By Richelle Zealley
Born to an apple-growing family and working at Hansen Orchards in Tasmania got Thomas Griggs interested in the apple industry, but it was his time spent completing a Diploma of Agribusiness at Marcus Oldham that gave new momentum to his horticultural career.
During the last 12 months Thomas has formed life long friendships with people from a range of backgrounds within agriculture. He has also developed his knowledge of the industry and is looking for an internship to continue his professional development.
Thomas is a seventh generation apple grower who, like many young people with a passion for growing apples, would like to take over his family orchard, Griggs Bros, one day.
“I am still quite young with a lot to learn but my goal is to one day take on the management of my family orchard,” says Thomas.
“In reality there aren’t many young people entering the industry – not like there were when my dad was looking to choose his career. I guess back then there wasn’t much choice – if your dad and grandfather grew apples then it was quite likely that you would too.”
It’s due to this lack of interest that Thomas sees potential for himself in the industry.
“It’s an exciting time for apples. It’s not as competitive to enter horticulture as it is to enter the broad acre or cattle industries,” Thomas explains.
Thomas likes the challenge of establishing an orchard, which can take anywhere up to seven years before you start to make good returns – compared to broad acre cropping which provides returns in the first year.
Planning for a future
The Griggs family has been growing apples in Tasmania for many years and when Thomas’ father Tim was younger severe bushfires destroyed their orchard so they had to sell their farm.
“Since then, Dad and his brothers, Stuart and Bradley, have gradually been repurchasing land and increasing their orchard and have just bought another 40 acres. Hopefully that will be planted out this year or next.
“Growing apples is more of a passion for them, they all have other jobs but the vision is to build their orchard to become their main source of income.
The Griggs mainly grow apples – Gala, Pink LadyTM and Fuji, they also have a small area planted with EnvyTM and Rubigold® – and cherries but also have a few hectares of blueberries.
“My uncle Stuart manages the packing shed for Reid Fruits. He is also the only paid employee at Griggs Bros and works there for about eight months of the year, but it’s getting to the stage where they could use him full time.”
Thomas’ dad also has about four hectares of his own that they tinker around in together.
“I don’t have a lot to do with the main farm – it’s for Dad, his two brothers and Pop and they kind of do it all,” says Thomas.
“I’d like the business to get to the point where I could work on it and help build it up a bit more. But it’s up to them if they want to keep or sell it, if they want me to come and be involved in the business I would happily do so. But for now, Dad’s got his little nursery at home that we can slowly build for ourselves.
“At the same time there’s a really big opportunity with Howard (Hansen) that I would like to build too. Hansen’s are just getting bigger and bigger by the day and there I could be anything from farm manager to being involved with marketing and could go a long way.”
A holiday job has led to a career
Thomas has been working at Hansen Orchards in the Huon Valley in Tasmania for the last four years.
“My family send their apples to Hansen’s packing shed. Dad was doing a drop off one day and came home and said ‘you’re going to work at Howard’s (Hansen Orchards) next week,’ so I started working there during my year 10 school holidays,” says Thomas.
Thomas completed year 12 in 2014 and commenced a school-based apprenticeship, Certificate III in Production Based Horticulture that has a practical focus on growing trees, while working at Hansen Orchards. However, he put completing it on hold to take up the opportunity to study the diploma at Marcus Oldham, but plans to finish it when he returns to Tasmania.
Indeed it was Howard Hansen who recommended that Thomas attend Marcus Oldham and encouraged him to apply for the New Horizons Scholarship. Howard was the last horticulture-focused person to go through Marcus Oldham so was well aware of the benefits.
Learnings after 12 months’ study
The main stand outs from the last 12 months of Thomas’ study is that to make a business viable you need to have strong cash flow and it’s imperative to diversify to reduce the risk factor.
“One thing we’ve learnt at Marcus Oldham is the importance of diversification. At home we grow cherries, apples and blueberries and they all have the same risk factor – frost, rain, hail. If you had something completely different on-farm, such as cattle, that would be a good way to manage your risks and get a more regular cash-flow for your business,” says Thomas.
“They basically say to us ‘in business cash is king’ – which is key I suppose.
“I’ve learned that to succeed in fruit growing everything, from pruning to netting, has to be simple, low-cost and spot on. It’s also important to have a good market too, you can spend a lot of money putting on a new variety but if something changes and there is no demand for your product what do you do? You’re constantly going with the market and need to be aware of many different factors.”
