THROUGH more than half a century working in orchards, John Galbraith, Pine Crest Orchard, Bilpin, has seen the landscape of the industry change dramatically.
While other small producers have been forced to quit, John has found ways to to keep his passion for fruit viable.
John bought his current property in Bilpin 45 years ago, and raised his seven children there.
“When we came to Bilpin, there were 90 apple orchardists here, now there is only 10 left,” he said.
“Massive industry changes have forced a lot of people out.”
John can remember a time when Bilpin would have the first apples available on the Sydney market after a two-month break, and the high profits that came with that.
Nowadays, apples are available year round in the supermarket and the advantage of early production is lost.
“Galas are being picked off trees now in January, and you will still find the same Galas on the shelf 11 months from now.”
John says that through controlling the temperature and the oxygen content in the atmosphere in which apples are stored, larger supermarkets can slow down the breathing process.
The storage room is then flushed with Smart Fresh gas, a chemical that can halt the ripening process of the apples and the production of ethylene in fruit, allowed them to be stored almost year round.
“There is no sense of seasonality. Nobody knows how old the apples are. The industry is shooting itself in the foot, people are having a bad experience eating older apples and are getting put off. They don’t have the knowledge to know why and think this is the standard.”
John says this technology, introduced in the late 1960’s, was the beginning of the end for small orchardists in the Bilpin area.
In the past, John sold his apples to the wholesale market, but can no longer keep up with the demand of the larger packhouses or supermarket chains.
“For smaller producers it’s no longer an option. There used to be 600 small green grocers in the Sydney area, now there is none.”
“I can’t produce 1000 cases a week. The little bloke doesn’t have any leverage in the market because Coles and Woolies do not want 30 boxes of apples.”
It was this dilemma that led John to move to a “pick your own” system 15 years ago at Pine Crest.
“It wouldn’t have worked 30 years ago. People came here for cheap fruit not an orchard experience.”
“Nowadays, it is the experience of picking your own fruit which is the drawcard for people,” he said.
Flocks of families now make the trek from the city to Bilpin to meet John, and to make a personal selection of hand-picked fruit.
“Bilpin has become a real destination, we receive a lot of non-English speaking groups wanting to have a very Australian experience.”
When John arrived in the town, apples were the mainstay, but today the orchard is lined with trees overflowing with peaches, plums, pears and persimmon.
Visitors will spend an hour or two slowly perusing the orchard, filling bags of apples to take home for the bargain price of $4 a kilogram.
While John doesn’t offer much supervision to his guests, he is ready with a smile and a word of advice.
“Just be friendly to people, and they will come back” he says.
Set on 16 hectares, six of which are used for the orchard, the property backs on to beautiful bushland.
John offers tours, teaching families about plant and animal species found in the area.
The season has been kind to John, with the damaging hail that peppered the area late last year missing Pine Crest.
Throughout the years the orchard has changed, with a greater number of smaller trees planted to increase economy and reduce management costs.
Even the colour of the fruit has changed in places.
“When the Gala first came to Australia, it was yellow in colour. People want cosmetically good looking fruit these days. No one wanted a yellow apple so it was changed.”
Educating people has always been at the forefront of John’s orchard mission, lecturing in horticulture engineering and crop production at the University of Western Sydney for 10 years.
He has also taught courses in fruit and vegetable production and small farm management techniques at TAFE for more than 40 years.
“I had a farm and the teaching was my hobby, for most people it works the other way around,” he said.
“It was also a good fall back when the orchard didn’t do so well.”
John began his journey in Victoria, receiving a diploma of Horticulture from Burnley Horticultural College in Melbourne.
He then worked in several roles for the Department of Agriculture around Shepparton, before taking on roles in the apple growing mecca of Batlow.
John is certain the industry will continue to evolve, but he will continue on as he always has; with good fruit and a smile.