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

Tasmanian Country - - NEWS -

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

DAVID ROBERTS-THOM­SON

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.”

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