Visiting Rodney Dunn – Vegetable Grower

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We farm 14 properties here in Rochedale and we have farms as well at Kalbar and Warwick which is about 1-2 hours inland from the coast and the main product that we grow are Shallots, Parsley, Chinese Vegetables, Cos Lettuce and now that we have our new packing shed we’ll be going into the mescalin mixes as well. This new packing shed has come about because the world is changing some people might say for the better, some people might say for the worse but everybody today is paranoid about food so the old concept of packing in an open store is over and they now want us to pack inside a sealed coolroom type facility so when we get going there’ll be masks/boots/gowns purely for the issues of food safety. We have two areas here: the first is the dirty area and the next will be the hygiene area. The produce will go into the first part of the coolroom and have all the dirt taken off it then go into the next facility where it’s hydrocooled so it’s immediately taken down to 1º and this happens within one hour of harvesting a product so the quicker you get the produce cooled, the longer the product lasts. The water is sanitized during washing of the Vegetables and one is a spa type system which is air agitated to get it going and the other is a shower type. It’s a type of chlorine but a special type which is registered for food.  A lot of the product we do ends up in prepared salads and because of some of the food scares they’ve had in recent times, people are paranoid about the product being contaminated. It can be at Mrs. Crocketts the same day and they can prepare that night and you could buy it the following day at the store. If the product has any bacteria in it, and it’s put into their salads, it will grow in there so it has to be removed before. With the shallots, they’re put into a plastic sleeve wet – we don’t dry them. Coolroom temperature is between 2 and 4º but if we get a really cold day in winter, the coolroom can feel warmer. Sheryl Is this area being subdivided shortly? Rodney Yes, we’ll be going to Kalbar and Warwick so we’ll use an air-conditioned truck to bring it down to process it here. We have a staff of around 55 so it’s a fair operation. Some of our customers also want other farms to put their product through us. Our product goes to Melbourne/Townsville and Sydney. Sheryl What’s in the white buckets? Rodney We’re using new technology for soil sterilisation. It’s a machine which uses steam and hot lime. George Basically it’s lime that’s gone through the kiln and hasn’t been rehydrated. Rodney The reason they call it hot lime is because you put water with it and you get a very hot reaction so that’s the purpose of the lime, it reacts when you put it in the soil with the steam. George That’s one of the classic things of getting rid of bodies isn’t it? Rodney Don’t know – I’ve never tried it! We haven’t used methyl bromide for many years mainly because it just got too expensive. Mark What are you trying to destroy in the soil? Rodney When you’re growing some of the crops that we grow, it’s not possible to grow and mechanical harvest them if you have weed populations so it’s aimed at controlling weeds. Sheryl Do you steam the soil before putting in every new crop? Rodney No, steam has been around for a very long time but when they just use steam it kills everything in the soil so using steam with the hot lime, you don’t use as much heat in the ground but it lasts for a longer period of time so you keep the temperature at 60º and it gets rid of a lot of the bad guys in the ground but the good ones live at a higher temperature. As soon as the temperature has dropped in the soil which is the same day, you can plant. The machine goes on tracks and is like a rotary hoe but it only turns very slowly. It’s not a primary tilling machine so you have to have your ground in prime condition first and it goes down about 8 inches and it also controls nematodes as well. We’re still in the experimental stage with this machine because it does lift your pH so in these types of soil where they are naturally acidic, it’s not such a problem but some of your black soils in the Lockyer might be different. Sheryl What do you keep your pH at? Rodney Around 6 to 6½ . Without applying lime in these soils, you’re struggling to get above 5. We also have a machine that distils the water before it goes into the machine. We use to use dolomite or gromag but now we don’t because we can’t afford to be doing both. Bob What’s the best lime to lower your pH? Rodney That depends on who you’re talking to. George Do you get soil/leaf analysis done? Rodney Yes, we just use the government one or a private lab Simbio at Coorparoo. Joe Where do you get your main irrigation from?  Rodney  We have a dam and recycle our water so that after we wash the product, the water goes into our dam and is then recycled out onto the farm. We have bores and a creek supply – no town water. George The water table around this area was dropping rather significantly for a while. Rodney At this end of Rochedale, there’s virtually no water left and hasn’t been for quite some time. Only some of the shallow ones recharge. With the others, you’re just left with a sand bed.  