NEW DI­REC­TION

Drought prompts farm­ers’ move into grow­ing herbs

Warwick Daily News - South West Queensland Rural Weekly - - Front Page - Fiona Sheean

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.

RETURN SERVE

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.”

CRUEL BLOW

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.

PHOTO: FIONA SHEEAN

GREEN DREAM: Paul Stringer of Biloela in Queens­land switched to grow­ing herbs af­ter a long drought in the 1990s.

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