The humble tomato is now grown all over the world. In Australia, the tiny town of Rochester in central Victoria has become known as the nation’s tomato growing capital.
Located approximately 180 kilometres north of Melbourne, Rochester is a largely agricultural district that is also rich in history, with an abundance of century old buildings and a museum that pays tribute to Sir Hubert Opperman, a champion cyclist who competed in Tour de France.
This tiny Victorian town is situated on the Campaspe River, with many lakes and waterways nearby. Its geography provides optimal conditions for farming activities – especially the tomato and dairy industries which are major contributors to the town’s economy. These industries were established in the region following World War II and have since experienced significant growth.
Australia’s tomato industry is divided into two separate categories, those that are grown for processing and those that are grown to be sold fresh at markets and food stores. Victoria is the main producer of tomatoes for the processed market, with its tomatoes accounting for more than 80 per cent of the nation’s total; while Queensland grows more than half the total amount that is sold fresh.
Many of Rochester’s tomato farmers are considered among the best growers in Australia. Every year, from September through to November, tomato seedlings are planted for the year ahead. The tomatoes require a 120 day growing cycle, from planting to harvest, however the first signs of red fruit can be seen after around 75 days. Early in the new year, harvesting can begin – from late January until early April.
But in January 2011, Rochester experienced record floods which caused significant damage to homes and businesses, and wiped out many crops – with tomato farmers also hit hard. Despite floods causing havoc on the region last year, tomato farmers have experienced much improved crops and higher yields for 2012.
The Weeks family owns one of Rochester’s most prominent tomato farms. They have a history of tomato growing in the town that extends 30 years and two generations. Bruce Weeks and his brother Phil planted their first tomato crops at their farm in Rochester in 1982. Then in 2002, Bruce’s son Dwight joined the family farm with his wife Sharon.
“Tomatoes are a very expensive crop to grow and they take a lot of skill. My father started growing tomatoes and slowly increased the size of the crop,” says Dwight. “Last year was a bad year because of the rain and floods. We lost a lot of the crop and only got up to about 30 per cent of our contract.
“Strangely, the ideal conditions for growing tomatoes are drought, because that way we are able to manage the amount of water we use.”
This year, approximately 10,000 tonnes of tomatoes were harvested from the Weeks’ 30 acre farm, with nearly 500 tonnes harvested per day.
Tomatoes are loved throughout the world for their delicious rich flavour. And, to ensure his tomatoes maintain this flavour intensity when they are tinned or processed, Dwight says that his tomatoes are only harvested when they are fully ripe. Harvesting is conducted quickly and efficiently using mechanical harvesters. “Many people find our tomato fields quite unusual because we don’t have a maze of tomato trellises. Instead we have bush vines, which allow for mechanical harvesting,” explains Dwight. “The mechanical harvesters pick the plants up at ground level and a shaker removes the plant and foliage. Any green tomatoes are automatically sorted out so that only ripe red tomatoes go to the factory to be processed.”
The tomatoes are cooked and sealed shortly after harvesting so all of the flavour is locked in.
With harvesting now complete for another year, the tomatoes that have resulted from the hard work of Rochester’s tomato farmers will be making their way to supermarket shelves across the nation. Dwight, along with fellow tomato farmers from the region will now begin to prepare for the 2013 harvest season.
Picture: Bruce Weeks and his son Dwight at their tomato farm in Rochester.