Ceres Farm: Reaping the bounty of a productive region

For seven years, Melanie and Matt Gray have made a life and living for themselves and their three young boys near Kununurra in the northwest of Western Australia.

On their Ceres Farm, they are making the most of the region’s water supplies and rich soil to produce watermelons, pumpkins, sweetcorn and grain crops such as sunflower, maize, sorghum, chickpeas and mung beans.

“Farming in the north is great because the opportunities on offer are endless and every year we trial growing something new—it’s what gets us out of bed every day,” says Matt.

Melanie is a second generation Kununurra farmer, with her parents Wilhelm and Gabi Bloecker moving to the East Kimberley in the early 1970s. Matt, who hails from the south, says the reliable supply of water from the Ord River Irrigation Scheme was key to he and Melanie establishing their family business in the north.

“For us as investors and horticultural farmers, secure water is number one,” he says.

The Grays say living remote—they are over 3,000 kilometres from the state capital Perth—can be challenging, especially managing the costs and time involved in freighting equipment and supplies into their farm and getting their fresh, high-quality products out to markets, including overseas.

Another challenge can be securing a reliable and predictable supply of labour, especially across peak seasons when it is critical to harvest and pack produce within tight time limits.

“Previously we were relying mainly on backpacker labour,” says Melanie. “It could be unreliable and at times we’d be short of staff unexpectedly and had to do a lot of training, which was hard on the business.”

Now, where needed, they are employing workers from Timor-Leste for periods of up to six months with support from the Australian Government’s Seasonal Worker Programme, which has allowed them to establish a more reliable workforce.

The Grays have had cultural advice and assistance from local consultants on how to make the employment of East Timorese workers a success, and up to eight East Timorese staff now work on Ceres Farm alongside 15 other casual and permanent staff during busy periods.

While Kununurra, which is home to about 7,000 people, is remote, the Grays say it is not isolated.

“It is a small town but because it is remote we have a very strong community and a lot of support,” says Melanie.

“In a community like this you are a part of the netball team, the football and soccer clubs and there is just so much on offer. We rely on and help each other and are like a big close knit family.”

The town is home to a diverse range of industries, such as mining, agriculture, tourism and government services.

“We love living and working here and being able to grow our children up in such a beautiful, natural environment,” Matt says. “The Kimberley is renowned for its huge red ranges and they border our farm, so when you take five minutes to look up it is breathtaking.”

“We love what we can teach our children here and are very lucky to be working and living in this community.”

Read more at ceresfarm.com.au.

Image: Melanie and Matt Gray and their family on Ceres Farm, Western Australia.

Published: 16 October 2017