get from the farm to the consumer?
The berries are sorted, size graded and packed into punnets on the farm. From there, the majority of the girls’ produce is shipped to Coles Supermarkets via a distribution network. The remainder is shipped using refrigerated trucks to the open markets in Sydney and Melbourne.
How do you choose the best strawberries?
The science of strawberries
After I drank too many cups of coffee, Di took the Little Sister and I for a look around the farm. What struck me most was the clever use of a system for tracking the volume and quality of the strawberries picked. The berries are hand-picked by a workforce of strawberry pickers, who are paid by the kilo. Each picker has an individual code and all crates picked by them are barcoded and identified as their work.
Later during the packing stage, any bruised or imperfect berries are removed and the weight noted. This way if a picker is picking strawberries that aren’t quite ripe or bruising them, the girls can show them how to pick better.
What is your favourite way to enjoy strawberries?
Di likes to enjoy her strawberries raw, at room temperate. Conversation then turned to jam, scones and english muffins. Before we left, Jodie packed me a jar of her strawberry jam and the recipe might surprise you.
the strawberry jam recipe farmers use
(recipe from the back of the Jamsetta packet)
¼ cup water
4 tbs lemon juice
1.5kg granulated sugar, warmed
Wash, drain and hull strawberries.
Place in large saucepan with water and lemon juice and cook gently, uncovered, until fruit is soft. Use a large pan – the mixture should occupy ⅓ of its maximum capacity.
Add Jamsetta and warmed sugar (to warm sugar place sugar in oven proof bowl and heat in oven preheated to 150ºC for 6 minutes) heat gently until dissolved, stirring constantly.
Bring to the boil and boil vigorously for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Skim scum from surface with a metal slotted spoon if necessary.
To test for a set, place 3 freezer proof saucers in the freezer. Once cold, remove and place a level teaspoon of jam on to the saucer. After approx. 30 seconds, run your finger through the jam, if set, jam should crinkle, if not, continue cooking for 3 minutes and repeat this process.
Once successful test for set is achieved, remove jam from heat and allow to stand for 5-10 minutes. Pour into sterilised, dry jars.