Joining the famous Coolamon Cheese and Junee Chocolate Factory will be ‘Bidgee Strawberries and Cream’ – a new family-operated, agri-tourism venture offering ‘pick your own' strawberries and delectable desserts.
Department of Primary Industries agricultural researcher Michael Cashen, his wife Kylie and daughters Lawanna, 19, and Brooklyn, 16, are the power family that has been working on this idea for three years.
“We started the idea three years ago and on November 27 we got approval from council to go ahead with the project,” Michael said.
Located in Wagga Wagga, the 14.1 hectare landscape has a proposed strawberry patch of three hectares that will be home to 84,000 individual strawberry plants with the potential to produce a minimum of 42 tonnes per year.
Michael said they aim to plant the first crop in April to allow for the first fresh pickings in October, just in time for the spring and summer months.
“Earth works and laser bucketing for drainage will begin in January, followed by the strawberry bed infrastructure,” he said.
“The first block of strawberries will be planted in April, and then building development and landscaping over winter.”
The strawberry growing season is from October through to April, so the Cashens aim to off set planting to ensure they have a constant supply of quality fruit over this period and cash flow.
“Plants should produce two to three crops of fruit before they are removed and replaced,” Michael said.
“Strawberries will be grown in coir fibre grow bags attached to troughs that are 1.2 to 1.3 meters off the ground to allow for ease of picking and agronomy.
“As they are off the ground, with good air flow and regularly replanted, if there are any dramas we can easily recover from it.”
The strawberries will be grown hydroponically, using potable water that is more expensive but reliable and safe.
“Town water is more expensive but we will recover costs through using water efficiently on farm, using any runoff to irrigate pasture. There will be no wastage and we will only supply what is needed,” he said.
Being grown off the ground means the risk of flooding is lowered whilst the amount of pesticides used will be reduced making it safer for the consumer.
Armed with experience in viticulture and horticulture, Michael spent his childhood picking plums, cherries and various other fruits around the Orange area.
“Strawberries were selected as they are seen as a ‘luscious’ fruit that lend themselves to being set up with dessert products. Kids also like picking them,” Michael said.
“My wife and I felt we needed more agri-tourism in the area. There is a focus on the broader areas of the Riverina and a few vineyards in Wagga but nothing else.
“The small area in town is walking distance from the CBD. With only a small area we needed to intensify production and strawberries will allow us to capitalise what we have while giving the people of Wagga something different.”
Not only will visitors be able to pick their own fresh strawberries, they will also be able to tour the integrated processing facilities, enjoy a relaxing cafe experience and have fun in a park area.
“Portions of the strawberries will be processed into ice cream, jams, sauces and strawberry themed dessert options that will be sold on site.” he said. “Kylie, my wife, is a food technologist and we are interested in value adding produce into other desirable and longer shelf life products.”
Being a true ‘paddock to plate’ concept, the Cashen family looks forward to allowing visitors and school groups to come through and take part in tours of how strawberries are grown and processed or even have the hands on experience of gathering food.
“Modern generations have lost the connection with farming and this is helping with that. Selling produce on farm helps connect people with agriculture and knowing where food comes from,” Michael said.
“We are making the facilities [including the processing area] as accessible as possible with windows and walkways. The whole building site will be on a big elevated pad, not susceptible to flooding.”
Hoping to bridge the gap between producers and consumers, the Cashen’s aim to accommodate for disabled visitors to ensure everyone can enjoy the “sweet” experience.
“We are looking to cater for those with disabilities by putting in footpaths, ramps and adequate parking facilities,” he said. “We see an opportunity in offering an experience that anyone and everyone can take part in.”
When the family-operated business is up and running in 2018, it is expected to offer employment to about 20 people but that may vary depending on the season.
Despite challenges previously arising about concerns related to the location’s proximity to the sewerage treatment plant, the biggest challenge going ahead is birds.
“In the end we had unanimous support from council which is great and we are excited by the venture,” he said.
Michael said the journey ahead will be a learning curve, but Bidgee Strawberries and Cream encourages everyone to come and see them next year to “hook into some fresh strawberries that taste like they used to”.