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Meet the grower: Rocky Ponds Produce
“How’d you go, all good?”
“All great mate.”
Des Chapman walks through his packing shed, checking in with his staff and getting smiles in return.
“When I was growing up, my father told me it costs very little to smile and say ‘hello’, and once you do, people will smile and give respect back,” Des says.
He walks the length of the shed, strolling past a bin of glossy, freshly picked capsicums and selects one to munch on like an apple. This is Des’ daily ritual to ensure the produce being packed is of the highest quality.
It’s a balmy 28-degree winter’s day in Gumlu, Queensland, 13 hours’ drive north of Brisbane. A sign just off the Bruce Highway reads “Rocky Ponds Produce, Ripe Tonight” alongside an unmistakable kangaroo icon. A huge shed in the distance dominates the property and houses packing and grading machines, as well as countless storage and cool rooms. The main office sits next to the shed.
The Rocky Ponds Produce operation is a well-oiled machine. Into the packing shed, tractors cart bins of rockmelons, honeydews and piel de sapo melons and the 30-odd staff, who have just finished packing capsicums into boxes ready for supermarkets, report to the melon grading machine. It’s certainly a sight watching the system wash and sterilise melons, then scan each individual melon to determine its size.
It’s the pinnacle of modern day farming. What can be automated, is. The irrigation system monitors and distributes bore water to parcels of land over 2,000 acres and can be controlled from Des’ mobile phone anywhere in the world. A brand-new nursery showcases seedlings so uniform that the trays look like green carpet. It’s a fully autonomic nursery: an overhead watering system, controlled by a button, traverses the length of the seedlings giving them a perfect amount of water, and as soon as the area gets to a certain temperature the roof will close or the sides will lift automatically.
“We have a lot of the most up-to-date equipment whether it be tractors, irrigation or packing and packaging systems,” Des says.
“All the gear that we’re buying is the best that you can find throughout the world – if you’re not up with technology then you’re out of the game.”
Its factors like this that not only keep Rocky Ponds relevant, but the operation booming. The farm has increased 30 percent in size, year on year for the past few years, and with Des’ insatiable appetite for a challenge, shows no sign of slowing down.
“I always said if I conquer something, I would give it away, but I think I’ll be here ‘til I’m 112 and still be farming because it’s one game you will never conquer,” Des says.
Des produces capsicums and melons (rockmelons, piel de sapo melons, honeydews) and sends them throughout Australia and to New Zealand, Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong. He’s been in partnership with Coles for 25 years.
Despite all the automation, Des still believes in checking the farm the ‘old school’ way. Jumping in his 200 series Toyota Landcruiser, his “farm bomb”, Des constantly drives the length of the property, noticing any leaks in pumps or sticking his finger in the ground to double check the moisture.
Buses carting pickers and tractors towing trailers kick up dust across the property. From the centre of his farm, there are crops as far as the eye can see and in the distance is the silhouette of the grand mountain, Cape Upstart.
In one of the fields, picking melons alongside the staff is Evan, Des’s son and the next generation farmer. He’s the one who has spearheaded new technologies and processes on the property and the pride in Des is palpable.
“It makes us feel very proud that he’s on board,” Des says.
“Evan is a Civil Design Engineer so with the younger brains coming in and innovating the business even further than what it is now, I think there’s a long way to go for Rocky Ponds Produce.”
Evan has three little girls who “like to come to the farm and muck around with grandad and grandma”. Des whips out his phone to show a video of the girls carting pumpkins to feed the cows in a replica John Deere tractor. It’s obvious he’s a softie at heart – there’s even a baby seat in the back of his vehicle.
This is typical Australian farming and Des is your typical Aussie bloke. He’s dressed in what can only be described as standard farming attire: a blue Bisley shirt and stubbies with an Akubra hat and Redback boots. He’s a larrikin with a friendly chuckle, cracking jokes about combing his hair for a photo. It’s not until you meet the other half of the operation that his spirited nature shines and the definition of a true partnership is evident.
