Robert Quirk looks out over the property he's worked for more than 40 years as he prepares to hand the property over.
Robert Quirk looks out over the property he's worked for more than 40 years as he prepares to hand the property over. Ella Archibald-Binge

Granite Belt loses another producer after grim harvest

AFTER 41 years working daylight to dark on his Amiens property, second-generation Granite Belt vegetable farmer Robert Quirk has had a gutful of the industry.

"I have no choice - either I sell or the banks will," he said.

"It's the end of the dream."

This weekend Mr Quirk will sell off the remnants of his machinery shed after making the sobering decision to sell the Quirk Brothers' cauliflower, cabbage and lettuce producing property in February.

More than 40 pieces of machinery will be sold at the Quirk's farm auction this Saturday. Photo Emma Boughen / The Bush Telegraph
More than 40 pieces of machinery will be sold at the Quirk's farm auction this Saturday. Photo Emma Boughen / The Bush Telegraph Emma Boughen

Come the end of June, Taylor Family Produce will take over the 100ha property.

"I held on 12 months too long," Mr Quirk said.

"I never had any intentions of selling - that just wasn't in the plan.

"I've got a son (Brad) and a grandson (Andrew) I was hoping would take it over, but they'll look after themselves now."

Mr Quirk maintains that his story "isn't a sob story", but the all-too-familiar tale of a farmer fighting a losing battle against the rising cost of production, wages and the weather.

"It's the same old story - blame it on the chain stores. We either need decent prices from them or hope some other poor bloke gets cut out with hail," he said.

"Things were good when we took over but then we had a year of drought - the prices haven't been any good since.

"We just got that far behind, and then last year was a disaster because of the hail and this year was the worst growing season I've seen in 40 years."

The clincher of Mr Quirk's story is that his sale follows that of another iconic farming family's property.

The sale earlier this year leaves just a handful of family operations on the Granite Belt.

This is a concept almost unimaginable less than one generation ago.

"The small family farms that don't need to hire people will be alright; same for the big guys who can absorb the costs, but the middle-size operations like us won't survive," Mr Quirk said.

"From about 2000 onwards, there was a shift - you had to get bigger to survive."

And expand the Quirks did, to a point.

After taking over the farm from his dad Jim in 1999, Mr Quirk doubled the size and production of the property.

Jim established the property in 1967 with his brother William, doing away with the 48ha of existing fruit tree orchard, deciding instead to focus on ground crops in 1967.

Mr Quirk said he would miss the job. "I don't know if it was ever fun, but you do it because you like the job, that's the only reason really. There's no money in it - it was my hobby," he said.

Even trialling wombok and cabbage for the first time this year wasn't enough to change the Quirks' fortunes.

"We can't keep growing more and more, and continuing to get less and less for it," Mr Quirk said.

Another change in the industry which contributed to the problem was the sensitivity of modern vegetable varieties, he said.

"It grows to a time slot. You've got different varieties for summer, autumn, winter and spring but, when the weather is out and it's hot - when it's not supposed to be like it was in October, it all just went to seed. It was stuffed."

During the harvest season, the Quirk family has about 15 people on staff, 10 of whom would be backpackers and five locals.

The family even grew cauliflower through the winter months to ensure the local workers had employment in the off-season.

"Employees now just don't seem to give a stuff about anything - to a lot of them they're only doing a job.

"It doesn't seem to worry them if they don't show up or break something," he said.

The vast majority of the Quirks' produce is sold through the Brisbane market - that's another issue, according to Mr Quirk.

"If you sell direct to Woolworths or Coles, they take a 3% fee, but the Brisbane markets take 15% so that's an automatic 12% advantage the guys big enough to go direct to the chains have over us," he said.

"We used to have a six to eight-week window at the beginning of the season where we were the only ones on the market, so prices were good. It set us up for the rest of the season, but we haven't had that for years now.

"I don't know how everyone else is going but we're struggling like buggery."

With just 1.2ha of cauliflowers left to harvest, Mr Quirk is hoping to be finished by mid-June, just in time to hand over to the Taylors.

"They run a good operation, they'll probably look after it better than I did," Mr Quirk said.

As for his family's plans at the end of June, Mr Quirk is leaving that up to his wife Sue.

"We might go for a holiday first up - it's been a bloody long time since we've had a decent one of those," he said.

Though looking forward to a holiday, Mrs Quirk said she was sad to see the place go.

"I can remember taking Brad out in a playpen while I picked lettuce - the boys really put a lot of work into this place over the years," she said.