Apple picking season like no other

New season Galas picked at Wilgro Orchards ready to be sold and enjoyed.

Apple picking season has begun in Batlow, a time that is characterised by growth and prosperity, the hard work of so many finally paying off. On the back of the bushfires in January, and with a virus pandemic spreading further each day, orchardists have been left with a new set of challenges this season that they have never had to contend with before.

Ralph Wilson of Wilgro Orchards is optimistic and upbeat, keeping a positive attitude despite the many challenges 2020 has already brought, but he admits it is “sort of a stressful time at the moment.”

“We’re trying to do a job that we normally do, but on top of that, trying to do a job that we’ve never had to do before which is cleaning virtually every bit of gear because it’s all smoke or soot damaged or burnt,” he said.

“And now we’ve come into this coronavirus and we’ve got another set of things we’ve never had to contend with before.

“[There’s] a lot more things going on than normal that’s for sure.”

The bushfires that hit the Snowy Valleys region earlier this year were unprecedented, but despite this, the world has seemed to move on already, with discussions shifting from ‘Australia is burning’ to ‘the virus pandemic.’ Even if conversations have shifted, and the 24-hour news cycle has moved on, the effects of the fires are still very much felt in affected regions, such as Batlow.

“The crop is down, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr Wilson said.

“Our crop is definitely down because of the fire, but also the … really hot weather we’ve had over that time and the fact we were away (from the orchard) for quite some time … and jobs that should have been done weren’t done because of being away for the week of the fires.

“When we came back, we spent a lot of time – and are still spending a lot of time – in recovery and trying to get things back to normal and trying to replace gear and waiting on insurance to finalise, payments, all that sort of thing.”

While still dealing with the effects of the fires, the business has also had to take into account the coronavirus and make changes accordingly.

“The stall is still open and we’re selling apples and cider and vinegar,” Mr Wilson said, “but we’ve obviously had to take a lot more precautions with that.”

Precautions include keeping a distance from people, washing hands more regularly, sanitising equipment and surfaces, requesting customers use Eftpos rather than cash, offering takeaway coffee only and stopping indoor dining.

“[The virus] is affecting us, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

“The number of people coming through is starting to decline, we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, given it’s coming up to the school holidays which is usually one of our busiest times of the year.”

The school holiday-Easter period is the orchard’s busiest time of year, along with Christmas, where business was also down due to the fires.

The coronavirus is also leading to another interesting challenge for the orchardist – he is completely inundated with calls from backpackers looking for work.

“The last three days has just been phone call after phone call after phone call of people wanting work who are prepared to volunteer because I think they want to get out of the city,” Mr Wilson said.

“Also a lot of backpackers go to Queensland to work, and if they’re in Sydney they can’t go interstate to work (because of COVID-19 border closures).”

Mr Wilson said there “seems to be a fair bit of pressure on [them] to provide work” for backpackers, who are scrambling to find something amid the virus pandemic, but he currently has no need for backpackers, instead employing a band of contractors he has worked with for the last five to six years.

“We used to use a lot of backpackers, but the advantage of (having the employees) is they know exactly what needs to be done, they’ve done it before, [and] they work on not only our orchard but a couple of other orchards in Batlow.”

The only backpackers Wilgro Orchards currently has on their property just work on the weekend completing various tasks; however, they were already in Batlow working on a nursery for the last three to four months before the pandemic really picked up.

Despite maturity of the apples being a bit slow this year, and being a little bit behind in picking, Mr Wilson maintains a positive attitude, confidently saying “we’ll get there.”

“From a truly practical point of view … apples are a great thing to eat, they’re fresh, they’re at their peak, and things like apple cider vinegar is very good for people with colds and that type of thing,” he said, declaring that their products are selling quite well this year.

Up the road at Mouat’s Farm, Greg Mouat also remains optimistic about the picking season despite the various challenges it has presented. He said his orchard is yet to feel any drastic effects from the coronavirus.

“At the moment it hasn’t affected orchard operations, that is the picking and delivering of fruit to Batlow Fruit Company, and at this stage it doesn’t appear to have affected our roadside sales,” he said.

Mr Mouat doesn’t know if the government’s latest round of regulations surrounding social distancing will have an effect on his sales, but he hopes it doesn’t.

As for picking, Mr Mouat said that under the circumstances they are “progressing quite well.”

They are employing the same group of contractors that Wilgro Orchards is using, and Mr Mouat says that the work they do out in the fields is low risk.

“They’re not working in an office or a factory, so they’re not exposed to groups of other people, so I think we’re very fortunate in that regard,” he said.

The same goes for their roadside store – they are not being inundated with large groups of customers, maybe one or two in the store at any given time, plus either Mr Mouat himself or his wife at the register.

“It’s just our regular group of customers and maybe people coming from Wagga or Tumut,” he said.

Just like Mr Wilson, Mr Mouat has touted the benefits of apples and apple products. He is very much a proponent of the saying ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away.’

“Apples may not be an essential, but they’re very much part of a healthy diet, so we’d encourage people to continue to call in and buy.”

Mr Mouat has acknowledged that the conversation seems to have shifted from the bushfires to the coronavirus, but wants people to know that “the effects of the bushfires haven’t gone away” and that “it’s still a situation that needs addressing.”

He suggested that funding orchards to get back on their feet would stimulate the economy in a great way, something the government is very focused on doing right now amid the pandemic.

“The government is keen on stimulating the economy and this is one way they can do it by injecting capital into the orchards that have been damaged so we can start that process of replanting and get back up to production as soon as we possibly can,” he said.