Alvise Brazzale tells his wife I’m going to write a book about him.
“Hey Noalene,” he crows as she rides past on one of his farm’s Gator utility vehicles. “You better be nice to me, aye. Jonno here is doing a book about me. It’s ‘gonna be a bestseller.”
Brazzale is the sort of character you could not make up. He may well hold the title of Australia’s most interesting man; the tobacco-turned-mango farmer, the classic-Ford enthusiast, the Italian family man, the mentor, the mental-health campaigner, the motor mouth. There is so much to him I could spend all day talking to him, roaming his 70-hectare mango farm, and not get bored.
“I’m in a bikie gang, mate. You heard of the Bandidos? I’m in the Mangeedos.”
We’re each three Great Northern Lagers deep and the tape’s been rolling for over an hour. The ginormous shed is currently empty, but next week 50 beneficiaries of Australia’s Working Holiday Visa program will begin sorting, spraying, stickering and stacking enough mangoes to feed most of the east coast. But work rarely stops at Brazzale Mango Mareeba, not even for the star of a forthcoming tome that has no title or publisher.
“When I started, there were only Aussies working and it was a nightmare, mate, a nightmare. In the ’70s and ’80s it was dropouts from the city. Hippies. Now they’re much more respectful. Different kettle of fish completely.”
I fucking love mangoes. I once dedicated an entire column in this publication to them. I also have absolutely no idea how they get from a seedling to my supermarket, so I’m here in Mutchilba, a 90-minute drive inland from Cairns, to learn from the Brazzales, who have been growing these magical golden orbs for as long as I have been alive.
Up here, by 10am it’s 32 degrees.
Brazzale took over this farm from his parents, who moved here from Italy after World War Two. They originally grew tobacco, until the government instituted a buyback scheme in the late ’70s, and Brazzale and his father decided to diversify using the ancient mango trees already on the property. “We said, ‘How about we look after these trees, make a little money out of them?’ We used to call it beer money,” he says, laughing.
Thirty years on, that beer money is now worth close to a million dollars in produce annually. Turns out the Brazzales made the right decision.
Brazzale’s 84-year-old mother Orbella still lives on the farm in a separate house that was built for her after her husband passed away. A classic nonna, she invites us in for afternoon coffee with the family before she even knows my name. She appears to be permanently sun-tanned and is an overwhelmingly gracious host. I say “Grazie” to her and she beams. Her bathroom has mango-scented air freshener in it.
“We used to hate Christmas,” says Brazzale’s daughter Jesslyn, who now works as the farm’s bookkeeper after a stint at KPMG Cairns. “Everyone was so buggered and then they had to go straight back to work picking and packing the next day.”
The family puts in long hours; Brazzale is usually up before the sun and weekends don’t really exist. A property this size requires continual maintenance; spraying crops, observing produce, chasing off wild pigs that come to gorge on low-hanging fruit. Everyone’s involved, even in off-season.
There are now more than 1000 flowering mango trees on Brazzale’s farm. Each yields close to seven kilograms of fruit, or around 30 trays per tree. And that’s just one property in a region dotted with them. We take the Gator and go for a cruise around the farm, observing each of the six varieties he grows. Sydney typically goes mad for the classic Kensington Pride or Calypsos, while the smaller, redder R2E2s are a hit in China, retailing for up to $50 a pop as New Year offerings. The place feels like it goes on forever; purple, orange, green and gold mangoes drooping nonchalantly from branches as far as the eye can see. It’s staggering. When I die, this is probably what heaven will look like.
“When it’s a big year and we have high production, we just don’t have the population here in Australia to sustain it,” Brazzale says of his tremendous haul. “By Christmas, you have stone fruit, cherries, nectarines, plums. Before that, there’s only apples and pears. So what do people do when they go shopping? They buy a few of each, not a tray of mangoes.”
The thought of mangoes over-ripening in a cool room somewhere is not something I can fathom, but then, I’m just some punk kid from the city. Brazzale, meanwhile, figured out a temporary solution and three years ago became to the first Australian to export mangoes to the US.
But this came with its own challenges: the trucks were so cold that the skin of the fruit burned, New Yorkers weren’t clamouring for the stuff in winter and then there was the west coast’s obsession with chemical-free produce. “A lot of the chemicals we use here for domestic use, they don’t want it over there. So my crop is going to be sacrificed because I can’t use a specific chemical; like for fruit flies, which I need. If they detect it on the fruit they’ll condemn it. It’s not worth it. I ‘gotta sacrifice and lose money. In Australia they look after me.”
