Drought prompts farmers’ move into growing herbs
GAME CHANGER: Dwindling water supplies forced Paul Stringer and a group of others farmers in Queensland’s Biloela district — not known for its horticulture — to trial growing garden herbs.
IT MAY have been 20 years ago, but the prolonged drought in the late 1990s is what Paul Stringer still thanks today for his successful farming business.
Dwindling water supplies forced Paul and a group of others farmers in central Queensland’s Biloela district – not known for its horticulture – to trial growing garden herbs.
It was such a success that within 12 months of the trials they were producing commercial quantities and now, two decades later, the group of six farmers – known as CD Herbs – are a major player in the industry.
They supply to Gourmet Garden, which sells dried and tube herb products nationwide and to 15 countries internationally.
Paul and his wife, Kim, farm 122ha of irrigated country at Biloela, 120km inland from the port city of Gladstone. The climate and alluvial soils in the district, while renowned for cotton and livestock production, are also a perfect mix for herb growing, according to Paul.
The Stringers’ four primary crops are lemongrass, basil, coriander and parsley while oregano, mint and thyme are smaller crops rotated every couple of years.
THERE is high turnover and quick returns with herb production. Planting and harvesting is conducted on a weekly basis with yields for basil averaging 20 tonnes/ha, lemongrass 15 tonnes/ha and coriander and parsley both eight tonnes/ha.
Collectively, CD Herbs produce 740 tonnes of both basil and coriander a year, 500 tonnes of parsley and 100 tonnes of lemongrass.
In peak times, they truck up to three semi-trailer loads a day from the district to the Palmwoods processing plant on the Sunshine Coast. CD Herbs have an annually contracted amount with the processor and once that figure is reached it is distributed among the producers.
“We all produce 20 per cent more than we need to,” Paul said.
“It’s a safety net in case someone gets wiped out, like we did with our basil last year.”
The six local growers meet regularly to discuss industry and business strategies.
“We all have our own facilities and machinery now,” Paul said.
“We used to share but it got too hard – we all needed the equipment at the same time.”Most of the harvesting equipment has been designed and built by the farmers themselves. The latest at the Stringers is a converted cotton harvester, which now cuts and sorts lemongrass.
“It has taken us five months to build this machine and we are still refining it, but it will make harvesting much quicker,” Paul said.
The switch to gourmet garden produce has not been without its problems. In 2010 the region welcomed its first flood after many years of drought, and, ironically, it was followed by floods in each of the next five years.
“We had a lot of land damage especially to our laser grading,” Paul said.
“Luckily, we were in-between crops when the floods hit so we didn’t actually lose any produce.”
THE Stringers’ basil crop also had a huge blow last year when it was infested with downy mildew – an airborne disease specific to basil – not seen in Australia before.
The entire crop was wiped out, costing them dearly.
“We only managed to supply about a third of what we should have,” Paul said.
“We have been certified organic on our place for nine years, but we had to use a chemical on the basil to get rid of the disease. We’ll have to go through the organic certification process again on that paddock now.”
Farming organically has not involved too many major changes, just a different mindset, according to Paul.
“It’s not hard, just different management and while we don’t get huge premiums for it we do get some price benefits because of our market share,” he said.
The Stringers also grow 36ha of certified organic lucerne and cereal hay, which is in high demand and sold anywhere from Cairns to the Northern Territory.
They irrigate 12 megalitres/ha a year to produce the lucerne, while the herbs are half that amount.
GREEN DREAM: Paul Stringer of Biloela in Queensland switched to growing herbs after a long drought in the 1990s.