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Bec Whetham

With no farming experience, this couple bought an apple orchard. Their gamble is paying off

The Shipway family moved to an apple orchard at Lenswood to experience country life. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Chris and Emily Shipway's move to a nine-hectare apple orchard in the Adelaide Hills shocked a lot of people.

"Everyone literally thinks we're crazy for what we bought because it was significant. We bought an acreage with 12,000 apple trees and we didn't have any equipment," Chris says.

The intensive care nurses from Adelaide met on night shift in 2016. Other than their work, they had in common a desire to live in the country.

"We both wanted some kind of Hills lifestyle, [but] we never thought this intense," Emily says.

The Shipways' orchard is a slightly larger project than the couple originally set out to do. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

After two years of looking at cherries, vineyards and cattle properties, Emily and Chris settled on a commercial apple orchard at Lenswood in 2019.

The couple moved to the property, known as @Lenswood Pick Your Own, with a push mower, ute, and then six-year-old daughter Daisy.

It's fair to say their induction into farming in South Australia's apple capital has been a major learning curve.

For the first two years, the orchard's previous owners leased back the trees. 

This is their first harvest running the show. And they're determined to make it work.

It's a big task, as the couple continues to commute to Adelaide to work night shifts and meet the demands of their expanding family with one-year-old Charlie.

New kids on the 130-year-old block

When it comes to apples, Lenswood is the place to be.

The small town grows 85 per cent of the state's production and nearly 10 per cent of the national crop.

Many of the growers are fifth or sixth generation.

That's why the Shipways' move shocked grower and industry consultant Susie Green.

Emily and Chris Shipway married in 2021 after meeting on night shift in 2016. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

"It's really rare for someone to come into the industry because it is so challenging ... particularly in this area where we have such steep terrain and small blocks," Susie says.

"Even the growers who have been doing it for many generations have to be at the top of their game to do well.

It's fair to say the couple's arrival was met with a fair amount of scepticism from local growers.

"Everyone looks at you like you're absolutely crazy, but then they warm to you," Chris, 37, says.

Unlike others who have bought land to push out trees or run alpacas, the Shipways are keen to actually make a go at growing and selling apples.

But it's harder than they expected.

There are 11 varieties of apples in the orchard. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

"Nothing is a quick job. Something will break or just putting out the sprinklers [takes time]," Emily, 31, says.

"You know, we're not talking about the little ones from Bunnings. Everything's this massive commercial scale for literally everything."

It all takes time and money.

"I didn't know that tractors cost so much money. I drove past farmers and thought 'oh yeah, that's a couple thousand bucks' and they're a couple hundred thousand bucks," Emily says.

Chris Shipway turns on the irrigiation after night shift. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

"Speaking to other farmers, they get into it because it's handed down to them. [But] how do you actually get into farming?

"We went to uni, got told how to do our jobs and we did it. And there's support, there's books, there's courses, you have to be registered to a body. Whereas a farm, where do you go?"

Doing things differently

On top of trying to grow a decent crop, they're expanding the orchard's operations.

"We're trying to get the boring apple to be something that people get really excited about," Emily says.

Emily and Chris are converting this old Nissen hut, once used as a bunker in World War II, into luxury accommodation.  (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Their entrepreneurship is particularly exciting for Susie Green, whose job involves encouraging growers to diversify their offerings.

"It was obvious they were looking to break the mould and not do what everyone else is doing," Susie says.

Chris and Emily with one-year-old Charlie and nine-year-old Daisy.  (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Given that most of the apple growers in Lenswood focus solely on fruit production, the Shipways have drawn inspiration from a nearby pear grower who's taken on agritourism.

Fourth-generation grower Damian McArdle hasn't shied from doing things differently from his predecessors.

"In 2012, my wife and I started our own brand Paracombe Premium Perry. It was a diversification project to take fruit that wasn't any good for the fresh market, further process into juice and ciders," Damian says.

After two one-in-100-year hail storms within a year, the couple opened their cellar door in 2018.

Damian McArdle has weather-proofed his family's orchard by diversifying its income streams. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

"There were a lot of people that didn't understand what we were trying to do and didn't believe it would work," Damian says.

The cellar door, offering wood oven pizzas and live music for weekends and events, is now their insurance policy for a bad year of fruit.

Pickers at Damian's Chamberlain Orchards in Paracombe. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Bringing new blood to the industry

While diversification isn't for everyone, Susie Green hopes Emily and Chris' lead will inspire other growers to step out.

With successive hits of hail storms, bushfires and poor pricing due to oversupply nationally, it's a crucial time for the local industry to maintain growers.

For some businesses that don't have that next generation coming through, the pressure is on.

"We're seeing, particularly in recent years, a number of orchards have been sold in the area to lifestyle blocks," Susie says.

Daisy has aspirations of becoming an agronomist. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Here for the long haul

Nowadays Emily and Chris are taken a bit more seriously. 

"I had an apple grower the other day say to me in the post office, 'I find you really, really inspiring and you're doing an amazing job'. I just got in the car and wanted to cry because it meant so much," Emily says.

And while challenging, their new lifestyle is already having a profound impact on their lives. 

Chris says often the hospital isn't a happy place.

"Nurses and doctors try and make it comfortable as best they can but I got sick of seeing people die. And apples grow," he says. 

Chris never owned an apple tree before buying the orchard with Emily. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

And after months of hard work, it appears to be paying off. The crop looks surprisingly good.

"I literally walk up to an apple tree and go 'Chris, they look like apples'. How dumb's that?" Emily says.

"But we actually grew these, these are commercial grade apples. Like we're doing it, just like everyone else is doing it."

And they intend to keep doing it for a while yet.

"I'm not leaving here unless I'm pulled out of here in my coffin. I want a road named after us, even if it has to be our driveway," Emily says.

"I love that we're a part of this and we're phonies. We'll never be locals ever but our kids might be.

The Shipways are embracing life on the land. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
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