Moonrocks is a fifth-generation family farm that has been based in Queensland’s St George region for well over 40 years. The business is owned and operated by Andrew Moon and his brother David, and the pair were honoured for their tireless contribution to the horticulture industry in June – receiving the Syngenta Grower of the Year award at the 2021 National Awards for Excellence.

Situated around 500 kilometres west of Brisbane is St George, a town whose economy is enriched by wheat, sheep, beef and cotton farming and, more recently, horticultural commodities including vegetables.

One of those vegetable growing operations that has successfully established itself in the region over the past four decades is Moonrocks. At the helm are brothers Andrew and David Moon – they took over the vegetable growing operation from their parents Jeff and Pam, who moved the family from the Lockyer Valley to St George in the late 1970s.

Moonrocks specialises predominantly in onions, garlic and pumpkins. In 2021, the operation established ‘G’day Garlic’, a direct-to-consumer value-added garlic line that offers customers a true paddock-to-plate experience. Processing and packaging of the products take place on-farm, which has supported the local community by creating jobs and contributed to business growth.

“This has given our business a new way to communicate with our consumers while leveraging off the demand for Australian grown and owned products,” Andrew says.

Andrew credits a driven and experienced team to the business’s success. He and David oversee the business operations together, but they also have their own areas that they focus on and drive.

“David manages the cropping – from planting through to harvest – working with our key staff to manage the variables that come into play in this part of the business, from soil health and weather changes, through to watering and harvest timeframes,” he explains.

“Once the crop is harvested, I manage the production and marketing side of the business, from key client communications and order/production management, through to seeking out and coordinating new sales channels and opportunities.

“Obviously being a family-owned and operated business means that there is plenty of crossover with our roles, and we rely on each other’s opinions and experience every day. There is so much more to running the business than just the growing and marketing, and we have an incredible mix of key staff who work alongside us to keep the wheels turning.”

Implementing change

Like any business that grows and evolves, Moonrocks has discovered new ways to operate throughout its journey.

“Moonrocks is a completely different business to what it was even 10 years ago, and I think that has been a key driver behind our growth. If we were still operating the same way we did back then, we certainly wouldn’t be as efficient, structured and systematic as we are now,” Andrew says.

“Farming isn’t as simple as it was once upon a time – we’re operating in a completely different business climate to that of even my father; let alone the generations before that. It comes with a lot more complexity, and Moonrocks has had to make plenty of changes over the years to adapt to this. Change is never easy, but it has certainly allowed for us to continue to grow – I think if you resist change, you’ll eventually be forced to play catch up.”

Moonrocks is continually growing and implementing changes in its farming practices.

“There is always new technology and research that impact the decisions we make around growing,” Andrew says.

“An industry heavyweight once taught me the importance of stepping outside of your business and looking at it ‘from above’ instead of spending too much time ‘in’ the business.

“David and I have spent a lot of time over the last 10 years working on structures, and future- proofing our business. Many of the changes that we have implemented over the years have ensured that the business can run easily without us, and I think that’s vital to a successful business.”

Labour challenges

Moonrocks is continuing to deliver customers and consumers top-quality products; however, the operation has been navigating similar issues to many in the horticulture industry.

“There are always challenges in business, but the biggest one we are facing is shortage of labour,” Andrew says.

“Sadly, the Australian agriculture industry has no choice but to rely heavily on an international labour force that has all but vanished due to COVID. Growers across the country are facing a very harsh reality of unharvested crops if a practical solution can’t be offered to us soon.”

As a business, Moonrocks is doing its best to find solutions.

“We are looking into every option available to us through government programs, as well as looking into innovative ways to sell our farm and our wider community as a great place to work and live. But these avenues demand a huge amount of time and energy from our team, and they can only get us so far – I think the real change can only happen when we come together as an industry to combat this challenge,” Andrew says.

“The obvious solution is mechanisation and automation. The more automation that we can introduce to our business, the less risk that we hold when it comes to reliance on staff. And research into these options will benefit the entire horticulture industry.”

Andrew points to the introduction of robotics as the only option available to the industry and the Moonrocks business if it wants security in daily operations.

“An international workforce has served us well as an industry, but COVID has taught us that we can’t rely on that either, so instead we must turn to other options,” he says.

Another area that is vital to Moonrocks’ future success is regenerative ag.

