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FEATURE pioneerFoundingFATHERRespect to one of the pioneers of our horticulture and export industries – Mr Tom Price – who we profile as part of our birthday celebrations.Thank you to Stonefruit WA for partnering with us on this story.Words & photography Anna FlandersTom Price says it’s important to walk among the trees. TOM Price is one of the forefathers of modernday horticulture. His family history dates back to 1899 on the property he has lived and worked for the majority of his life – Illawarra Orchard in Karragullen in the Perth Hills. Eighty years of age, and still working his land, he’s the product of his grandfather’s founding knowledge and his father’s studious quest for best-practice tree and land processes. Together it created a passion in Tom that extends from hands-on tree management to looking globally for the next big thing.Those who know him refer to him as an “elder statesman”. He’s an asset and source of inspiration and knowledge for an industry that is sadly losing these fathers of modern horticulture. It’s this generation that remembers when horses and physical grunt were replaced with mechanisation. Now they are watching their children and grandchildren take horticulture into the era of AI and robotics.“Tom is a walking encyclopaedia,” says Ross Anile, of Stonefruit WA. “Of course, now there are new techniques and technologies, but Tom keeps up to speed. He has a positive attitude, remains involved in running a beautiful orchard and people are respectful.”“He’s also the man behind many of the great families in horticulture,” adds Ross. “He gave many migrants the opportunity to work in his orchards, passing on his knowledge, then supporting them in their own quest for a life in growing. My own father was one of them.”Tom’s family has been farming the same property in the Perth Hills for almost 125 years. It had been cleared by Canning Mills to fulfil a London timber contract. In place of the native trees, the company planted fruit trees, vegetables and tobacco.“They were brilliant timber people, but they had no idea of horticulture,” says Tom. “By 1899 it was broke. They ran into a lot of problems. They didn’t have the bees for pollination and drainage was an issue. They knew they needed the best guy to sort their orchard, so did their homework.”
Tom planted 600 rose bushes throughout his propertyOne room in his ‘museum’ on Hills growingTom’s father as a child with his father Thomas (in the background).Tom and Ross walk among one of the rooms of heritage photosTom today, who says he’s lucky his wife Renee supports him in his passion.Tom working as a young manPickers harvesting in the 50sDisplays of horticulture articles.That “best guy” was Tom’s grandfather Thomas Price. He had been working as a nurseryman in Guildford at Woodbridge (owned by the renowned Charlie Harper, politician and pastoralist). Thomas would also ride his horse Down South, a two-week round trip, to advise on trees. He was offered 500 pounds to manage the farm and become a shareholder.Thomas had been educated in the UK before coming out to Australia at age 24. However, the Perth Hills were vastly different to the climes and soils of Europe, so without a DPIRD or Google, he utilised trial and error, and gut feel.“They made a lot of mistakes, “says Tom, who is the custodian of the farm records. “But he somehow knew fertiliser and through hard work turned the orchard around.”“ Keep abreast and understand what the public wants to eat. To survive is to make sure you’re doing it the right way or growing something better”It is his grandfather who is credited as being one of the first West Australian growers to export, sending 20 cases of apples and pears from Fremantle to Europe in 1906. Within three years, that number climbed to 572 cases. Back then, Australia was the food bowl of the world. Tom says the Northern Hemisphere couldn’t grow during winter, so Australia fed the world.Through the generations, the firsts kept coming, with Illawarra credited with being the first to install a cool room in 1913, and among the first to bring in forklifts and swap from boxes to bins in the sixties, move from ladders to cherry pickers in the seventies and hydro pruners in the eighties. Tractors? “They fully replaced the horses in 1953,” says Tom.“Grandfather was good, but my father was successful as he was a researcher for the agriculture department,” says Tom. “We would have 100 to 150 other growers come into our shed, sitting on fruit boxes, and Dad would talk to them about results of research trials. He educated the rest of the growing community.”His father, like his father before, travelled overseas chasing the latest varieties and tree management processes. Coupled with running research trials on his own farm (and others in the region), Illawarra became the epicentre of sharing knowledge.There was never any doubt that Tom would one day take over the orchard. He had worked on the property all his life, aside from 12 months spent studying at the Burnley Horticulture College in Melbourne. His time came, unofficially and prematurely, in 1967. His father and uncle, who were running the farm at the time, had heart attacks within one month of each other. They survived, but Tom took the reins, later buying out his uncle.“I was only 24. But Dad, who was strong in administration, had trained me, and I was trained by my uncle to work physically. So I had a good balance. We had the orchard and a nursery back then and we were always experimenting, and that’s how I survived. We kept up to date with what was happening in the world, always finding better varieties,” he says.Tom has continued to keep up to date on the latest varieties emerging here and overseas (he was equal first to take the Pink Lady to market, which he still considers one of the best varieties). He’s travelled extensively for work and shared that knowledge with fellow growers in the horticulture industry. He has always treated his staff with respect, been a firm believer in having pursuits outside of the orchard (for him it was cricket, the church and supporting the industry) and continues to stay heavily involved with the Hills region.His property, while still a producing and working orchard, is now home to a museum-style display of photography and paraphernalia dating back to 1899. It’s not only a showcase of his family’s history, but that of the region. It’s a fitting tribute from a family that saw itself as part of something much bigger than just itself. And if Tom had one piece of advice to those who are starting out? “Balance”. And one wish for the industry? “All I want is for the public to respect the people who grow the food to eat.”