Darren Gray

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Fruit growers look for alternatives

An orchadist in Ardmona is finding new markets for their fruit. One of the ways making cider.

PT2M30S http://www.goodfood.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-363c3 620 349

On large orchards in the Goulburn Valley like the one owned by the Plunkett family, the huge packing shed surrounded by fruit trees is the nerve centre of activity.

At packing time, tens of thousands of apples travel down a grader for sorting, the speedy hands of workers constantly plucking the apples to place them carefully in boxes, while forklifts buzz around picking up and depositing huge ''bulk bins'' full of fruit.

Fresh apples, which are sold in large numbers on Australia's east coast, are the backbone of Sally and Andrew Plunkett's family business, accounting for most of the farm's fruit production. But in a quiet coolroom down the back of the shed, the farm is undergoing a quiet evolution.

Orchardist Sally Plunkett.
Orchardist Sally Plunkett. Photo: Angela Wylie

There is not a single apple inside this coolroom; rather, it houses a row of large stainless steel milk vats big enough to hold thousands of litres of milk. They are not what you would expect to see in an orchard's coolroom but the vats are part of a subtle farm transformation.

Last year Ms Plunkett, a farmer, agricultural scientist and mother of two, started making apple cider, a beverage that's gaining in popularity. She is part of a growing trend among Australian orchardists to not just grow the fruit, but to also produce beverages such as alcoholic cider, fruit wines and fruit juices.

While cider production might be a new thing on the Plunkett's Ardmona property, Ms Plunkett has made fruit wines - using pears, apples, blueberries and apricots - for about 10 years.

Her cider is named Snakes and Ladders, after the many snakes and ladders (the latter needed to pick tall fruit trees) encountered by women from the Australian Women's Land Army who played a crucial role picking fruit in the Goulburn Valley during World War II.

Snakes and Ladders is being sold in cafes and bottle shops in the Goulburn Valley, at the Brunswick Street Cider House in Fitzroy, online, and soon, she hopes, in Asian markets such as Taiwan and South Korea.

On Monday Ms Plunkett - who has a doctorate in dairy cow nutrition - will fly from Melbourne to Singapore, where she will attend a four-day food and hospitality exhibition to promote the drink to the burgeoning middle-class markets of Asia.

The move into cider is part business diversification, part natural evolution, and part business opportunity. The cuts announced last year by local fruit processor SPC Ardmona, which affected dozens of fruit growers in northern Victoria like the Plunketts, was also a motivating factor.

''Last year we lost a lot of our peach tonnage with the SPC cutbacks. So that, I guess, provided extra motivation for us to diversify into other areas, and to find new ways to use our fruit. I was already making the fruit wine, so it just seemed a natural progression to go into the ciders,'' she says.

''There are more and more orchardists becoming interested in making cider these days. And I guess there are a couple of reasons for it. Firstly there's huge demand for apple cider now - Australian consumers want apple cider, so there is that demand for the product.

''And the other reason is that we've got, I guess, diminishing options in the cannery side of things. We've got a lot less fruit going to the cannery these days so we're looking for other opportunities,'' she says.

The growth in cider production could deliver important economic benefits to the district, she says, hopefully earning locals more revenue and creating more jobs.

''It has the potential to be a really great thing for the Shepparton area, and orchards in the Shepparton area as well,'' she says.