Sweet success for Frances Strawberries

All Sam Frost wanted was some decent strawberries.

“I was sick of buying strawberries that didn't taste like anything, or would be half rotten in the punnet,” she said, out on her Frances farm near the border.

“Or there would be nothing fresh locally.”

The idea for the Frosts’ small business, Frances Strawberries, was born out of this frustration, and also a patch of land near the house.

The Frosts have an earthmoving business, and wanted to have a second business that would complement the former.

Deciding on horticulture, they purchased 10 acres of land. Looking at their options for produce that could be grown on acreage that size, they kept coming back to strawberries.

“So then because we couldn't get a lot of land - because you have to rotate your crop with strawberries for virus protection - that's when we looked at doing it hydroponically, and invested in doing it that way,” Sam said.

And Frances Strawberries was born – 18 months old and in its second season, it’s been a steep learning curve for the Frosts.

Unlike the wheat or grain industry, where stakeholders “have meetings where they discuss how they can improve their crop or how to make the industry better”, in the strawberry industry, says Sam, “you learn the hard way”.

“The first year we started we asked various companies to help us and they said, 'Well we had to learn the hard way, and you can too'.

“And I found that really disappointing. I don't think the strawberry industry will grow until everyone helps each other out.”

Thankfully Frances Strawberries now has “good people and good companies” helping them out, and the Frosts quickly learned about fungi and pests from agronomists.

Strawberries are particularly susceptible to fungi, but thanks to the agronomists’ expertise, the Frosts take a more organic approach, utilising foliant sprays and “good bugs to take on the bad bugs”.

Another initial problem was the region’s water being salty, which is incompatible with strawberry farming. To solve this, the Frosts catch and then pump rain water onto their crops.

As this means they use more money and equipment than the average strawberry farmer, they need to be clever about how to reduce costs.

“We need to get every cent out of every strawberry back, but it's looking good,” Sam said. 

The Frosts have managed to greatly reduce food wastage by making sure that every strawberry becomes part of a product.

They have fresh strawberries in punnets, but they also sell strawberry icy poles, sorbets, jams, preserves, and sauces.

At a market, you may see them selling strawberry muffins, strawberries and cream, or strawberry waffles.

For Sam it’s not only about introducing the public to strawberries’ various uses, but it’s also about assuring customers that their strawberries are ready to eat.

“There's a real perception of – a few comments that our fruit's really dark, and people are really scared of a dark fruit, but it just means that it's actually ripe.

“We're a warmer climate here, so our fruit ripens a bit differently to the (Adelaide) Hills. Because we get that more intense heat, it doesn't mean it’s bad or it's going off, it actually means that it's perfect.

“A strawberry won't ripen any more after you pick it - once you pick it, that's what you're going to get.”

They take a couple of punnets to the markets for promotional purposes, but the majority of product is stocked in local grocers, such as The Veg Shed in Naracoorte or the Frances General Store.

“We like to keep our stock local, we don't want to go to the cities, we don't want to stock Woolies or whatever, we want to keep it with small grocers,” Sam said.

“We just thought there was the market for it. Most people like strawberries, and in some areas you miss out from fresh fruit and veg straight from the farms.

“Even here, because it's big acreage, they will grow a lot of it (produce) and then it will get trucked straight to the cities, so we don't get to benefit from it.”

The Frosts are keen to keep all aspects of their business local. They currently employ four casual staff, local mums who rotate their shifts around childcare responsibilities.

Or, because Frances Strawberries is a family-friendly business, they simply take their children out to the farm, where they’re looked after while the fruit is tended to.

One of the biggest frustrations for Frances Strawberries has been an absence of investment from government bodies into their small business, and Australian small businesses generally.

Whilst the Naracoorte Lucindale Council granted them $5000, which Sam described as “fantastic” as it allowed the farm to purchase quality shade cloths, they have been denied funding at the state and federal level.

Rubbing salt into the wound was the State Government recently investing millions of dollars into a hydroponic strawberry farm at Mount Gambier – which is owned by a foreign company.

“We need funding for capital investment, to get the plants in the ground. That's where the jobs are, actually having plants and fields,” Sam said.

An over-pruning mishap has also meant that production has been halved, with Frances Strawberries having to decline some stockists until they have the supply to meet the demand.

“If we got a little bit we could be at full production now, and employ more local staff.

“That's just been the disappointing thing really, help the Australian business out before the foreign-owned one.”

But you can’t keep the Frosts down for long. Despite some setbacks they’re determined to not only get their production levels back up next year, but have production grow 2.5x bigger.

“I love that any money we earn goes back into the pockets of the locals,” said Sam.

“I'm pleased with how it's going.”