Home' Grower : May 2013 Contents The South Australian Grower -- May 2013
Vines flourish in Rocky NT terrain
By COLIN BETTLES
WHEN he is not racing at 140
dangerous off-road terrain
in the Dakar rally, Richie Hayes
risks his head and skin growing
table grapes in dr y, dusty conditions
in central Australia.
Pastoral lease laws strictly limit
most northern landholders to cattle
production. But many years ago,
Richie's grandfather Ted Hayes had
the foresight to freehold a 2000-
hectare section of the family's
14,000 square kilometre cattle sta-
tion Undoolya, near Alice Springs
in the Northern Territor y.
The freehold arrangement was
struck before the introduction of
native title laws, allowing the Hayes
family to diversify production and
earn additional income in the test-
ing desert-like conditions.
Initially, the relaxed land tenure
arrangements saw the family grow
lucerne for cattle feed but Rocky
Hill now produces Menindee seed-
less white table grapes -- and gets
some rich rewards.
Mr Hayes said some seasons were
tough but he "creamed it" a few
times, earning gross income of
about $4 million -- or the equivalent
of running two cattle stations --
when ever ything went according to
He started clearing his 60ha horti-
cultural block on new years' day in
2002, and said it looked just like
any other NT cattle station before it
was cleared -- covered in red dust
"To some people it's a bit unimag-
inable and a bit crazy that a cow
cockie is growing grapes in the mid-
dle of the outback -- but that's what
I'm doing," he said on a guided
media tour of Rocky Hill, ahead of
the Northern Territory Cattlemens'
Association conference last month.
Mr Hayes said it cost him
$400,000 to drill a 165-metre
underground bore and $1m to
build 8 kilometres worth of power
lines to generate electricity.
The bore taps into the Mereenie
Basin, which is like an underground
ocean beneath the farm that also
supplies water for the Alice Springs
Water is pumped from 100m deep
at about 30 litres a second, feeding
grape vines through a sophisticated
and automated drip irrigation sys-
The grapes start ripening in
September and are ready for picking
in late November or early
Har vest involves a tireless and
dedicated workforce of about 70
fr uit pickers who have gruelling
shifts that start at 4am each day and
go well into the evening.
Time is money as Mr Hayes cracks
a strategic whip in racing to com-
plete har vest in three to four weeks
to minimise wage bills that build up
to $150,000 a week.
Or maybe it's just a warm-up for
The grapes are picked and boxed
out in the field and loaded onto
tr ucks headed for Mildura to be
redistributed onto Brisbane,
Sydney and Melbourne for sale into
major supermarkets such as Coles,
Woolworths and IGA.
Mr Hayes pays a business connec-
tion in Mildura to help redistribute
his produce and ensure it is sold
into the right markets, at the right
time of year.
With the temperature at 48C
degrees "in the shade" during fruit
picking season, it presents challeng-
ing but rewarding work conditions.
Mr Hayes said a gun fruit picker is
no different to a gun shearer, with
one employee making $1000 a day
several seasons ago, paid by the
He said each box of grapes weighs
10.2kg and earns him $55 at mar-
ket, with a 40ha har vest returning
1000 pallets weighing 1 tonne
Mr Hayes said cattle and grape
production methods had notable
similarities. He said grapes drank
similar volumes of water to cows
and the vines needed to be careful-
ly pruned, which required close
attention to detail, as would animal
Horticulture production is not
highly unusual in the region, with
date farms nearby and grapes pro-
duced in similar conditions at Ti
Tree, about 200km north of Alice
Mr Hayes said in the past he had
grown melons, cabbage and zuc-
chini on his 60ha horticultural
block and was considering planting
asparagus, garlic and onions.
He is now experimenting with a
red grape variety that could "almost
write my own cheque" if the crop
was timed to reach the Christmas
Mr Hayes said he needed only
one cool night just before har vest
to make the grapes turn red but
there was no guarantee in an area
where midnight temperatures
stood at 36C degrees most nights.
It is not all smooth sailing at
Rocky Hill, with some seasons pre-
senting tough challenges.
Last year, Rocky Hill lost its unin-
sured grape crop virtually overnight
after being struck by a violent
storm that split the grapes and
made them virtually worthless.
The water may cost nothing but
electricity bills are escalating, forc-
ing Mr Hayes to investigate expen-
sive investments in solar powered
To minimise risks, Mr Hayes said
he must duplicate sections of the
operation. For instance, a pump
worth $60,000 that sits idle but
provides insurance for an ill-timed
emergency that could potentially
cripple the business.
When he is not growing and pick-
ing grapes or experimenting with
other crops, Mr Hayes helps run
the family's 12,000 head of cattle at
After har vest, he spends a month
working on the support crew at the
Dakar rally as a mechanic.
The endurance race originally ran
from Paris to Dakar in Senegal,
West Africa but in more recent
times has been held in South
It takes place in off-road terrain
where competitors traverse dunes,
mud heaps, camel grass, rocks and
other obstacles in covering dis-
tances of up to 900km a day.
"Its how I like to unwind after
har vest," Mr Hayes said.
Richie Hayes with his Menindee seedless table grape vines grown at Rocky Hill, near Alice Springs in
The green vineyard stands out against the typically red and scrubby
terrain of the Northern Territory.
Bore taps Mereenie Basin
Seedless table grapes shine
Freehold arrangement boon
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