Russell Chapman’s first job was in a bank but, after four years, he decided to follow his childhood dream of working on a farm. He cut sugar cane by hand until he saw an opportunity to buy cheap land – though it was cheap for a good reason. His investment consisted of nothing more than a bare and uneven block of dirt in the frontier country of Gumlu, Queensland.
“My wife Helen and I started by building a shed with somewhere to live and farming any areas we could,” Russell says. “You have to have level ground for irrigation so we picked the best spots we could find, put in the first irrigation bore and started growing small crops of capsicums and cucumbers. At first, we did everything ourselves, gradually levelling more and more ground and building infrastructure bit by bit.”
The impact of technology
This was 30 years ago, when produce travelled to city markets by train. “We didn’t even have forklifts – we used to load the boxes on to the train by hand,” says Russell. “We’d been doing that for about 10 years when refrigerated semi-trailers finally started picking the produce up from the farm.”
Since then, developments in technology have supported the farm’s exponential growth. “For years, we did all of the packing by hand and the grading by eye,” says Russell. “Then we got together with three other farmers to build a central pack house with computerised equipment that does it all. There are now 1.4 million cartons going through this pack house each year, 550,000 of them ours, and that’s a lot of capsicums, rock melons, honeydew melons and mangoes.
We can use an iPhone to change the irrigation scheduling and control the pumps and outlets. And the tractors have GPS navigation – if you take your hands off the steering wheel they drive themselves. When we started out no-one would have believed any of this was possible. It would’ve sounded like science fiction.”
There have also been major changes in the way the Chapmans sell their produce. As well as supplying terminal markets in every state they deal directly with both Coles and Woolworths, export to New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore and are developing a market in China.
“In agriculture you have to be able to adapt or you’ll be left behind,” says Russell. “Your customers are changing all the time and you have to be prepared to grow what they want.”
A family affair
As the business grew, the Chapman children took on increasingly important roles. Today, Russell and Helen’s two sons, daughter, son-in-law and daughter-in-law all have a share in the business and are very committed to working on the farm.
“They’ve grown up with technology but they still understand that you can’t farm from an office desk,” says Russell. “In horticulture in particular, timing is critical so you’ve got to be out there walking around looking at what’s happening. You’ve got to be hands on and you’ve got to be dedicated.”
As for the immediate future, the Chapmans recently invested in a run-down cattle property which they’re in the process of clearing step by step. They plan to start planting sugar cane next year – and this time, Russell won’t be cutting it by hand!
This article was first published on NAB Business View. Republished with permission 2013.