Paula, a school teacher in a past life, manages the administration of the farm and is the matriarch of the family. She oversees the accounts, human resources, staff payments and training, and handling Government legislation, to name a few tasks. She’s softly spoken, warm in nature, and laughs at Des’s playful jibes at her.
“They kicked me out of school and at 15 years of age I had to start work, I started as a mechanic,” Des recalls.
“I got told, ‘Look for the prettiest and smartest girl and marry her’. Paula was Dux of her Teacher’s College and I still have to learn to read. That’s Dinky Di.”
Aside from joking that Paula is the boss and he is second in charge, Des acknowledges the partnership has been integral to the company’s success.
“Paula and I are a great team and we have been for 40 years and I’m very proud of that,” Des says.
“We get on really well and if we didn’t, we couldn’t run Rocky Ponds to the stage that it is now. We’re still working together and I’m still enjoying it and I think that’s wonderful.”
The farm started 40 years ago on a patch of 140 acres and with the dream to offer their children an amazing upbringing. Des is from a labouring family and thought farming kids had more fun. Des and Paula’s four children grew up fishing, camping and riding bikes.
At the outset though, farming was tough.
“We bought an ex-farm that had gone to rack and ruin and we decided to clear it and have a go,” Des explains.
“Everyone thought I was crazy and said that farming this arid land would be impossible,
"There was a small amount of water there and we did two to three years very tough, we couldn’t really make a go of it. Then we had a couple of good wet seasons, installed bores and built some dams, then they filled up and we had plenty of water so we started to move and develop our name.”
The farm now has a growing capacity of 1,800 acres. Des says Rocky Ponds has one of the greatest climates and longest growing seasons in the world.
“We have production of 36 weeks of the year and we can extend that further. We’re frost free and our temperature though winter is amazing – that’s our biggest advantage over the rest of Australia.”
The name Rocky Ponds comes from Rocky Ponds Creek that runs through the property. The name is synonymous with “excellence”.
“Rocky Ponds’ point of difference is that we strive for excellence, we try to have the best quality in the market place,” Des says.
“We brand our products with our stickers so that brand is recognised and if the product is no good, people won’t buy it – but usually people come back and look for the red and yellow sticker with the kangaroo.”
Des ensures he stays up-to-date and relevant in the market place.
“We are always looking for new products to take us into the next stage of horticulture whether that’s in new melons or a sweeter capsicum or a vegetable that’s healthier.”
“When it comes to selecting what variety to grow, we’re always looking for what the consumer wants. Is it a sweeter product or a firmer product? Naturally it’s the consumer who makes the final decision so we’ve got to go to what they choose.”
Consumer demands are not the only thing that influence farming. Des predicts technology will have a significant impact in the future and right now, it’s difficult to attract skilled workers in Australia.
“In Australia in 2020 and 2030, it’ll be a big period for horticulture to look at expanding,” Des says.
“There will be lots of technical jobs from agronomy, to computer systems for packing and grading, also work health and safety, human resources, fitters – we need people to think about horticulture as a career path. It’s not just picking and packing a piece of fruit.”
To that end, Des and Paula open their farm to local school groups of all ages to show children the possibilities in farming.
With their sights set on the future, Des and Paula end their day overlooking their farm from the veranda of their home. A plate of cut up piel de sapo melon and rockmelon sits aptly in the middle of their timber table – it’s their favourite way to eat their produce, chilled and fresh.
As the sun disappears behind Cape Upstart and casts shadows over the melon crops, Des reflects on his farming journey.
“Having a look at the beginning to where we are now, it makes Paula and I extremely proud.”
From the author: In my communications role with vegetable seed company, Rijk Zwaan, I get to travel around Australia and meet some of the amazing people who are responsible for putting fresh foods on our plates. They have great stories to tell, which I am excited to share through a “Meet the grower series”. Please check out my other blogs, including the story of Braham Produce, to meet more of these wonderful farmers.