We grow Chinese Vegetables all through the summer then put in Dutch Carrots and rotate the crops. The Chinese Vegetables have a natural chemical in them that helps in nematode control so by growing these and planting our carrots after, we get the extra benefit. A lot of these are currently oversized because when it should have been picked, it wasn’t because of the weather. We try not to get the same vegetable in the same plot more than once a year. We probably have 20% of the shallot market. We supply through Coles and you can’t supply unless you have a QA (quality assurance) program in place. Choy Sum has a thin long stem, Pak Choy is short and fat you’ll see 3 to a bunch, Buk Choy has a white stem but it depends on who you buy from!! Woolworths sometimes have them around the other way! You’ll also see a flowering Choy Sum and we use to grow them but we switched over to the hybrid non-flowering type. In Asia they like the flowering types but they don’t here in Australia so at certain times of the year, we’d have to hoe them in because they’d go to flower and nobody would buy them. We use both plugs (seedlings) and direct seed. Sheryl Do you chill any of your seed prior to planting out? Rodney No Sheryl I bought back from Vietnam some slow bolting Coriander to give to members in the Club and they presoak then chill it prior to planting out over there. Bob Why don’t you have white cabbage moth? I also don’t see grass hoppers. Rodney We don’t see white moth these days. It’s interesting that in the old days when they use to use DDT and others, and it use to multiply in those days but since we’ve got newer/softer chemicals so we now get diamondback moth so whether it’s got to do with birds around I don’t know. Our biggest problem is centre cluster grubs or diamondback moth in the Chinese Vegetables. They can be worse than the cabbage white moth but the good thing about these with the BT’s around, they’re good to control but it’s only for the caterpillars. BT is bassilus theringensis.  We use Nitrophoska fertiliser before planting out and we might put a bit of Potassium Nitrate through the water if they need it during growing. We used Potassium at one stage on Shallots and use CK88 as a side dressing. There’s an issue with food safety. We use to use a lot of fowl manure in years gone by but we’re not allowed to use it now – very shortly it’s going to be banned by the EPA. Sheryl How are the organic people going to go? Rodney They’ll have to use treated compost. We’re not even allowed to use Dynamic Lifter because the process is not good enough – it’s the bacteria. We’re not allowed to use anything organic – nothing that hasn’t been treated. One of the issues we are dealing with at the moment because we don’t use fowl manure anymore and because we grow a lot of crops a year, you get into trouble with the organic carbon in the ground so one of the issues we are looking at is having composts that conform to a certain standard so that if it is composted properly and you get the heat processes right, you can get them out. What happens is that it can take 12 months and people take shortcuts so now there’s a QA coming in and it will be certified that it has no ecoli or salmonella in it. If your soil structure starts to deteriorate, you get erosion. In the past, people got sick and didn’t worry about it but when people get food poisoning these days and it triggers an alert in the system, they can easily find out the common source so there are litigation issues. They recently had a case in America of green onions coming in from Mexico and people got hepatitis and it destroyed the green onion market over there. The diamondback moth is immune to a lot of the harder chemicals. We harvest parsley by machine and the rest are done manually. Bob How long have you got to pick them? Rodney About a week Sheryl How much do workers earn? Rodney 16 cents a bunch. Australians don’t pick product these days and haven’t since the late 80’s – our staff are mainly Asians/Iraqi and Pakistani but our best lady on Shallots has picked 43 tubs in a day and there’s 40 bunches in a tub! The average worker would do 20-30 tubs a day but an Australian would be lucky to pick 6-9 tubs a day. We’re in a lot of trouble with labour these days. In the 80’s when all the Vietnamese and Cambodians were coming in, we were embarrassed with the amount of people coming in every day wanting work but now it’s almost impossible to get those people because they now either have their own farms or have found other work. Some of the people who started with me here in the 80’s are now very rich people – very frugal with their money and saved. They’re highly valued in factories these days. We’re looking at machine harvesting now. The government’s migration policy now is geared toward business or rich people and you can get into this country if you’ve got money or a special skill but they don’t class the workers as having a special skill. Historically, if you look at Australia if you go back before the war, all the Italians were coming in and   look at who owns all the cane farms up north. Australia’s been built on a migrant policy; they came in, worked hard then got their own businesses. Sheryl What about backpackers? Rodney We don’t get many here and this work is different because we’re picking 52 weeks of the year, so if you work here you have a job for life. Up around Bundaberg, they still don’t get enough. Merv One of the sad things is with both Federal and State with regards priority, primary industry is very low and when you look at horticulture, it’s worse. They’re doing something with cattle. We were up at the Nambour Research Station a couple of years ago and they were cutting back as fast as they could and if you didn’t have the money in the door, they didn’t do anything so you’re faced with this problem that Australia is going global and is not interested in primary industry anymore.  