Gherkins are not a crop one encounters very often, but when we visited Ben Parle near Griffith in New South Wales on the ITLUS tour last January, we discovered that his father’s business is the sole supplier of this product to McDonald's in Australia.
Gherkins are really immature cucumbers, but a specific variety that can survive the pickling process. The cucumbers are grown to between 15 and 25 millimetres in diameter and then harvested.
After harvest and cleaning, they are stored in tanks which has salt added and they are left for four to six weeks to ferment. They are then sliced and sent to all parts of Australia.
The business grows about 300ha of these little cucumbers under centre pivot irrigation.
They are planted and managed in 6.25ha blocks to suit the overall management of the crop from growing to processing.
Once the crop reaches harvesting stage, the crew have 24 to 48 hours to complete that 6.25ha lot. Oversize fruits are unsalable in Australia, but the equivalent oversize product in the US might go as a dairy feed.
Modified cotton harvester
Harvesting is done using a modified cotton harvester. Ben explained that most of the gear they use is customised because no one makes machinery for this rare crop.
Gherkins are a 55- to 60-day crop normally. They are grown in a rotation for crop management and that is done with winter wheat.
The growing season is from January to April, as the temperature needs to be above 8C at night and less than or equal to 36C during the hottest days.
On average, Ben expects to have around 8t/ha of cucumbers processed. Field yields will be more like 12t to 13t/ha, which is good, but this will include a lot of vegetation that must subsequently be discarded.
When the crop is harvested, it is delivered immediately to store, where it goes straight into large tanks which hold about 23t of the small cucumbers.
They are stored in these tanks for four to six weeks with salt added. When they come out of these tanks the salt levels must be dropped and they are processed further and sliced.
This product then has a nine-month life in the bag. However, the primary processed product can be held for up to two years if necessary.
Not many farmers can say that their main crop is a price maker rather than a price taker. This is because the Parle operation is the only grower in Australia and they sell exclusively to McDonalds.
“McDonald's want local,” Ben explained, and they have been good to work for. He told us that they deliver 70 pallets of product per week to McDonald's, enough for two million burgers.