Millions of strawberries planted out by hand as season approaches
Workers planting strawberry plants on Tina McPherson’s farm near Bundaberg. (ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos)
At the start of June sweet red fruit will start rolling out of about 150 Queensland farms as the state’s strawberry season begins.
But first millions of strawberry plants need to be planted out, each one carefully tended by hand.
Queensland produces about 60 million punnets of strawberries each season, mostly in the southeast corner, but with increasing production in the Bundaberg region.
About 220,000 strawberry plants are currently being transplanted at Tina McPherson’s farm near Bundaberg.
“Strawberries have to be planted by hand, because it’s absolutely imperative the roots stay straight,” Ms McPherson said.
“If there was a mechanical way of doing it, someone would have done it by now.
“Everyone has a different method, but our planters have a flat knife they push the plant in with, then the plant gets pulled slightly up because it’s important the roots are covered but the crown is exposed.”
Ms McPherson’s is a relatively small planting — some Queensland farms put in up to five million individual plants.
While picking the fruit is a seven day per week job for five months of the year, Ms McPherson said planting time was more intense.
“These plants have to get in the ground, so it’s physical work for everybody from very early in the morning,” she said.
“Our first week of planting three weeks ago was really hot, so we’d have to stop at 10 in the morning — it’s too much stress on the plants to be putting them in the ground at that temperature.”
Most of Ms McPherson’s crop is sold in Melbourne and Sydney, some goes to locals chefs, and about 10 per cent is sold on farm and through local outlets.
Farm investing in worker accommodation
Bundaberg mayor Jack Dempsey (second from right) with SSS Strawberries staff at the construction site where the farm is building 31 units to house farm workers. (Supplied: Bundaberg Regional Council)
Another Bundaberg strawberry farm is building their own complex of units to house the many transient workers employed in the local industry.
SSS Strawberries, run by the Dang family, employs more than 100 backpackers every season.
The business has started construction on 31 units in the Bundaberg suburb of Kepnock, at a cost of $5 million.
“It is really great to see SSS Strawberries making this investment in the future for the Bundaberg region,” Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey said.
“They’re caring about their workers, they’re employing local contractors, and that’s a big plus for the Bundaberg region.”
How to pick the perfect strawberry
If you are looking for the perfect strawberry in your local shop this season, Ms McPherson says the trick is to look for fruits that are red right to the top.
“You’ll find in the supermarkets most strawberries are picked early because they travel better and they last longer, so they will pick them when they’re two-thirds red and one-third white.
“As long as there’s any white on the strawberry, it’s not ripe.”
Queensland’s strawberry season starts at the beginning of June.