August 1, 2018
Field of Dreams
Queensland is the biggest producer of strawberries in Australia and here on the Sunshine Coast, we’re fortunate to have passionate farmers who have been feeding our insatiable appetite for the juicy morsels for decades. With strawberry season in full swing, the McMartin family farm is ripe for the picking.
Standing at one end of the strawberry field at McMartin Farm, an empty bowl in hand, it’s a daunting experience. The ruby red berries are the brightest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and I just don’t know where to start.
Graham McMartin’s parents bought the 35-acre farm at Bli Bli in 1945, when he was 10 months old and his wife, Lillian, who grew up in Obi Obi, says they’ve witnessed many changes over the years.
“The farm started as a cane farm when they bought it, then they went into dairying and then they went back to small crops,” says Lillian.
Lillian says at that time there was no road access across the Maroochy River, and the road to Nambour was a rough dirt track. She says groceries and mail used to arrive by river on the mail boat, which also couriered the cream from their dairy to Yandina, which then travelled by unrefrigerated train to the butter factory in Caboolture.
Lillian and Graham met in 1969 and married not long after and have been at the farm ever since, buying the 21-acre property next door and expanding McMartin Farm.
“We have a 130-acre cane farm as well over the road and when I met Graham he was growing beans and watermelons, then we went to tomatoes and about 30 years ago, we went to strawberries,” says Lillian.
The strawberry crop was at its peak in 2004, and they were selling commercially to Sydney and Melbourne, but over the past 14 years, they’ve eased back and are now only producing enough strawberries for their farm gate shop, the local markets and of course pick-your-own.
McMartin Farm continues to grow custard apples and lychees commercially, which are picked from February to August and January to February respectively, with the strawberry season running from May until October.
“You see the little ones come to pick strawberries and they’re all excited and they have their little baskets, it’s really lovely to see,” says Lillian.
“It’s also educational, that the kids actually see where the fruit comes from, they can see it at the flower stage, at the little fruit stage and then when it’s ripe, whereas a lot of children don’t get to see that.”
With Queensland being the biggest producer of strawberries in Australia, Lillian says over the years they’ve had to compete with more businesses entering the market, which forced them to diversify.
“As more people started to grow strawberries, the price we were getting for them didn’t go up but our costs went up, so we decided to start making jam to utilise more of our fruit and when it still wasn’t enough, we made our ice cream in 2007.
“Even now, the costs are going up, we’re still getting the same prices we did in 1987 for our produce and the wages have gone up well over 300 per cent, along with other expenses. We’re finding it a bit more difficult to make ends meet in that respect, so we decided it’s not really viable now, to continue growing strawberries commercially, so we’ve been concentrating more on the farm gate sales and hopefully be able to manage that way.”
In a silver lining moment, the McMartin family was named Grand Ekka Champion for its Strawberry Lane Ice Creamery, after winning a number of gold and silver medals since entering in 2010. So what is their secret?
“The quality of the strawberries and we also use Maleny Dairies milk, which supports the locals as well as having a really good product, it all goes in together as a package,” says Lillian.
With over 180 acres of farmland to tend to, Lillian jokes she and Graham are getting slower each year, and are thankful their three adult children and grandchildren have joined the family business.
“It’s a good life, it gets very tiring but it’s rewarding when you can see something – when you see people really enjoying your ice cream, it makes it worthwhile,” she says.
Having sampled the award-winning strawberry ice cream while chatting with Lillian, I can vouch for its deliciousness, maybe I’ll ask for two scoops next time.
Did you know?
• Strawberries were originally cultivated in ancient Rome.
• The strawberry is a member of the rose family.
• Strawberries aren’t technically a fruit.
In a true fruit, a flower is pollinated and the flower’s ovary swells to become the fruit with a seed/s in the middle. However with strawberries, the fertilised ovaries in the flower form tiny dry fruits (which we associate as seeds) outside the flesh of the strawberry. Each dry fruit contains a single seed and the red flesh of the strawberry is the part of the plant connecting the flower to the stem.