September 2021 | Fruit & Vegetable News magazine

Dark shades of green splashed with bright, glossy reds stretch out on tables under the warm winter sun.

It’s strawberry season at Stothart & TSL Family Farms near Caboolture, where progressive management practices are paying off for the wellbeing of staff, the environment and growing a top-quality product.

The strawberries, grown using a hydroponic system set on the tops of tables, are sold exclusively at Coles supermarkets under the Taste ‘n’ See brand – which is a partnership between Stothart Family Farms and TSL Family Farms.

The picking season got underway in May and as the weather starts to warm up every day, the strawberries will ripen just as fast, farm manager David Fairweather said.

“Last year’s winter was a couple of degrees warmer,” Mr Fairweather said.

“This season has been a bit slow-starting because of the cold but production is really increasing now in August and will do so throughout September with the season usually finishing off in late October.”

Pickers utilise trolleys to move up and down the rows of tables, looking for ripe strawberries and placing them in trays ready for packing.

Mr Fairweather said there are several benefits to growing strawberries on tables.

“It’s easier for the pickers to pick the strawberries and saves them from having to bend down low so that’s an improvement in Workplace Health and Safety,” Mr Fairweather said.

Beneath the tables, grass grows as thick and healthy as it does in a park.

“We use a quarter of the water on table crops and plants use up 90% of the water within the irrigation system,” Mr Fairweather said.

“The leftover water is for the grass.

“Because of this there are no erosion issues and no water runoff which helps to maintain high water quality in the dams.”

The two farms combined utilise about 40 hectares for production and the plan is to fully incorporate the hydroponic system with tables across all strawberry fields by 2023.

As with most farms, there’s a lot of responsibility to juggle – the wellbeing of staff, the packing process, sustainable environmental management and maintaining the Fair Farms standard.

Taste ‘n’ See, which was originally Sedex certified, became Fair Farms certified in June.

For Tahlia Stothart, who manages the office and paperwork that comes with running a large operation, the Australian-centric design of Fair Farms was reassuring.

She said the transition from Sedex to Fair Farms was smooth, and that the assessment and auditing process leaves growers with a clear mindset in terms of what they need to focus on to meet workplace and industrial relations benchmarks.

“We found the online self-assessment questions direct and industry specific,” Ms Stohart said.

“It helped us to identify areas we are doing well in and a few areas that could be revisited or updated.

“You know what you’ve got to do next and if you’re not sure about something, links are available to research what Fair Farms requires.

“Training is also available and we had an online Zoom meeting with a trainer to help.”

Like undertaking any transition or gaining a new responsibility, it was the fear of the unknown that proved daunting.

However, once the online self-assessment was completed, the two families felt they were in a clear mind about meeting Fair Farms certification – industry benchmarks relating to the wellbeing of staff and meeting workplace and industrial relations requirements.

Samantha Stewart, from TSL Family Farms, said the Fair Farms certification is about taking proactive steps every year to keep ahead.

Ms Stewart said the Fair Farms online self-assessment was indicative of the state of business, leaving the user with an understanding of what their next step would be.

“I enjoyed the process of the Fair Farms audit, I like the checks,” Ms Stewart said.

“There’s a satisfaction in knowing things are being checked.

“It’s disappointing if there’s a view that’s negative from consumers about fruit and veg growers.

“If we can show we are doing a good job then we should – it protects our business.

“For us we like to provide a fair farm for our workers – to make it a great place to work where employees will want to return each season.

“If there’s any issues on-farm, workers know what to do and who to communicate with and there’s documentation in place for these types of processes. It’s a fair playing field.”

These are the types of Employment Relations and Workplace Health and Safety practices that may give businesses a chance to attract and retain staff with more ease.

During peak season, the two farms employ upward of 350 workers.

The farms have always employed a large percentage of returning local employees each season as well as working holiday makers, particularly during the peak season, with an increase in workers for a shorter period of time, when required.

Faced with the challenges of COVID travel restrictions and recruiting workers, the Taste ‘n’ See brand has partnered with Approved Employers of the Seasonal Worker Programme, and for the first time is employing additional workers from Timor-Leste, Samoa and Tonga.

“The Government needs to be aware of the critical shortages of seasonal and transient workers,” Mr Fairweather said.

Apart from the continual transition to hydroponic system on tables and the benefits it has brought to workers, the environment and production quality, Taste ‘n’ See is confident that Fair Farms is the right choice; farmers doing their bit to boost industry perception.

“It is important to us that our business and our industry can display that we are operating fairly and professionally, and Fair Farms certification helps us to do this,” Ms Stewart said.

“If we can show that we are a Fair Farm we can be seen as an employer of choice to potential employees.”

In the words of Mr Fairweather, “reputation is important.”

The Taste ‘n’ See brand was established in 2003 by Stothart Family Farms and TSL Family Farms.

Both families have grown strawberries since the 1970s and put their successful partnership down to respect, faith and helping one another out when things get tough.