Tableland banana grower Rock Ridge Farming was crowned Business of the Year at the 2021 Mareeba Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards in October.
Run by Peter and Chelley Howe and family, Rock Ridge Farming is a well-established banana and avocado enterprise which employs more than 200 people all-year round.
From their beginnings on a 20-acre avocado farm in 2004, the Howe family has developed a successful horticulture enterprise which grows avocados across six farms, some 50,000 trees, and bananas on three properties, totalling more than 700 acres, spread through Mareeba Shire and the southern Tablelands.
Rock Ridge Farming won the Excellence in Rural- Agriculture Award, granting them entry to be considered for the Business of the Year from five other category award winners, among the 37 award nominees honoured.
Peter and Chelley Howe said their staff was a key to Rock Ridge Farming’s success.
“We were both surprised and honoured to win the award,” Mrs Howe said.
“Our staff are amazing and their support has enabled us to win this award. It would not have been possible without every single person involved in our banana and avocado operations.”
Mrs Howe said supplying Aussie consumers with the highest quality produce was the cornerstone to the business.
“To do this, we have a hands-on approach with all aspects of our supply chain – from paddock to consumer,” Mrs Howe said.
“We pack and dispatch 100 per cent of our produce in house at two banana packing facilities and a new purpose-built packing facility for avocados.
“Overseeing the grading, packing, dispatch and marketing of our own fruit gives us confidence that only the best produce is being delivered to Australians and their families.”
The Howes welcomed son Tom and daughter Jess and her partner James into the business several years ago, while youngest son David has completed his apprenticeship and will join the business early next year.
While continuing to be competitive in the horticulture game, the last few years has seen a big focus on securing seasonal labour – an issue made more challenging in wake of the COVID-19 health pandemic and closure of international borders.
Daughter Jess Howe guided Rock Ridge Farming to become an Approved Employer in the Seasonal Worker Programme, which was secured in 2019.
“This means we could now manage our own work force by bringing seasonal workers into the country and employing them directly,” Ms Howe said.
“At the time we had no idea how valuable and how much of an asset this would be to our business.
“Rock Ridge has had to adapt quickly to source sufficient labour and, as a result of reduced backpacker numbers, we have experienced an increased reliance on the Seasonal Worker Programme.”
Rock Ridge Farming has taken it a step further, securing a temporary short-term lease of a suitable Regional Quarantine Facility for 160 persons in December and January.
“We have worked diligently to fill both our own labour gaps and those of other employers on the Tablelands,” Ms Howe said.
“These two arranged quarantines will benefit seven other local farmers directly and many other smaller growers indirectly.”
Peter Howe said Rock Ridge Farming was focused on providing a strong platform for business continuity while providing customers with the highest quality produce.
“To do this, we aim to maintain and improve on current management practices within the supply chain to ensure that only the best quality fruit is making it to our Aussie consumers,” Mr Howe said.
“We will continue to focus on growing a good product, grading and packing it well, ensuring it has a gentle journey to the shops and that it is sold within the appropriate timeframes.
“We can’t wait to see what the future of farming looks like for not only Rock Ridge Farming but for Australian farms in general.
“So much happening in this space and it’s such an exciting industry to base our futures on.”