Former city slickers shake up farming methods
THE Fealy family know their high-end city dwelling consumers to perfection.
That's because it wasn't so long ago they used to be the same thing themselves.
About four years ago, travel agent Matt and chartered accountant Jessica swapped their corporate jobs in Brisbane to return to the land, managing Blue Sky Produce's horticultural farm near Mareeba in far north Queensland.
The couple has rich experience in agriculture - Matt is a fourth generation farmer and Jess a dairy farmer's daughter - but admitted stepping back into the role of primary producers was a steep learning curve.
However, their fresh perspectives and unique backgrounds have proved invaluable to their business.
Focussing on branding through social media allowed them to claw back some control of their prices and offer farm-gate sales to the public, and this year Matt has won a prestigious Nuffield Scholarship to further his study in on-farm automation systems.
With four kids, Jack, 11, Toby, 9, Lexi, 7, and Kipp, 2, all part of the clan, it's obvious this couple has a strong focus in the farm's sustainability.
This week Matt stepped away from his smoko break to chat to the Rural Weekly about returning to farming, becoming a Facebook marketing guru and to explain why he thinks farmers need agricultural robots.
CALL OF THE LAND
Matt still remembers the exact moment he decided to become a farmer.
About three months into an indefinite family trip around Australia, Matt's uncle Ross Johnson called to tell him that he wanted to buy an orchard and to ask if they would be happy to manage it.
"We were all sitting there on Cable Beach in Broome watching the camels walk past and the sun setting into the Indian Ocean, drinking cocktails and thinking...'yeah, why don't we go be farmers',” he said.
While there was no time limit set for their family trip around the country, Matt said the couple's intention was always to return north and find a foothold into agriculture - they just didn't think the opportunity would arise as quickly as it did.
Matt was a bright student in high school and, like many young people who do well academically in a small town, was encouraged to leave as soon as he could.
He was told the old, and sometimes over-used, expression "there's no money in farming”, so commenced a university course in the city.
However, a couple of years into a pharmacy degree Matt realised the career wasn't for him so he tried a few other jobs before finding his place in the travel industry and began climbing the career ladder.
After about 15 years of happy city living, Matt and Jess decided they wanted their children to grow up in the country as they did, so the nation-wide trip was planned.
Matt's return to farming was a baptism by fire at its best.
They moved to the property in September and harvesting commenced in December.
"My family are farmers, and we have been farmers for a long time, but we had never had an orchard. Never had a horticulture tree-crop farm,” he said
"So in actual fact we went into it with little experience.”
The operation has about 3000 mango trees, 5000 avocado trees and about 800 Tahitian limes. Matt describes the block as "doer upper”.
"We have had a strong focus over the last couple of years of rehabilitation,” he said.
"Working so the trees are getting back to some health and some yield.
"This year we have really seen the trees start to finally pay us back for all of that.”
Matt said the biggest challenge he faced in his first year was seeing his produce price dictated by the market.
"We are totally at the whim of supply and demand,” he said.
"Being that we grow, especially in mangoes and avocados, a single-cropping per year seasonal product, we don't have the opportunity to harvest and bulk store and wait for the markets to change.
"It's a perishable product.
"And when ours is ready to come off the trees, so is everyone else's.”
Through clever marketing on social media, Blue Sky Produce has managed to gain some control over its pricing.
"Probably the biggest thing we took away from that first year was the amount of waste for our out-of-speck product,” he said.
"So for the next nine months of the off season, I spent a considerable amount of time working on having a home for every piece of fruit.
"Social media gave us a global voice at a very little cost. The only cost was our time.”
Blue Sky Produce now has thousands of followers across its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.
The pages give a personal look into the people behind the farm, whether that be by posting an image of two- year-old Kipp going for a ride in the tractor, or a shot of workers cooling off in an inflatable pool after sweltering through their shift in the north-Queensland heat.
The sites offer an honest and open window into their farm, and their consumers have loved it.
"Being that Jess and I had lived for 15 years in the city, we had been the high-end consumer,” he said.
"So we understood the consumer quite well and we utilised social media to target this high-value customer.”
Matt describes their method of marketing as "pulling” their produce through the market, opposed to trying to "push” it through the market.
"So we gained a consumer base...that was loyal to our brand. They would go into their local store, we are not talking the major supermarkets here, but their local green grocers and say 'hey, do you have Blue Sky mangoes?'”
Soon enough there was enough chatter around their produce Matt's phone started to ring.
"When I had agents calling saying they wanted the Blue Sky Produce brand, we were able to say, 'if you do want it, this will be the price',” he said.
Matt said it was now essential that Blue Sky set the bar high for its quality.
"We grade out a little bit more than what other people probably do,” he said.
Matt said his goal of finding a home for every piece of fruit was, so far, pretty successful.
"We advertise farm-gate sales on Facebook and we have people drive all the way up here from Townsville (about 400km away) to buy 400 kilos of mangoes,” he said.
Last year, Matt only had to throw out 200 kilos of his mangoes - on other farms sometimes 40% of produce can be deemed unacceptable by supermarket giants' strict requirements.
"We don't see the point of saying 'we got $50 a tray for our mangoes' when in actual fact that price was really just $50 a tray for 5% of the crop, and about 40% was left on the ground.
"We see getting $50 a tray for your top end and even $1 per kilo for your bottom end as a far better economic strategy.”
Search "Blue Sky Produce” on Facebook or Instagram to follow the Fealy family's journey.