Officer orchard growing strong 70 years on

Liz Crestani with her dad Joe Russo and Rob Russo with his son Nick Russo. 375435 Pictures: STEWART CHAMBERS

PRECEDE: The Russo family has been a renowned name in the world of apple farming and now fruit juice production. The team at Bellevue Orchard at Officer has looked back at its long history as they celebrate 70 years of growing apples and 25 years of juicing. As Gazette journalist MATTHEW SIMS reports, the orchard’s history has been full of ups and downs, yet has always been reliant on reinvention.

BREAKOUT QUOTE: “When I think about Bellevue Orchard’s history and I hear Dad talk about the past, I think of words like determination, resilience and survival, but there’s also a hidden story of ingenuity and creativity.”

Rows upon rows of apple trees line the Bellevue Orchard on Brown Road in Officer, with the morning’s rain still sticking to netting.

While each tree or each apple may seem ordinary to any visitor, the Russo family knows that each is part of an ongoing story which spans back 70 years.

The Bellevue Orchard team celebrated their 70th anniversary of growing apples and 25 years of juicing on Friday 24 November with a special celebration.

Come Monday, the orchard was back alive with the hustle and bustle of business as usual.

Co-owners and brothers Rob and Joe were busying themselves, with 71-year-old Rob fixing an old tractor and 76-year-old Joe working on the new crop at the nursery.

Originally bought by their father and his brothers in 1953 from a Mr W.E. Lowe, the brothers bought the orchard from their dad in 1976.

Chief executive and Rob’s son Nick Russo said with the two brothers in their mid-20s, buying the orchard was a big job.

“It was an incredible undertaking,” he said.

“We’ve spent a lot of energy on the orchard.”

Rob said working on the orchard in the early days was hard work.

“It was a big decision,” he said.

“The hours would be long and the hours would be trying.

“You have to do what you have to do.”

After a couple of decades of hard work, the team had expanded their operations.

However, on Australia Day weekend in 1998, their lives were changed forever.

A hailstorm tore through their crop, leaving them with tonnes of unusable produce.

Rob said he and Joe were close to calling it quits.

“We were left pretty devastated, not knowing which way to turn,” he said.

“Losing a crop like that, it was almost too much.

“We said ‘well, if we’re going to go out, we’re going to out screaming’.”

Rob said his friend from South Australia had a secondhand press.

“We rebuilt the old press and started making apple juice with the damaged fruit that we had,” he said.

“It was a bigger job than Joe and myself had thought it would be.

“It was all part of the journey.”

Rob said there were a number of people who supported them in learning how to make apple juice in the early days of the juicing operation.

“We were learning on the run,” he said.

From the devastation, the Summer Snow brand was born and continues to live on to this day.

Nick joined the team in 2009, but was already well-aware of the business having grown up at the farm.

“The orchard was home, it wasn’t a farm or a business or a brand,” he said.

“It was where I learnt to drive a tractor, light a bonfire, catch an eel, weld, get a car bogged and get out again.

“Today the orchard still means all that to me, but it also means much more.”

Nick said juicing had since become a significant part of the business, with about 5500 litres produced an hour or about 45,000 litres a day, with four days out of each week committed to juicing.

“We also saw cider take off,” he said.

The team has now expanded to about 50 staff members, which increases up to 70 during the peak picking season.

Bellevue has increased its offerings to 40 products with national distribution, including sparkling juice, organic apple cider vinegar, a range of different juices and their Trattore cider range.

Now a fourth-generation business, the Bellevue team has also continued to bring its family back into the fold, with Joe’s daughters Bernadette and Liz being key parts of the team from early on and Joe’s grandchildren now also on the team.

Joe said the main ethos of the business was co-operation.

“It’s been a real team effort,” he said.

Nick said Rob and Joe are starting to step back, but were looking forward to the business continuing to grow and cementing its place in the future.

“It’s been a series of hundreds of small steps,” he said.

“When I think about Bellevue Orchard’s history and I hear Dad talk about the past, I think of words like determination, resilience and survival, but there’s also a hidden story of ingenuity and creativity.“

One of the newest additions to the business has been its store, cafe and dining space – Bellevue Farm Gate.

Visitors can enjoy a tasting of the ciders or juices produced onsite, a coffee, a pizza or a gourmet pie, with a new menu coming out this weekend.

Nick said he hoped one element of Bellevue’s future was in making Bellevue one of the key community hubs for the expanding Officer community.

“I would love to be doing more hospitality,” he said.

“We want to have a lot more community engagement.

“I’m super excited about this business starting to kick off now.”

Nick said Bellevue Farm Gate is hosting a ‘Pocket Money Market’ for local children to come and sell their crafty creations from 10am to 1pm this Saturday and Sunday, including paintings, jewellery, pottery or even some wooden reindeer, with all proceeds going back into the children’s pockets.

“The kids really love it,” he said.

Another element the team were excited about was implementing a new high-density growth option in the orchard, introducing a 2D growing method where trees are planted along walls similar to a vineyard with a goal to be producing 80 tonnes of apples per hectare.

The team were also looking forward to receiving a new picking platform, which would allow six people to pick the apples along three different levels.

Nick said farming was never a certain thing.

“It’s a really high-risk venture,” he said.

“Growing is really hard.”

Rob said he was amazed at the progress of the operation over the years.

“I can’t believe it’s got to where it is,” he said.

Joe said he was grateful they were able to keep the business in the family and was optimistic about its future and how his and his brother’s legacy would stand the test of time.

“It makes me very proud,” he said.

“To show my grandson how to graft an apple tree gives me great joy.”