The green heads of change
Growing asparagus in North Queensland
When driving between the North Queensland towns of Townsville and Charters Towers, you’d expect to see a couple of Brahman cows, possibly a few kangaroos, but not paddocks of asparagus!
The Caleo family have taken innovation and risk in their stride, spearheading a new variety of the green vegetable in a region just realising its potential for farming – as opposed to grazing.
“I spotted asparagus and thought, we’ll have a go at that! This is our third year and we’re still experimenting, but we’re very happy with it,” Black River Produce managing director Jon Caleo said.
“We have access to one of the biggest water sources in North Queensland, the Burdekin River, and while there’s a few people irrigating in this neck of the woods, it’s not common.”
A career in horticulture came later in life for Jon and his wife Roslyn, purchasing a block just west of Townsville at Black River to grow watermelons and pumpkins. They eventually converted it to a nursery for their larger growing block on the Burdekin River near Charters Towers.
Across the two farms, the company produces pumpkins and watermelons in the summer. During the cooler dry months, it grows broccoli, spring onions and now a new local strain of asparagus.
“Our long-term aim is we’ll grow at least 100 hectares of asparagus,” he said.
“When we’re in production, we can supply enough for larger supermarket contracts in north Queensland.”
Recently the company was awarded a $300,000 Coles Nurture Fund grant to further their research into a northern asparagus crop.
“This grant will enable us to realise the potential of growing asparagus in the tropics out of season to Australia’s current production period and in direct competition to imported product,” Mr Caleo said.
“Traditionally asparagus isn’t picked until it’s about three years old, but because we’re in north Queensland, it grows 12 months of the year, and we can pick it earlier.”
“But there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know how long the plants will live for. There is no information anywhere in the world on the longevity of asparagus in the tropics.”
Despite the risks, Black River Produce can see a massive upside to the green gamble.
If the crop is successful and it becomes a long-term crop, the imports will be drastically reduced.
“We can now afford to take a bigger risk and iron out any issues as they arise,” Mr Caleo said.
Asparagus is a long-term crop, and it can be a little tricky to grow in what are normally cooler climates. Some of Australia’s biggest producers are based around Mildura in Victoria and Cowra in New South Wales. North of the McIntyre River, growers have tried it on the Atherton Tablelands, west of Cairns and on the southern Darling Downs. In both instances, the farmers gave up. But Black River Produce is trying something new.
“We’ve got a new variety that we’ve actually just started planting,” Mr Caleo said.
“It is more resistant to rust (a plant fungus) than the traditional varieties. It’s never been grown up in the tropics, so we don’t know yet how resistant it is to rust.”
The fungus grows in humid conditions, something that’s quite common in the northern summers. So steps have been taken to allow better air flow.
“We’ve planted it a lot further apart than it’s traditionally grown to allow more breeze to travel through the rows,” Mr Caleo said.
“We’re trying some biological things as well, like spraying silicone on it which helps it develop stronger cell walls. We’re trying to give the plant every chance it can to beat the disease issues we know are out there.”
Black River Produce is no stranger to meeting new challenges. Consistently producing watermelons for picky consumers can also be difficult.
“My favourite crop is still watermelons,” said Mr Caleo.
“The standards that the retailers expect is getting higher and higher every year. To consistently grow a beautiful seedless watermelon is not easy. But, when you get it right, it’s very rewarding!”
Like many horticulture operations across the country, locating staff that are willing to work has been difficult. Mr Caleo said it is a combination of restrictions due to COVID-19 and the job keeper payments.
“We are having issues in terms of employees – trying to find people,” he said.
Black River Produce is accredited by Fair Farms – a system that ensures employees are treated properly.
“They come out to the farm and audit us. I consider it the best system. It’s something we are happy to hang our hat on and we’re proud to say we are Fair Farms Certified,” Mr Caleo says.
“There’s a lot of scrutiny on employers and rightly so, and because we actually get audited in this system, you know that people can’t hide cut corners and that everyone is doing the right thing.”
Currently, uptake of Fair Farms is on a volunteer basis, but Mr Caleo would like to see it rolled out more in Australian farms, with the possibility of becoming mandatory.
Written by Jayne Cuddihy
Photography by Jayne Cuddihy
Black River Produce is featured in the January/February 2021 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.