Jesslyn is newly married and her husband, Trent, the son of a Cairns cane farmer, loves it up here. He lets me drive the Gator around as the sun sets, pointing out examples of different farming techniques and flocks of kangaroos. Trent won’t admit it, but he’s hotly tipped to take over the mango farm when Brazzale retires, which, given the latter’s work ethic, probably won’t happen until he dies.
For many farmers, family isn’t just a big deal, it’s also essential for continuity. “I’m getting to an age where I want to see my son-in-law and daughter progressing in the business,” says Brazzale, back in the shed. “At the end of the day, I’m doing it for my kids, you know. It’s all I want in my life.”
I ask Brazzale whether he’s worried about a brain drain from the country over the next generation, as other farm kids grow up and move away. His older son is a cardiologist in the city.
“I always encouraged my children to study and get a good job. Farming is a nice lifestyle, but not everyone is smart. I wasn’t, academically; my father wanted me to be a doctor. But studying wasn’t in me,” he says. “I grew up with my parents on this property, so all I ever knew was farming. It’s hard work. I wanted to be a policeman but my father wouldn’t let me. I brought home all the forms for him to sign. I wanted to be a detective.”
It’s a strong mental image; Brazzale, blue eyes, blonde biker beard and thongs, interrogating a suspect down at the Cairns cop shop. He looks tough enough, and true to his word, he does actually own a mango-coloured motorbike. Shame he’s such a teddy bear.
“I don’t go to the casino. There’s no need to. This is the casino right here. This is where the high stakes are.”
Beneath his amiable exterior, Brazzale lives in a perpetual state of low-level anxiety. Like many farmers, his fate is inextricably linked to the weather. “When you see dark clouds, I guarantee you every farmer will be outside watching it and praying, saying, ‘Please don’t come’,” he says.
Brazzale Mango Mareeba could fall victim to a freak incident at any time, and Queensland does freak incidents well. “You pray it doesn’t happen and you don’t wish it on anybody, even your worst enemy because it’s heartbreaking. You invest in over a million dollars [of crops] and all of a sudden, bang bang, gone.”
Unsurprisingly, Brazzale’s biggest concern is hail. It’s only happened twice in his lifetime, but each occurrence has been devastating. “If you get one of those, you can kiss your year goodbye,’ he says. “Hail hits the fruit, punches the fruit and it’s destroyed. It’s like me throwing a rock at you, it’s going to hurt. It comes down in force.”
I ask him whether waking up every day at the mercy of the elements has an impact on his general mental health. In the notices area of the shed I spied a poster that says the farm donates a portion of its proceeds to Beyond Blue.
“I suffered depression – you know, not now – but I do take medication,” he says slowly. “It’s because my blood pressure used to be so high. [It’s to] slow me down, you know, I used to be a workaholic. I hit a brick wall and the ambulance took me away. I was ready to have a stroke. My blood pressure was 260 over 160; I was a ticking time bomb.
“At that time I was managing four properties and running me own farm – on me own. So I’d come home after a full day’s work and do my work. I thought I was made of steel – I honestly did. But we’re not made of steel. My son said, ‘We’re all good, the kids are good – why do you have to kill yourself? For what?’”
For Brazzale, the turning point came when his GP, who dedicated his life to helping farmers talk about their feelings of depression and isolation, took his own life. “His kids all worked here when they were young. We were close; I still feel emotional about it because I [saw] him maybe a week before that and had no idea what was happening in his mind. He probably had a stressful job as a GP. It’s like a farmer. You know, there’s four farmers every week that commit suicide in Australia. So you work that out.
“A lot of us do take anti-depressants. I don’t know what’s causing this issue in society. I think there’s too much in life now.”
On our final morning together I ask Brazzale if we can take a photo of the family, Italian style, out in the mango fields. He’s stoked, and rounds everyone up. Orbella the matriarch arrives fresh from church, dressed to the nines. It’s still early, but the sun is already beating down. This is probably the most relaxed Brazzale will be all year and understandably he’s still hyper; harvest begins next week.
Finally, after scouting three separate locations, we get the shot. Brazzale, the President of The Mutchilba Mangeedos, the workaholic, family-first farmer responsible for my favourite fruit on the planet, is going to be famous. You don’t even have to tell him to smile.
“Hey Noalene,” he says, grinning in front of a tree bursting with Calypsos.
“They’re going to put this on the cover of the book, aye.”