Vegetable Farmers in Australia
Vegetable Farmers in Australia

“A Twelve-Months
A Year Business”

“A Twelve-Months
A Year Business”

Australian Vegetable Farmers
Australian Vegetable Farmers

Farms located along the Australian East Coast are famous for their high-quality vegetable produce. By applying clever farming strategies, many Australian vegetable farmers perform a year-round business.

It’s a sunny but rainy day at Koala Farm in the Lockyer Valley – a vegetable region located 90 km west of Queensland’s capital Brisbane, on the Australian East Coast. A rainbow glows in the horizon. The rain seems welcome by the parched soil.

At once, the soft splashes of rain grow stronger. Normally this heavy rainfall is an alarm signal to farmers because floods could occur. However, Anthony and Diane Staatz stay calm. They put on their rainboots and walk outside to the nursery. Their expressions suggest it is a normal day at work. Anthony presses a button on a wall panel. He and Diane watch as, above, the nursery roof smoothly closes. In moments, the sound of the rain is merely a faint hum. The lettuce plants inside the nursery are safely enclosed by the nursery roof. This ability to “move the sky” when needed gives their business enough flexibility to produce vegetables year round.

Moving the Sky

In the continent known as the Down Under”, this is not necessarily expected. Australia is the driest continent on Earth. Its interior has one of the lowest levels of rainfall in the world. Consequently, the amount of water that Australian farmers have available for irrigation is crucial. “By moving the sky instead of moving the plants, we can react to each weather condition in a flexible way to achieve the best climate for our crops,” says Anthony Staatz. “This way, we can supply customers with consistent vegetable quality twelve months a year.”

“That’s what differentiates us from most others,” he continues. He and his wife Diane established their family-owned business in 1990. Besides their location in Gatton, they also grow lettuce, such as the romaine varieties Twin Pack Baby Cos and Midi Cos, and broccoli in the city of Cambooya, which is located in the Australian heartland, about 60 km from Gatton. Compared to Gatton, the climate in Cambooya is even drier and has even less rainfall throughout the year. “This combination of locations gives our business enough climate diversity to produce vegetables twelve months of the year,” states Anthony Staatz.

Broccoli
Take a guess

Do you think that one medium stalk of broccoli covers more than our daily requirement of Vitamin C?

Well done!
Broccoli is a Vitamin C booster. One medium stalk covers 220 percent of our daily requirement.
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Surprise:
Broccoli is a Vitamin C booster. One medium stalk covers 220 percent of our daily requirement.
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Expanding Continuously

Another farm that also benefits from having multiple locations is Rugby Farm, which began as a family business in 1912. Through continuous expansion, this farm now belongs among Australia’s largest vegetable producers, operating on 14,000 acres of vegetable crops each year in four regions throughout Queensland. “This strategy of ‘economy of scale’ is crucial to remain profitable,” says Rugby Farm director Matt Hood.

Rugby Farm has expanded its business locations substantially during the past 10 years in order to meet its primary objective of supplying produce twelve months a year. According to Matt Hood, this business development reflects a global trend: “The bigger farms are taking over the majority production globally,” he states. “The traditional model of the mother and father family business is certainly under pressure in Australia.”

In line with farming modernization, Hood sees significantly more automation today: “The days where we rely on one man to do one job are over. It’s been about getting bigger tractors, bigger implements, so you can get more work out of that one man. In the future, many smaller pieces of machinery are doing what one man in one tractor did in the past, he says. Accordingly, Rugby Farm has done large investments in farmland to produce both a seasonal and full-year vegetable supply. “In the last five years a lot of investment has been in the post-harvest side of the business, upgrading food safety and trying to bring automation into the highly labor-intensive parts – instead of actually physically packing the product into a market in retail form,” Hood continues.

The traditional model of the mother and father family business is certainly under pressure in Australia.

Matt Hood, one of Australia's largest vegetable producers

There is another challenge for vegetable farmers Down Under: “Our labor costs are the third highest in the world, equaling one third of our final costs,” states Matt Hood. He is especially feeling this pressure in regards to Asian export markets: “Currently, we supply produce for Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand. Fifteen years ago, we used to do a lot more than that. We also used to go into Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. But our continuously increasing labor costs put our business under an uncompetitive advantage. They shrank our Asian exports.” For Australian growers, this situation can be a particular challenge. Asia remains an attractive export continent, experiencing high population growth as well as increased wealth.

60%

Australian farmers export around 60 percent of what they grow and produce. Source: National Farmers' Association, Australia

South Australian vegetable farmer Darren Schreurs from Devon, Victoria, is also confronted with the problem of losing Asian export markets: “Though we still do air freight to Japan, we are more and more losing the market because there is no return in it. For many years, our Japanese customers asked us to drop the price. But we keep it the same because our costs are going up all the time.” The statistics are revealing: In 2009-10, for example, Australian vegetable exports to Japan increased by 43 per cent. By 2014-15, Japan still was Australia’s leading Asian export destination for vegetables, with a total value of around 32 million US dollars. However, this value was almost ten per cent lower than the previous financial year.

Savvy Strategies

Nevertheless, Schreurs says there is a positive aspect: “This situation drives Australian farmers to become very innovative.” Schreurs and his family developed strategies to reduce their expenses in other business areas by using strategies including Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This is an ecosystem approach to crop production and protection that combines different management practices. As Schreurs explains, “We use composted chicken manure and put this in between the rows of the leeks. In this composted chicken manure, we find that there are mites that help control the lifecycle of pests. That helps keeping the pest numbers down. Over the years, we found that this works really well.”

Vegetable Export Statistics for Selected Asian Countries

Another proponent of IPM is third-generation farmer Paul Gazzola from Somerville, in the Southern section of Victoria. With the support of agronomists and entomologists, Gazzola monitors his fields weekly, using modern crop protection: “We use every tool we can to assist nature. We give nature a hand to help us. For example, there is a lot of new chemistry at the moment that is extremely beneficial to an IPM program,” he says. “If nature is doing its job properly, we don’t go and spray. If it needs a hand, we’ll go and spray a product that is very specific to the pest that is in the crop. We make a decision on what to do to minimize our crop input and maximize the outcome at the end of the day,” Gazzola continues. This concept seems to work well for Gazzola Farm: “We plant between 800,000 and 900,000 plants a week in the ground annually.”

Giving Nature a Hand

Gazzola Farm, Koala Farm, Schreurs Farm and Rugby Farm: These vegetable farming businesses utilize the innovative approaches along Australia’s East Coast region. By applying clever farming strategies, they are able to overcome challenges both specific to Australia and shared by farmers globally. Their ingenuity allows them to farm fresh produce twelve months a year. Sitting under rainy sky at his farm in Somerville, Paul Gazzola is unfazed. He summarizes the recipe of success for vegetable farmers in Australia: “You have to treat your vegetables like your baby. You have to look at them, feed them, water them. And if you don’t do that you don’t get a good result in the end. But I believe that the future for vegetable farming is bright.”

We use every tool we can to assist nature. We give nature a hand to help us.

Paul Gazzola, Australian Farmer from Somerville

Related Articles

Current Readers's rating (17)
All Comments

Helmut Schmidt
Juli 28, 2016 - 05:26

Sehr informativer Bericht! Interessanter Einblick hinter die Kulissen!

Current Readers's rating (1) Reply

Comment