WHEN Jenny and Doug Eagle shifted from the Mornington Peninsula to a NSW fruit block at Coomealla in the 1980s, it was a steep learning curve.
Although the couple was familiar with the agricultural industry, they had much to learn.
Several decades later, their hard work was recognised at the 2013 Mildura Field Days for growing the best quality sunmuscats during the 2013 season. They also won the overall award for the best quality dried fruit for 2013.
Before moving to NSW, Doug had managed the Peninsula Murray Grey Stud and previously worked in irrigation. Jenny grew up on a farm at Wagga Wagga.
They initially bought a half-share with friends in the 19.5-hectare property in 1991.
That year it rained at harvest, leaving them with split sultana grapes - and no income.
Luckily, their partners -- who were still working in Melbourne - were able to pay them a half-wage, so they managed to continue.
Things picked up and five years later they were able to buy out their partners and, since then, have continued to improve the property.
In the early years, they switched vines to T-trellis structures and deep ripped to boost production.
"The T-trellis allowed a greater leaf area for vines to photosynthesise and allowed better canopy spread," Jenny said.
"Deep ripping meant the water was more available to stimulate the root system."
Jenny said the first 10 years on the block were spent paying off debts.
After that, they started pulling out vines to replace them with stronger rootstocks and varieties.
"Many of the vines were 70 to 80 years old, some rows were missing vines and they were hard to manage because of their shape," Jenny said.
Gordo vines were replaced with Carina currants on a higher T-trellis because they were more resistant to splitting if it rained and rootstock was also used to ensure the vines had more vigour.
Waltham and sultanas were replaced with sunmuscats that had been grafted onto Paulsen rootstock and were planted with a shaw swing arm trellis.
As the new rows of sunmuscats and currants went in, irrigation was also converted from furrow to drip.
Previously, the Eagles also used a sub-surface pipe 22.8 centimetres below the surface throughout the block. It was replaced later with a total drip irrigation system.
Jenny said drippers were installed, to enable even water distribution. "We monitor water application using Environscan probes," she said.
Fertigation, where fertiliser is delivered to plants via irrigation, was also established.
A green swathe throughout most of the year is also grown in all rows, with undervine irrigation and herbicide application.
Sunmuscats are now planted on 8.9ha of the block, with 2.4ha of currants and 6ha undeveloped.
"The undeveloped section was old furrow-irrigated sultanas that we decided to let go in 2007," Jenny said.
* Full report in Stock Journal, September 12 issue, 2013.