Spring colours late but sweet
A cropping farm in the North-West is moving towards methods such as no tilling and using cover crops and the results are promising. Karolin MacGregor reports
The tulips are out a bit late but in full force at the Table Cape Tulip Farm, where nine-year-old Ella Groom and her three-year-old sister Rose checked out the blooms when photographer Chris Kidd captured them.
Afocus on improving soil health and biology is producing positive results on one of Tasmania’s most photographed farms.
Flowering is just getting into full swing at the Table Cape Tulip Farm and that means an influx of thousands of visitors over the next few weeks.
A large variety of tulips are grown for the Roberts-Thomson family’s Van Dieman Quality Bulbs business each year but they are just one part of the operation’s cropping program.
David Roberts-Thomson said about 10,000 people visited the farm last year to see the spectacular flowering.
However, he said tourism made up only a small part of the business.
Most of the bulbs grown are sold through wholesalers or through direct online sales to home gardeners.
“As far as the farm income goes, the tourism side is only about 5 per cent, but it’s really good promotion for us.
“It does help with the bulb sales, and it’s handy cash flow at this time of the year,” Mr Roberts-Thomson said.
About 15 per cent of the farm’s cropping area each year is used for bulb production while the rest is used to grow poppies, peas, linseed, pyrethrum, wheat and barley.
To help control diseases the bulbs are grown in a six-year rotation.
They are planted in May to June and are harvested in late December.
Unlike with other many crops, he said making a mistake with tulips had significant consequences.
“They are a bit different. It’s not the same as something like wheat where if you have an issue you just lose that year’s crop,” he said.
“With tulips, if we get a disease or something this year, that will also affect next year’s crop. They are a fairly high input crop too.”
It’s a different way of looking at a cropping system. Once you start thinking that way it’s hard to go back
In the past few years Mr RobertsThomson has focused more on what is happening below the soil surface and this approach is now paying off.
Ultimately, he said their aim was to continually improve the soil structure and biology across the farm.
Some of the key principals behind this are to keep living plant roots in the soils as much as possible and to eliminate fallow periods and maintain soil cover at all times, particularly during the warmer months.
He is implementing minimum-till methods and where possible no tilling across the crops.
Instead of using machinery they are using more cover crops to help deal with issues such as compaction and improve soil structure.
“We’ve been using cover crops for a while now, like a lot of people and that is definitely making a difference.
“With better soils we should be able to mitigate some of the disease risk.”
Slugs have been an issue in no-till systems in the North-West and Mr Roberts-Thomson said they had tackled this through a more integrated pestmanagement approach, including examining how seed treatments and some insecticides impacted potentially beneficial insect species.
“We’re just sort of dabbling in it at the moment but so far we haven’t had any major issues so we’ll just keep going and see what happens,” he said.
He is involved with the new farmerled group Soil First, which focuses on promoting management systems that can improve soil health.
Mr Roberts-Thomson said though it was early days in their operation, he was already seeing improved yields in crops such as wheat and increased number of earthworms across the farm.
“You do need to have a bit of a change in mindset because it’s a different way of looking at what you’re doing in your cropping system and the impact that is has,” he said.
“Once you start thinking that way though it’s hard to go back.”
He said farmers in places like the United States had been using these methods for years and improvements in soils were hard to ignore.
Another area he is keen to explore is the use of summer crops such as sunflowers, sorghum, corn and millet in rotations over the warmer months.
These crops would be planted after early-harvest crops including tulips and peas but Mr Roberts-Thomson said there was the potential to sow them later in the season after crops such as cereals and poppies and get results.
“Traditionally it’s not something that has been done here. We grew some sunflowers last year and it worked well so I’m keen to see what else we can grow,” he said. “I think there’s a whole world to be discovered in that area.”