It was a balmy winter day when I drove through the back roads of Belli Park towards a small farm gate selling the rare feijoa fruit. Like everyone on the Coast, the infamous photos of Myrtle, the retro-fitted coffee caravan, had sparked my curiosity—what was happening out here at Belli Park? And what the heck is a feijoa?
If you don’t already know, a feijoa is a small, green fruit native to the highlands of southern Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, and northern Argentina. Extremely popular in New Zealand, many people believe they are native. Sally Hookey and Peter Heineger at Hinterland Feijoas, are one of the only feijoa growers in Australia and to top that, they also run an OGA Certified Organic farm.
Hosted as a Food Agribusiness Network workshop, the day started off with a spread of home-made cakes and scones smothered in tangy feijoa jam. The Food Agribusiness Network or “FAN” is the conduit for communication, collaboration and co-operation, promoting knowledge acquisition and sharing amongst growers and food producers in the greater Sunshine Coast region. Developed through a partnership between Sunshine Coast Council and Visit Sunshine Coast, FAN has roughly 165 members across the Sunshine Coast and is growing quickly.
After nibbles and networking with members of FAN, Sally Hookey gave an inspiring talk about how to start a successful farm gate despite the risks. It’s in her blood—both she and Peter grew up on farms, albeit larger wool and broad-acre farms. When they purchased their property in Belli Park, they wanted to grow a new, niche product as it was only 11 acres.
“We bravely decided, despite our background, that we would start-up with a new product because we only had a small amount of land and we didn’t want to enter commercial markets. We knew the problems associated with being a price taker and we wanted to be price makers. So, we bravely started a new crop!”
Sally and Peter chose the land because of its view, the water and its proximity to tourist locations—the main one being the Eumundi Markets. The house, barely liveable, didn’t get them over the line, but they loved the land. And despite their success today, things weren’t looking up from the start.
“We’re big planners,” explained Sally, “but we also follow our heart and just go for it. We learned a lot along the way—the first trees we planted, we lost half of them. It wasn’t a great business plan at that point, but we learned how to grow them differently.”
Deciding to grow feijoas with no experience and no established market proved to be a challenge Sally and Peter tackled. “We had to develop a market as we went,” explained Sally. “There was no market for this fruit in Australia. We had to know how to market and understand that it would be a niche product and we could not rely on other people to sell it. We had to grow it, sell it, brand ourselves and market ourselves.”
“For the first five years, all we did was plant,” said Sally. “We went five years without any cash flow! During the fifth year, we had some fruit and we started to develop our market.”
Sally and Peter didn’t sell fruit from the start, but instead developed their preserve products. According to Sally, “We investigated and learned all about food processing and labeling laws, product liability and all the things you need to do to put a food on the market. We didn’t want to put fruit on the market until it was A Grade. It can take 3-4 years of fruiting to get really A Grade fruit. But low and behold the second year, we had the perfect fruit and that was when we opened our farm. That was about four years ago.”
Sally and Peter started selling from a table and their garage which they still use today as the farm shop. Customers came willingly to pick up their boxes of the coveted feijoa fruit directly from their farm. Sally prefers the direct customer contact as it provides customer feedback. “We discovered that people were happy to drive a very long way,” explained Sally. “In fact we have a customer who comes from Townsville every year.”
“It’s still amazing to us that we are of such interest,” said Sally. “We just work away selling our product. We’re not thinking about anyone else, just doing what we want to do. It’s amazing how much interest there is from the public about what we’re growing and how we grow it. If you’re going to have a farm gate, you have to allow people into your lives and into your story.”
But, like all things, there are cons to running a farm gate. People arrive at any time of the day despite their stated open hours. According to Sally, “They want to talk to us even if we aren’t open! And sometimes I’m in my pyjamas, but they don’t care! If you’re not comfortable with that, don’t go into this business! I am a natural storyteller, whereas Pete is not. He grew up on a big old farm and they just went off in a truck and never spoke to any customers. We really had to think about this before we opened up. You’re opening up yourself and your home and you need to consider all those things before you open up your business.”
Sally and Peter truly enjoy their farm gate lifestyle. They find that people are eager to help them succeed. According to Sally, it’s because “our customers understand our ethics and what we’re doing. We’ve become friends with lots and lots of our customers, we’ve watched their children grow up! It’s a nice business, it feels like family and that’s what you can expect. It’s sociable, it’s community, it’s sustainable, you’re outside, it feels good!”
“If your intentions are clear people will understand them really well,” said Sally. “Match your business with your values so it doesn’t have to be said. When I spoke at TEDx, during the training they said ‘if your intentions are clear, people will understand what you’re saying regardless of the words.’ I really believe that because people will always say to us ‘I really feel so at home here,’ and that’s our intention. Think about what it is you want to create, match it all up and it will magically happen.”
To find out more about Hinterland Feijoas, visit the website. Watch Sally’s TEDx Noosa talk below.
To find out more about FAN, visit their website.