Farming ingenuity and efficiency comes to mind when visiting the small crops and beef grazing property of the Haaksma family near Childers.

Andrew Haaksma together with his wife, Kerryn, and parents, Jack and Dorothy, operate the 153-hectare ‘Watervale’ property, where they grow zucchinis, squash and snow peas over about 10ha and run around 50 breeders. They also grow pasture hay, of which most is sold, and mow and bale hay for various fellow landholders.

The horticultural crops are grown over a wide rotation, with up to two crops a year on heavy red soils and one crop every five years on their grey country.

They normally manage three blocks of snow peas and 10 blocks of zucchini each year, with the snow peas grown over 10 weeks and picking then occurring for six weeks, while the zucchini can be picked after about five weeks in summer and seven to eight weeks in winter and is completed over four weeks.

All working up of the ground is performed with small machinery and the crop rows are set at a width of 3 metres. Snow plea plants are spaced every 50 millimetres, while there is 75 centimetres between the zucchinis.

Most similar operations normally undertake full cultivation and bedding up before installing plastic, however the Haaksmas don’t use plastic. It also means they use only about one-third of the fuel and time of similar programs.

They also slash grass between the rows and put it on the beds to help retain moisture and they use a disc to roll-in dirt around the squash plants, covering any weeds.

A final rotary pass is performed before planting and fertiliser is drilled to a depth of 15 – 20 cm using a single tyne fertiliser box, which also sets the mark for installing the trickle tape. The old fertiliser box used was originally purchased by Andrew’s grandfather.

The zucchini seed is simply planted via a pipe that Andrew kicks along before pushing some dirt over the seed, while the snow pea seed is sown via a planter.

“We will plant and trickle it for a week to get the moisture down,’’ Andrew said.

The family’s irrigation system is powered by a home-made, 19-kilowatt stand-alone three-phase solar array.

Soil testing is carried out and the Haaksmas have previously been using an organic Katek Custom Blend fertiliser, as well as applying chicken manure, lime and gypsum, the latter to correct calcium deficiency and high soil aluminium.

They switched to a granular NPK fertiliser and achieved a better result, however then had concerns with nutrient leaching.

“We were finding with the granular fertiliser that we would put it in, then we were getting a heap of rain and it would leach out. We were putting out about 1 tonne of it over several blocks and losing most of it over the early crop cycle,’’ Andrew said.

He considered it would also be more difficult to apply granular NPK fertiliser in future due to the push for more efficient fertiliser use to help protect the Great Barrier Reef.

The Haaksmas have since cut back on their pre-plant fertiliser and will alternate between the Katek product and the granular NPK fertiliser. However, they have decided to use water soluble fertilisers through the trickle irrigation, using Haifa products Poly-Feed 15 and Poly-Feed 12, sourced through Lindsay Rural at Childers.

“It’s about half the amount of granular fertiliser we were applying. We apply 0.6-kilogram every 10m of row – or about 150kgs/ac,’’ Andrew said.

“We are trying to develop a program that is simple and the 25-kilogram bag of (Haifa) Poly-Feed (per acre) per week from about three weeks after germination is good.”

Virtually free of chloride, sodium and other detrimental elements, Poly-Feed provides optimal, balanced nutrition throughout the growth cycle.

“We also put in a bag of Haifa Cal nitrate per week and half a bag of Multi-K potassium nitrate per week just before flowering,’’ Andrew said.

The fertiliser program then stops before the end of harvest.

“Another grower has been using all straight fertilisers and has been finding the crops are getting a lot of N and producing bulk, but not getting the flowers,” he said.

Andrew said they had been happy with their crop production and quality.

“The quality has been good right from the start.’’

“Snow peas can be curly in the first picks, but they have been straight. The zucchinis first pick has also been very good.

“A good crop of snow peas is 1.5-2kg/m. Last year we had 7-foot high peas and we have done up to 3kg/m.’’

The zucchini crop is grown after the snow peas to take advantage of any residual nutrition, as well as to gain multiple use of the trickle tape.

Local Lindsay Rural Childers Branch Manager and Agronomist Jules Keller said it was important to undertake soil testing prior to crop plantings to ensure pre-plant nutrition and soil structure/health was optimal for the crop cycle.