Sheryl Depending on the soil and fertiliser, will the same vegetable taste the same as the next lot ie how do you control the taste? eg if you buy hydroponic lettuce, some of them are bitter occasionally. Rodney There are a number of factors that will control taste and texture and one is whether it is consistently grown. If you have a bitter lettuce, then almost certainly it is because at some stage it’s got stressed, the longer it takes to grow, or if it hasn’t been getting enough water but if the lettuce is grown evenly, it’ll have the sweetness. Other factors are frost or excessive cold or excessive rain that affects the ability of the plant to get oxygen into the soil so if the plant normally takes 10 weeks and because of lack of or too much water or something else and the period is lengthened out to 11 weeks, the plant will not taste as good. The other thing that affects it is we are very close to the coast here and although they grow faster here and they actually taste better but they don’t keep as good. If you get a product of ours from Kalbar or Warwick, it will keep better than from here Sheryl What time frame are we talking about? Rodney It will be at least a week. We have a high humidity here and we get a nice soft plant but because it is softer, it doesn’t keep as well so a plant out of Lockyer/Kalbar will physically last and you won’t get break down because it’s not a softer plant. It will always taste better from here than up there but won’t keep as good. We direct seed Parsley into the ground and harvest it for 12 months and it’s hard to get your head around how much is used. The biggest quantity of Parsley we’ve ever done was for Mrs. Crockets at Christmas and we did 16 tonne in one week so that’s an awful lot of Parsley! We have 3 other farms all in Parsley. We machine harvest the Curley Parsley or sometimes it’s called Triple Curled or Frizz but this one is called Inca. We also grow Italian or Continental as it’s referred to in the market and it’s sold by weight. We also handpick and it’s sold by the bunch. If it gets too rain on, it’ll go yellow. We’ll reharvest it again in 3 weeks time and do this for 12-15 months but it depends on the weather. If it gets too tall, we’ll come back and mow it just above the ground and throw the stalks away. The height we cut at depends on the amount of yellow there is underneath because if we cut too much yellow, they have too much work in the packing shed. The parsley harvester fits onto the back of one of our tractors and it has a special type of bandsaw we have made up which cuts the parsley and takes it onto the elevator (about 1 mtr long) and is put straight into a bin and it will harvest around 1 tonne an hour. The blades don’t last very long and we can’t sharpen them. The machine was made in New Zealand but designed in Germany. You could grow parsley in a pot for 12 months no trouble. The biggest trouble we have is with lady beetles which are good but for some reason or other customers don’t like them in their salads! In springtime we have a lot of trouble. In dryer weather you get the red spider coming in that doesn’t give us much trouble and you get the lady beetles coming in to eat them. Peter How often would you water? Rodney Every couple of days for 1-2 hours at 4ml an hour – 10ml every 2 days. The only trouble we have with the machine is with Italian Parsley when it’s wet and it gets a bit slippery at the front of the machine. Bob How fast do you go? Walking speed? Rodney Depends on the type of parsley but probably a bit faster than walking speed. With about 80% of the properties around here, you’ll see big concrete open water tanks because the bores were never good enough to pump straight out onto the farm and they would have their bores going 24 hours a day, the tank would fill up overnight and the following day, they’d use this as their water for the day and you might have several bores going into the one tank to get the quantity of water they would need. The steaming machine is made in Italy and the one here was only No. 4 in the world. The hot lime is kept in a stainless steel hopper and it drops down into a hydraulically driven rotary hoe type blade and it has 2 bars in it set at different levels that injects steam in it. It also has a boiler in it that injects steam into the ground mixed with the lime. Dale What fuel do you use? Rodney  Diesel.  The machine is very slow and does 75-100 metres per hour. It cost $250,000 Sheryl How often would you have to do it? Rodney  We’re hoping once a year. It’s not economical to have someone going in there weeding. Our seeder came from NZ – has 12 rows and is electronically driven and you can turn one of them off and plant a six row. The configuration is very easy to change. It has a little foam in the centre that spins electronically and the seed falls down between the foam. I went to Italy and Amsterdam looking for harvesters and met the New Zealanders over there! We also have a weeder that fits onto the front of the tractor and it weeds the lettuce. We’re looking at designing Shallot harvesters, Chinese Vegetable harvesters etc. because we can’t get enough staff. We use to have 6 people to plant out Celery and Lettuce – one driver, 3 people on the machine and 2 others organising for 2 days but with the automatic planter, it’s 1 person 1 day.

Article compiled by Sheryl Backhouse