PHOTO: Richie Hayes says he wants to “do more” and see what other crops can be grown on Undoolya Station. (ABC: Kerry Staight)
Undoolya Station pioneers take gamble on grapes in red centre
The Hayes family has made a name for itself producing beef near Alice Springs for more than a century so it came as a surprise to some locals when the graziers diversified into table grapes in the semi-arid region.
The family and its Undoolya Station property inspired John Williamson’s song Three Sons but members said it was the land itself – in the middle of the country – that inspired them.
Until a decade ago, fifth generation cattleman Richie Hayes had no experience growing grapes.
But when the manager the family employed to set up their vineyard left, the father of three switched from Herefords to horticulture.
He did admit that to begin with, it was not just the fruit feeling the heat.
“Some blokes reckon it’s crazy but when it works, it works,” Mr Hayes said.
“I stuck my bum that far out in the wind I got sunburnt up to here,” Mr Hayes said, pointing to his neck.
“But it’s what you do. I’m into it, you commit to it, you go for it.”
After some initial shaky years, Mr Hayes formed a partnership with an established Mildura grower who helped him refine his growing techniques and gain better access to domestic markets.
Production has since doubled with about 60 hectares of vines on the property.
The key now is to pick the grapes when Queensland’s season is slowing down and the Sunraysia growers are yet to start picking.
The window is small and the wages and freight costs are high.
Mr Hayes said the returns could still be be excellent.
“When all the goal posts line up, you can keep up with two cattle stations easy and better them on return, but it doesn’t happen enough,” he said with a laugh.