Staying ahead of the game
Thomas also acknowledges the importance of keeping up to date with technology.
“At Hansen’s they’ve got all the irrigation set up with solenoids, controlled through one main digital box at the pump shed,” says Thomas.
“I think APAL’s quite good with promoting things, including new technologies, to growers and encouraging them to look at and have a go at trying new things. You also learn things through word of mouth and by attending events like the National Horticulture Convention.”
Thomas has also found benefit in studying at Marcus Oldham even though none of his classmates are focused on horticulture.
“I have developed some great networks here that I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed in Tassie working on the farm. There will be a certain percentage of my classmates who will go into agribusiness – the banking and financial side of the industry – and I can see how we could work together in the future.”
“One thing Howard said that’s really stuck is that the networks you create while studying are invaluable – to be able to ring someone you know and say ‘what’s going on in your part of the world?’ Even though their focus could be different, you can tell them any issues or problems you may have and get their feedback about it.”
Networking and more
The opportunity to study at Marcus Oldham has also enabled Thomas to make other connections within the horticulture industry. As part of his scholarship he was required to attend the 2015 National Horticulture Convention where he listened in on the Key Stakeholders Roundtable and attended a range of events.
“At the Convention I talked to some of the bigger growers and it was really good. A lot of them said I could go and visit their orchards and I found I learned a lot during the event and just talking to other growers over a beer afterwards.”
Applied learning through study tours
During the year Thomas attended a variety of local and international study tours where they would visit businesses ranging from broad acre cropping, a dairy and ice cream factory and even a tea farm in China.
“There is definitely a big opportunity to export to China. It was quite an experience over there, but we didn’t see anything that was really agricultural – we went to one farm that had bits of wheat,” Thomas says.
Thomas found their business practices in China quite interesting and different to those in Australia. “One thing I found really strange was to go to a business meeting they end up getting really drunk – which is considered a good thing – and it’s more about finding a friend. They’re very friendly people.
“I was talking about fruit exports to an Australian guy who manages a steel manufacturing place there. He suggested that instead of importing produce through someone else to go there and market it yourself.
“Apparently the Chinese will pay big money for good product and if you put a story behind it and market that product well you’ll get crazy amounts of money for it.
“I experienced first hand their love for Australians in China. It didn’t matter where we went, if we said we were Australian they loved us, and the same with our produce, especially Tasmanian apples.”
Opportunities for Marcus Oldham students
Studying at Marcus Oldham has created some unique opportunities for Thomas who is looking for an internship opportunity this year to count towards his second year of study at Marcus Oldham. He will return to the college in 2017 to complete his studies in Farm Business Management.
“Anyone wanting a career in horticulture and growing fruit should look at coming to Marcus Oldham to learn and develop a strong business sense. I think the Agribusiness course would be really well suited to someone looking to study at the age of 25 or 26 – when you have a bit of experience behind you, and you’re probably ready to take the next step in your career into a more managerial role,” he suggests.
“I’ve still got a lot of basic learning to do, I might get to the stage where I forget what I’ve learned here as I’m not applying it every day.”
Thomas says the networks he’s made and learning about business structures and how everything works have been invaluable during his time at Marcus Oldham.
“If you want to further yourself in horticulture and don’t just want to be a tier one worker, you’ve got to know how to manage a business, what to look out for and how to keep up with technology.
“It’s really good in general, there’s a great bunch of people here, the school’s small, you know all the staff and students by name. We all live here together, everyone’s really friendly and it’s a good social life.”
What does the future hold?
Attending Marcus Oldham for the last 12 months has shown Thomas that his opportunities are endless and the horticulture industry is not only about growing fruit.
“People that come to Marcus Oldham go into banking, agribusiness, financial investing – all sorts of things,” says Thomas.
“In a large-scale apple operation I could be anything from a farm manager, marketing coordinator to a director. There’s a big scale of opportunity in the things you can do.
“In 10 years time I hope to be managing an orchard – maybe my own place. Or, I could be working in a bank somewhere – who knows.”
Many thanks to Thomas and his family for their time to help prepare this article and to Fred and Hannah photography for taking the photos.
Created with flickr slideshow.