“We can’t ignore the consumer desire for a deeper knowledge on where their food comes from, and how it impacts the environment. We place a huge importance on soil health at Moonrocks, with an emphasis on cover cropping, minimum till and biological fertilisers. This is an area that we are constantly learning and evolving in, and one that I think the whole industry could benefit from more research,” Andrew says.

“David and I have spent a lot of time over the last 10 years working on structures, and future-proofing our business. Many of the changes that we have implemented over the years have ensured that the business can run easily without us, and I think that’s vital to a successful business.”

Industry passion

Despite decades working on the farm, Andrew and David’s enthusiasm for growing vegetables hasn’t wavered. Andrew says this is mainly due to the wealth of opportunities that are available.

“The horticulture industry is an ever-changing beast – it keeps us on our toes. Each day is different, and the variety keeps things exciting,” he says.

“I’m biased, but I really do believe that we work in the best industry in Australia. The horticulture space is full of intelligent, inspiring and hardworking individuals, and we have a valuable network of fellow growers that we rely on – and who rely on us – for advice when it comes to combating many of the challenges that we all face.

“The challenges present themselves daily and they may not sound very appealing, but I think they play a huge part in keeping the wheels turning. If you don’t keep swimming, you’ll drown – and I think that’s enough to keep anyone going!”

For Andrew and David, a lot of their vegetable growing knowledge is built on years and years of experience, education and – most importantly – trial and error. As Andrew says, it’s intellectual property that a lot of the time can only be developed from your own learnings.

“Some of the best implementations at Moonrocks have come from us simply trying something out for ourselves,” he says.

However, the business does connect with a network of agronomists and industry peers and looks internationally for ideas and inspiration.

“A lot of value can also be gained from seeing how people do things on an international scale. While it’s important to keep an eye on things in your local industry, there is a lot to be learned from horticulture practices in other countries. You often end up learning quite a few ‘what not to dos’ too, which are equally valuable,” Andrew says.

Pride of place

Andrew and David are proud to be fifth-generation vegetable growers.

“Farming is well and truly in our blood. David and I have had some sort of connection to farming since we were born and a career in farming was always on the cards for us,” Andrew says.

“It’s hard to pick one moment [in our career] as a highlight. Instead, I think it’s a culmination of years of hard work and looking at where we are now as a whole. David and I are probably most proud to have a business that one day can be handed down to our children to then put their mark on it.”

Additionally, Andrew says winning the 2021 Syngenta Grower of the Year has been a highlight in an otherwise challenging year.

“It’s a privilege to be recognised in an industry full of growers who are excelling in their own areas. Beyond that, it is recognition of the hard work that our key staff continue to put in. We are proud to be a part of such a diverse industry,” he says.

“The honour of winning a national industry award isn’t lost on us and it’s certainly been a win for not just us, but our team and small community.”

“Farming is well and truly in our blood. David and I have had some sort of connection to farming since we were born and a career in farming was always on the cards for us."

Looking ahead

Andrew predicts the next decade will be like the last for Moonrocks, with further evolution occurring within the business.

“For David and me, our work now is to ensure that we can grow easily with the industry to facilitate those changes – it’s all about future proofing,” he says.

“We have solid foundations in growing high quality produce, so it’s all about keeping those foundations and allowing the rest of the business to adapt as it needs to.”

One of the biggest drivers in the development of Moonrocks will always be the end consumer.

“As a business, we need to be able to adapt and evolve based around their needs and desires and there is a lot of work that goes into ensuring that we stay on top of that,” Andrew explains.

“The key for us will always be working with what we already have to innovate and grow, and value adding is a huge way that we do this. ‘G’day Garlic’ has been a big step into that space for us, and we will continue to expand and perfect that range.

“We also anticipate many developments in our cropping practices over the years, in response to the work we are doing in the soil health space. As we learn more, we will implement changes and more beneficial ways of farming.

“I think it’s a really exciting time to be in horticulture, and for Moonrocks it’s all about embracing modern day technology and research to ensure we are farming well into the future.”

This grower profile first appeared in the leading magazine for the Australian vegetable industry, Vegetables Australia. If you’d like to subscribe to receive a new edition of Vegetables Australia in your mailbox every three months, use our online subscription form!

Images courtesy of Dust to Dawn Photography.