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

Chris and Emily Shipway’s move to a 20-acre apple orchard in the Adelaide Hills surprised a lot of people.

“Everybody literally thinks we’re crazy about what we bought because it was significant. We bought an acreage with 12,000 apple trees and we didn’t have any equipment,” says Chris.

The Adelaide intensive care nurses met on the night shift in 2016. Aside from their work, they shared a desire to live in the country.

“We both wanted some kind of lifestyle in the hills, [but] we never thought it would be so intense,” says Emily.

An aerial photo of a house surrounded by rows of apple trees.
The Shipways vegetable garden is a slightly larger project than the couple originally set out to do.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

After two years of searching for cherries, vineyards, and ranching properties, Emily and Chris settled in a commercial apple orchard in Lenswood in 2019.

The couple moved into the property, known as @Lenswood Pick Your Own, with a lawn mower, a ute and later their six-year-old daughter Daisy.

It’s fair to say that his introduction to farming in the apple capital of South Australia has been quite a learning curve.

For the first two years, the previous owners of the orchard leased the trees.

This is your first crop running the program. And they are determined to make it work.

It’s quite a task as the couple continue to travel to Adelaide to work night shifts and meet the demands of their expanding family with one-year-old Charlie.

New kids on the block 130 years

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

The small town produces 85 percent of the state’s production and nearly 10 percent of the national crop.

Many of the cultivators are fifth or sixth generation.

That’s why Shipways’ decision surprised consultant Susie Green, a producer and industry consultant.

A man and a woman in nurses' uniforms stand among apple trees laughing.
Emily and Chris Shipway married in 2021 after meeting on the night shift in 2016.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

“It’s really rare for someone to get into the industry because it’s so challenging…particularly in this area where we have such steep terrain and small blocks,” says Susie.

“Even producers who have been doing it for many generations have to be at the top of their game to get it right.

It’s fair to say that the couple’s arrival was met with a fair amount of skepticism from local producers.

“Everyone looks at you like you’re completely crazy, but then they love you,” says Chris, 37.

Unlike others who have bought land to pull out trees or care for alpacas, the Shipways are eager to try growing and selling apples.

But it is more difficult than expected.

Rows of medium sized apple trees glow under a setting sun.
There are 11 varieties of apples in the orchard.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

“Nothing is a quick job. Something will break or just turn off the sprinklers.” [takes time]says Emily, 31.

“You know, we’re not talking about the Bunnings little guys. It’s all at this massive commercial scale for literally everything.”

Everything requires time and money.

“I didn’t know tractors cost so much money. I walked past farmers and thought ‘oh yeah, that’s a couple thousand dollars,’ and it’s a couple hundred thousand dollars,” says Emily.

Aerial photo of a man walking towards a large water tank surrounded by lush trees.
Chris Shipway turns on the irrigation after the night shift.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

“Talking with other farmers, they get involved because it is passed on to them. [But] How do you actually get into farming?

“We went to university, they told us how to do our job and we did it. And there is support, there are books, there are courses, you have to be registered with a body. While on a farm, where do you go?”

doing things differently

In addition to trying to get a decent harvest, they are expanding their orchard operations.

“We’re trying to make the boring apple something that people are really excited about,” says Emily.

A long white corrugated iron shack overlooks the apple trees at sunset.
Emily and Chris are converting this former Nissen cabin, once used as a bunker in World War II, into luxury accommodation. (ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

His entrepreneurial spirit is particularly exciting for Susie Green, whose job it is to encourage growers to diversify their offerings.

“It was obvious that they wanted to break the mold and not do what everyone else does,” says Susie.

A mom, dad, and their two kids sit on the back of a quad bike and laugh.
Chris and Emily with one-year-old Charlie and nine-year-old Daisy. (ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

Since most of the apple growers in Lenswood focus solely on fruit production, Shipways has been inspired by a nearby pear grower who is into agritourism.

Fourth-generation producer Damian McArdle hasn’t shied away from doing things differently from his predecessors.

“In 2012, my wife and I started our own Paracombe Premium Perry brand. It was a diversification project to take fruit that was not good for the fresh market and process it into juice and cider,” says Damian.

After two 1-in-100-year hail storms within a year, the couple opened their cellar door in 2018.

A man in a black hooded sweater and cap carries a tray of pizza smiling.
Damian McArdle has waterproofed his family’s garden by diversifying his income streams.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

“There were a lot of people who didn’t understand what we were trying to do and didn’t think it would work,” says Damian.

Offering wood-fired pizzas and live music on weekends and events, Cellar Door is now your insurance policy for a bad fruit year.

A woman climbs a ladder picking pears from a tree.
Gatherers at Damian’s Chamberlain Orchards in Paracombe.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

Bringing new blood to the industry

While branching out isn’t for everyone, Susie Green hopes that Emily and Chris’ leadership will inspire other producers to step up.

With successive hail storms, wildfires, and low prices due to oversupply nationwide hitting successively, it’s a crucial time for the local industry to sustain growers.

For some companies that don’t have the next generation, the pressure is on.

“We’re seeing, particularly in recent years, a number of orchards in the area that have been sold to lifestyle blocks,” says Susie.

An eight-year-old girl sits comfortably on the back of a quad bike holding an apple, smiling.
Daisy has aspirations to become an agronomist.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

here for the long haul

Nowadays Emily and Chris take each other a little more seriously.

“The other day an apple grower told me at the post office, ‘I find you very, very inspiring and you’re doing an amazing job.’ I got in the car and wanted to cry because it meant so much,” says Emily.

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

Chris says that the hospital is often not a happy place.

“The nurses and doctors try to make him comfortable as best they can, but I got tired of seeing people die. And the apples grow,” he says.

Several red apples hang on a healthy tree on a sunny day.
Chris never had an apple tree before he bought the orchard with Emily.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

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

“I literally walk up to an apple tree and say ‘Chris, they look like apples.’ How silly is that?” Emily says.

“But we actually grow these, these are commercial-grade apples. Like we’re doing, like everybody else is doing.”

And they intend to continue doing so for a while. still.

“I’m not leaving here unless they carry me out of here in my coffin. I want a road with our name on it, even if it has to be our driveway,” says Emily.

“I love that we’re a part of this and we’re being fakers. We’ll never be local, but our kids could be.”

Two adults and two children walk along a row of apple trees at sunset.
The Shipways are embracing life on earth.(ABC Southeast SA: Bec Whetham)

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