Palm Creek Plantation – Weathering whatever’s thrown at them

Leaning on his front gate at Palm Creek in North Queensland’s Burdekin Shire, Bruce Hill is more content with the world than he was one year ago.

Bruce and his wife Helen manage and part own Australia's only commercial achacha plantation. Similar to a lychee, the fruit is sweet and tangy.

While their 2019 crop was being harvested, the North Queensland flood event occurred, saturating their fruit, washing out kilometres of internal roading and destroying irrigation equipment.

“The 2019 monsoon event came in February, right in the middle of our picking season,” Bruce said.

“We had a beautiful crop; then came the rain and much of the 120 hectare plantation was covered with up to a metre of water for several weeks - most of that crop was in poor shape.”

Using the Australian and Queensland Government’s jointly funded Special Disaster Assistance Recovery Grant program, which gave up to $75,000 for essential property and infrastructure repairs, Bruce and Helen acted quickly to get their plantation ready to be fruitful again.

“During the monsoon we had many ‘what are we going to do now’ moments, but we just had to sit it out,” Helen said.

“We wouldn’t be back where we are today without the grant we received – it enabled us to get back on our feet in a hurry.”

Bruce explained that most of the physical damage has now been repaired and equipment is again able to be transported around the property.

However, he remains unsure about the long-term impacts on the achacha trees.

“Some of the trees were under water for a prolonged period and we weren’t sure how they would respond afterwards,” he said.

“We’ve had a ‘normal’ wet season this year; probably more rain in total than during last year’s monsoon event but it’s been more spread out.

There’s a lot more fruit on the trees than usual, but it’s much smaller in size. Flowering and fruit maturity was also a month later than previous years – we’re still not sure why.

It’s impacted sales because people like to buy big fruit.” Bruce said that COVID-19 (commonly called Coronavirus) is also affecting the sale of this year’s crop.

“We’ve got the bulk of our sales going into the Sydney market but since the COVID-19 situation people have largely stopped buying fruit, they’re buying vegetables instead,” he said.

“We’re well into the season and have much of our crop off so it’s not a major calamity; we’re lucky the current restrictions didn’t happen much earlier.

“We’ve still got fruit on the trees but don’t know at the moment if it’s worth picking. Its storage time is good but we haven’t got capacity to keep much on site.

When you’ve got 30 people on a payroll each day you’ve got to be careful how you manage harvesting.”

Bruce said the business was ‘more or less’ back to normal operations.

“The 2019 monsoon is a dim and distant feature of the past for us,” he said.

“We were lucky to get out of it as we did. The grant we received helped us recover; not having to worry about damaged infrastructure going into the next season was a significant thing. There are still some remaining problems from last year’s monsoon, but had we not had the grant it would have left more of a scar.”