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Shelamar Station

Photo by Dan Wood

Interview with – Matt Howard, Farm Manager at Shelamar Station

Pioneers in remote farming, the Trandos family have been successfully farming Broome for 75 years. In partnership with Roper River Agriculture, Trandos Farm purchased the 8000 hectare Shelamar Station, 200 km’s south of Broome. The two companies farm the land with Roper River Agriculture growing watermelons on one side of the property and the Trandos Farm growing sweet corn on the other. Although they operate as two separate businesses, Farm Manager Matt Howard, runs the entire property. 

“The watermelon and corn are two separate businesses, but we run as one farm.”

I’ve been managing the farm with my wife here for six seasons now, took over from friends who managed it before us. Being so isolated, we learn to be incredibly self sufficient. I have a background in mechanical engineering, which means I can handle all of the repairs around the place. Lucky as there are no electricians, plumbers or anyone to help with that side of things. If it’s major work, then we make the call and wait.

“The climate here is perfect for growing traditional summer produce in the winter.”

It’s not easy to farm this area and we carefully consider everything from irrigation to transportation. We can grow watermelon and corn all year round so it’s excellent for our supply chain.

“The day is varied in work, but we’re always up for a 4am start.”

The day starts with organising the farm teams on both the watermelon and corn sides of the business. From picking and making packing boxes to managing huge truck traffic flow and checking the cool rooms for temperature stability, this is very important. For example, corn picked the night before transportation needs to remain at two degrees to retain its integrity for the journey to the retailer. We monitor temperatures very closely, there can be anywhere between 60 to 400 bins of sweet corn at stake at any one time. There are melon picking plans to make, for example: where to pick on the farm and how many, then trucks to book for transportation. All of this planning happens by 7.30am, then everyone gets on with things until smoko at 10.30am. Cook generally makes scones or cake and then it’s back to it, as well as green bean picking that is, which happens around our core business. The beans are then hydro cooled and packed for delivery as well. The refrigerated trucks arrive at around midday and we spend the afternoon packing them. Yep, it’s a pretty varied day.

“We have the water going pretty much 24/7.”

It’s so hot and dry up here, we need the irrigation, luckily we have a very good and reliable aquifer. It can get up to about 40 degrees sometimes, I’ve even seen 46 degrees here. Tough for the crops and you have to be careful watering the corn as the leaves can burn in the sun. We’re thankful for air-conditioning in the tractors and in the afternoon at around 3pm, we get a nice cool sea breeze. If we didn’t live just 15km’s from the coast, it would be unbearable here at times.

“Our watermelon goes directly to the supermarkets and the corn goes to our Perth store for packing.”

The corn is managed at our Waterloo farm in Perth. We have 30 to 40 people packing and wrapping, then we distribute directly from there. The watermelon on the other hand is delivered directly to Coles and Woollies from the farm here.

“Finding staff is best through word-of-mouth.”

Finding skilled people can be a challenge, especially when we’re in such a remote spot. Although we advertise, we find that friends of friends often works best here. Staff are attracted by the work and the opportunity to put some savings away. We provide food and lodging, plus there’s not too much to do up here, so not much money goes out. We get most of our staff from the east, not many locals really. I employ farmers and have employed managers to help with the main roles here, there’s too much to take on alone and we need the staff to be here all year round.

“Time away from the farm is very important for productivity.”

It’s incredibly intense work and we’ve had guys that were in the habit of staying out there all day working, working, working. It’s not good for them and although they’re young, they tire out. I’ve implemented mandatory breaks. We have a cook that makes breakfast, lunch, dinner and smoko. Apart from at harvest times, we try to have two days off a week with Sundays off for everyone. The guys love it, happy days for them!

“We’re 100% Australian grown, it means a hell of a lot to me.”

I think that agriculture is the boom industry here in Australia now. People are much more aware of where their fruit and veg is coming from and Australian made means so much. We have so many mouths to feed out there in this fair country, I’m passionate about our business, it really is our time now.

“Each and every day I’m proud to be here.”

I’m lucky that my wife loves it too, she’s very sociable, has family and has made lots of friends with the locals. I’m so grateful, I’d say that her happiness is my priority and could have been my biggest challenge. Just knowing that she’s here supporting me is so important. I think that being able to produce food for the nation, watch the business grow and seeing people happy at the end of the day, is what makes it for me. Funny, I never have the time to sit down and take stock of all this, it’s great.