WHEN he’s not racing at 140kms per hour through dangerous off-road terrain in the Dakar rally, Richie Hayes risks his head and skin growing table grapes in dry, dusty conditions in central Australia.
Pastoral lease laws limit most northern land holders strictly to cattle production.
But many years ago, Richie’s grandfather Ted Hayes had the foresight to freehold a 2000 hectare section of the family’s 14,000 square kilometre cattle station Undoolya, near Alice Springs in the NT.
The freehold arrangement was struck prior to the introduction of native title laws, allowing the Hayes family to diversify production and earn additional income, in the testing desert-like conditions.
Initially, the relaxed land tenure arrangements saw the family grow lucerne for cattle feed but Rocky Hill now produces Menindee seedless white table grapes, for some rich rewards.
Mr Hayes said some seasons are tough but he has, “creamed it” a few times, earning gross income of about $4 million - or the equivalent of running two cattle stations - when everything’s gone according to plan.
Mr Hayes started clearing his 60ha horticultural block on new year's day in 2002, which he said looked just like any other NT cattle station prior to clearing, covered in red dust and scrub.
“To some people it’s a bit unimaginable and a bit crazy that a cow cocky is growing grapes in the middle of the outback - but that’s what I’m doing,” he said on a guided media tour of Rocky Hill, ahead of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association conference last week.
Mr Hayes said it cost him $400,000 to drill a 165 metre underground bore and $1 million to build 8km worth of power lines to generate electricity.
The bore taps into the Mereenie Basin which is like an underground ocean beneath the farm that also supplies water for Alice Springs.
Water is pumped from 100m deep at about 30 litres per second, feeding grape vines through a sophisticated and automated drip irrigation system.
The grapes start ripening in September and are ready for picking in late November or early December.
Harvest involves a tireless and dedicated work force of about 70 fruit pickers, with gruelling shifts starting at about 4am each day, going well into the evening.
Time is money as Mr Hayes cracks a strategic whip in racing to complete harvest in three to four weeks, to minimise the $150,000 per week wages bill.
Or maybe it’s just a warm up for Dakar?
The grapes are picked and boxed out in the field and loaded onto trucks headed for Mildura to be redistributed onto Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne for sale into major supermarkets like Coles, Woolworths and IGA.
“Anyone that wants fruit gets the crop,” he said.
Mr Hayes pays a business connection in Mildura to help re-distribute his produce and ensure it’s sold into the right markets, at the right time of year.
With the temperature hitting 48 degrees “in the shade” during fruit picking season, it presents challenging but rewarding work conditions.
Mr Hayes said a gun fruit picker was no different to a gun shearer, with one employee making $1000 per day several seasons ago, paid by the box.
He said each box of grapes weighed 10.2kg and earned him $55 at market, with a 40ha harvest returning 1000 pallets weighing 1 tonne each.
Mr Hayes said cattle and grape production methods shared some notable similarities.
He said grapes drank similar volumes of water to cows and the vines needed to be carefully pruned which required close attention to detail, just like animal husbandry.
“Grapes and cows are both living, growing organisms,” he said.
“If you give the grapes what they need to grow and survive they’ll give you what you need at the end of the season, just like cows do.”
Horticulture production is not highly unusual in the region, with date farms nearby and grapes produced in similar conditions at Ti Tree, about 200km north of Alice Springs.
Mr Hayes said in the past he had also grown melons, cabbage and zucchini on his horticultural block and is considering planting asparagus and garlic and an approach to grow onions.
Currently, he’s experimenting with a red grape variety where he could “almost write my own cheque” if the crop was timed to reach the Christmas market.
Mr Hayes said he needed only one cool night just before harvest to make the grapes turn red, but there was no guarantee when the temperature hovered around 36 degrees at midnight on most nights.
It’s not all smooth sailing at Rocky Hill with some seasons presenting tough challenges.
Last year, Rocky Hill lost its uninsured grape crop virtually overnight after being struck by a violent storm which split the grapes.
The water may cost nothing but the electricity bills are escalating, forcing Mr Hayes to investigate expensive investments in solar powered energy sources.
To minimise risks, Mr Hayes said he must duplicate sections of the operation like a pump worth $60,000 that sits idle but provides insurance for an ill-timed emergency that could potentially cripple the business.
When he’s not growing and picking grapes or experimenting with other crops, Mr Hayes helps out with running the family’s 12,000 head of cattle on Undoolya station.
After harvest, he spends a month working on support crew as a mechanic for competing race cars in the Dakar Rally.
The race originally ran from Paris to Dakar in Senegal, West Africa but in more recent times has been held in South America.
The endurance race takes place in off-road terrain where competitors traverse dunes, mud heaps, camel grass, rocks and other obstacles in covering distances of up to 900km per day.
“Its how I like to unwind after harvest,” Mr Hayes said.