Apples grow a tourism business

Apples grow a tourism business


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Ross and Tara Cheesewright may be accidental orchardists but their business model

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They may have been clueless about apples - "We had one tree that never bore a single apple" - but business savvy has made successful orchardists of a suburban couple.

During a break to stretch their legs, Ross and Tara Cheesewright saw the potential of a little fruit barn on the Princes Highway at Bunyip.

Nine years on, the couple owns the burgeoning Sherwood Park Orchard and cafe.

It started small. The 18-hectare property had 350 established late-season varieties, including Sundowners, Granny Smiths and Pink Ladies.

Since then, the Cheesewrights have planted 800 more trees including Jonathon, Galas, Fuji and Snow apples to extend their picking season.

Another 1000 cherry trees have gone in, too, and will be ready for picking in the next two to three years.

An hour from Melbourne enroute to Gippsland, Sherwood Park Orchard is perfectly positioned for tourism.

On Anzac Day, the Cheesewrights had a marquee on the lawn to cater for the hundreds who arrived to pick apples straight from their trees.

"Ninety-nine per cent of our trade is from people passing by," Ms Cheesewright said.

"There are work commuters, elderly people making trips to the city and a really diverse crowd of people who want to know where their food comes from."

Visitors pay $3 a kilogram or $2.50/kg for more than 10kg to pick their own apples from Sherwood Park Orchard.

"There are lots of families who buy box after box after box - particularly those with European heritage whose traditions are all about food and family," Ms Cheesewright said.

While Ms Cheesewright is dedicated to the hospitality side, Mr Cheesewright is the grower.

With eight employees on the books, it is a small, hardworking team and the learning curve for Mr Cheesewright was steep.

"The family who moved out gave us a few tips and said 'Apple trees are tough and you can't do anything to kill them, so don't stress'," Mr Cheesewright recalled.

"We were buying in apples, talking to people and had some help from local workers.

"The first year, we didn't have a tractor so decided organic was the way to go but got hit hard with black spot and didn't get one edible apple from the whole orchard."

Today, the Cheesewrights spray early for black spot but not within six months of the picking season.

"It's very, very low chemical use," he said.

Understanding cherry production is the next big challenge for Mr Cheesewright.

"We're learning to prune them for the you-pick scenario," he said.

"We want as many branches as possible from the lower trunk and then we'll be hedge pruning them to between 2-2.5 metres for the rest of their life.

Also planned are extensions to the shop already crammed with fruit, home-made goodies and local produce.

"It's been a long and tortuous process but council has approved a modified fit-out," Ms Cheesewright said.

"We can double the size of the cool room and add a sandwich bar.

"But what I really want is a full commercial kitchen and, long term, we will go back to council and see if we can get it.

"We want to take the business to the next level."

The pick-your-own season finished last weekend and will begin again in mid-April 2020.

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