By HARRY CLARKE | SPONSORED
THOUSANDS of tonnes of succulent, scarlet fruit are coming off the vine ahead of next month’s Chinchilla Melon Festival, which returns from February 16-19 for the first time in four years.
The iconic biennial event, which celebrates Chinchilla’s famous fruity export, will draw thousands of visitors to the town for the first time since before the pandemic.
Pickers working on the rich melon country north of town have been sweltering through the summer in preparation for the festival and despite a slow start to the season, a solid year for Chinchilla watermelons is starting to come to fruition.
Second generation melon grower Terry O’Leary said this year had a tougher start than most as cloud cover and cooler temperatures delayed the first pick until mid December – about two weeks later than usual.
“On the 1st of December it was 17 degrees and six days later it was 38 degrees. It’s pretty hard to grow a summer desert crop when you’ve got such big fluctuations,” O’Leary said.
“Melons like hot weather, they like dry weather generally but these sorts of peaks and troughs in the weather certainly has a lot of challenges.
“The less UV light you have hitting your leaves, the less photosynthesis you have, the less carbohydrates you have flowing through your plant into your fruit.”
But with the picking season running all the way through “until ANZAC Day”, O’Leary said there’d be plenty of fruit to go to market and plenty for the thousands of Melon Festival punters to smash, toss and devour next month.
He said growers were also heralding the return of overseas workers after international borders reopened.
“We’ve got backpackers coming back into the country for the first time in a few years, so these guys are really keen to get in and give it go,” he said.
“They’re pretty excited for the Melon Festival as well. It’s a good lure to get people to come and work in the paddock for us. And they’ve been enjoying the lifestyle around Chinchilla – going to the races and shooting clay pigeons in their spare time.
Belgian national Joran Crabbe is among the picking team on the O’Leary melon patch and said he was enjoying the novelty of working in Chinchilla during a Melon Festival year, while also learning a great deal about our local agriculture.
“It’s really lovely. I really enjoy it over here, learning lot of new stuff about how much is actually in involved in growing watermelons,” he said.
“For me, as an outsider, you kind of take for granted how much effort is put into it. They’re lovely people, we’re learning a lot and having a blast over here.”
Down the road, Tom and Emily Brett’s season had the same struggles early in the season but picking had reached full flight by the start of 2023.
Emily is the daughter of longstanding Chinchilla melon grower Ian Beard, while Tom is a former electrician whose career gradually transitioned into farming.
The couple said they were enjoying being among the next generation of local growers and carrying on the family tradition, while also supplying the fruit for which Chinchilla and it’s Melon Festival had become internationally renowned.
“Originally I was a sparkie and started in power generation, did a few other things and then ended up in the gas industry with QGC,” Brett said.
“I used that as a stepping stone to get into farming. We bought a smaller block closer in to town, threw a few melons in and had a bit of a play around. An opportunity came up to buy here (the melon property Bar-K) and we had a crack,” Tom Brett said.
“With the assistance of Emily’s dad, his knowledge and experience, we got into it. We’ve had some tough times – hail storms, flooding and all the usual, but it’s been great.”
Emily Brett added: “I think I’ve been involved with growing watermelons for 25 years or something, and it’s good because it’s an outside job, keeps me out of the office, I know the industry and I enjoy it.”