Newly established blueberry farm taps into RIC AgriStarter Loan, fast-tracking access to bigger markets
When blueberry grower Scott Carter sought finance for his orchard, he discovered the loan terms offered by the Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) were perfect for newly established businesses like his.
“It’s worked out quite well, it almost couldn’t be better,” Scott said.
“The AgriStarter Loan provides a pathway for farmers.”
Having grown up on a dairy farm, Scott was no stranger to the challenges that go with running an agricultural enterprise.
He started selling berries while studying at university, then gained experience with hydroponics and glasshouse production on various strawberry farms.
After clocking up more than 15 years in the industry — and meeting his wife Allison along the way — he decided to branch out and start his own family business.
“If you don't jump in and have a go, you're never going to make it happen,” he said.
Establishing a berry farm in the right location
After an extensive search, Scott and Allison found their ideal farm location at Corinella, in the Bass Coast Shire in southeast Victoria.
They discovered the area’s climate would be favourable for the variety of fruit they wanted to grow.
“This place ticked all the boxes,” Scott said.
“It's not as hot in summer and we barely get a frost in winter even though we're in southern Victoria.
“You don't just want to take the first property that you find because you want to be competitive, and you want to be doing a good job for the next 30 years.”
The couple poured their time and savings into purchasing a run-down flower farm, cleaning it up and converting it into a blueberry orchard.
They named the business White Cloud Farms, a tribute to the Māori name for New Zealand where Scott grew up.
Choosing a variety to suit the region’s climate, they took advantage of a seasonal supply gap after New South Wales and Queensland blueberry growers had finished annual production.
Juggling a hectic lifestyle of raising a young family and working part-time jobs, the couple potted up the first 2 hectares of blueberries and now have a total of 8,500 plants.
But they would still have to wait several years for the trees to reach peak fruit production and profitability.
After seeking capital to fast-track the business to the next phase, a financial advisor pointed them in the direction of the RIC.
Improving farm efficiencies with a RIC loan
Scott and Allison started a RIC AgriStarter Loan application using the equity they had built up with their property as security.
They already met the eligibility criteria of having an existing commercial loan and were able to demonstrate a minimum of 3 years relevant on-farm experience.
“I figured we were going to be a good shot, it was going to be worth the effort and applying,” Scott said.
To prove the business could pay back the loan, Scott put together a detailed cash flow plan which outlined how the business would perform over the next 7 years.
He also produced a detailed breakdown explaining how the loan would be spent and used the loan document checklist to gather and submit all the necessary paperwork.
Soon after Scott submitted the application, a RIC Agri Lending Specialist called to gather additional information and guide him through the remaining verification process.
“I like that we were assigned an assessor from the start. It’s good just having one point of contact,” he said.
After the loan was approved and settled, Scott and Allison immediately put the money into improving the farm business.
Loan funds went into building the orchard tunnel and irrigation infrastructure, along with resurfacing their driveway which allowed large transport trucks to enter the property.
The couple purchased several thousand dollars' worth of bees to pollinate the crop.
“Each touch of a bee on a blueberry flower creates a seed, the more seeds, the more crunch when consumed and the larger the size and therefore more production,” Scott said.
They also bought pack room equipment, machinery, and replaced an aging cool room with a new one, providing confidence the fruit could be picked and stored to its highest quality.
The improvements meant their farm passed stringent food safety audits, allowing blueberries from their first harvest to enter major supermarkets and produce retailers interstate.
“That new cool room, with the new cooling system and the right tray, it just worked beautifully,” Scott said.
There were “no rejections, no quality complaints” about the fruit that went into the supply chain that flowed into the stores, he said.
“So essentially this enabled us to produce 11 tonnes of really premium, nice fruit.”
RIC loan terms perfect for start-up farms
Scott said the AgriStarter Loan terms were ideal for start-up farm businesses like theirs which may take some time and funds to invest in infrastructure, livestock or produce before they are able to gain a return.
"This loan is almost perfect for blueberries,” Scott said.
“You're going to start spending money [for] 18 months before you really start to bring money back in, and you're not going to have your full crop until year 3.
“Which is perfect because the RIC loan is interest-only [repayments] for five years and then you start paying principal back for the next five years.
“That helps your cash flow immensely in that first five years when you’re setting up.”
Scott said the rising cost of fuel, inputs, and wages — driven in part by labour availability shortages — were persistent challenges for the farm.
The business has also been able to use funds from the loan as working capital to pay for labour and operating costs.
The family also saved money with the concessional loan interest rate, which is determined by the 10-year Australian Government bond rate rather than the cash rate.
The RIC variable interest rates are reviewed only twice a year — making them more stable than a commercial loan — so business owners can better manage their cash flow to prosper and grow.
“We can keep improving the value and improving the management of the farm with that money instead,” Scott said.
Loan gives optimism to expand
For Scott and Allison, the effort to establish White Cloud Farms has begun to pay off, with the couple exploring an expansion of the orchard.
“The last 3 years has been a real hard grind but we've done it now,” Scott said.
“They are beautiful blueberries and they taste so good, so I'm optimistic.”