Basil growers bring Italian flair to Bundaberg
When wine merchants Enzo D’Annibale and Dorina Lazzarani moved to Bundaberg 25 years ago, farming was the last thing on their minds.
They bought a 240-acre property 20 minutes north of the city in Avondale with the intention of retiring in their mid-forties.
Boredom almost got the best of the couple who, given their insatiable work ethic, realised going from working every day of their lives to sitting on the couch was an unlikely end to their story. It was within six months of settling down that the idea of growing came to them.
With little to no experience as farmers and the daunting prospect of cultivating crops, the pair set about preparing their land.
“We invested in new equipment and a lot of enthusiasm,” Dorina said. “After about two months of preparation, we set about getting the power put on and finally installing irrigation lines, as we had found excellent and plentiful underground water at four locations on our land.”
Once the pipelines were down, then came the task of preparing the soil and adding the necessary nutrients to grow crops.
“All this was totally new to us. Here was an opportunity to learn more and more,” Dorina said.
The year was 1993 and many other farmers in the area were growing garden-variety vegetables. Enzo and Dorina followed suit by first planting zucchini, then capsicum and finally button squash.
They grew some fantastic crops, but then again so was every other grower in the district. All their backbreaking work was worth practically nothing at the markets as there were already plentiful supplies of small crops.
They continued to experiment with a variety of vegetables and fruits for another three to four years before they realised they needed another means of sustainable income.
A little market research revealed, during the winter months, basil was in great demand and short supply. The next phase of the farming business, which they called a “process of education”, was about to unfold.
Enzo was skeptical about growing basil at first because back in Italy, it was custom for green grocers to give away bunches of the herb for free.
“But I said hang on, not everyone grows basil, they live in apartment houses and units. So we started off with learning how to grow the stuff and for the first couple of years it was fantastic,” Dorina said.
Using seeds purchased from Italy and the United States, they had great results growing the herb out in the open. Within a matter of years they were able to use their earnings to build the home they live in today.
Then suddenly, fusarium wilt (fusarium oxysporum) struck. The fungal disease, usually found in contaminated seeds, spread quickly with the wind and destroyed most of the basil crop.
“In two to three days, you see the plant healthy one minute and then all wilted the next,” Dorina said.
Enzo called it “a moment of discomfort” but it was not enough for them to throw in the towel.
“We are pretty stubborn and we kept growing. There is a solution to every problem with the exception of taxation and death,” he joked.
That’s when the idea of growing in greenhouses came to them and they learnt how to put together their first greenhouse that arrived in kit-form.
With production back on track, they reached out to major retailers and began supplying a total of 600 bunches per week. In the 18 years since, that number has increased to 30,000 bunches per week. As the quality and quantity of basil increased, so did the weekly demand.
“We reached greenhouse number 9 and thought ‘this is it!’ Our staff numbers grew, our orders increased and we felt at last we had found the right crop. But this was not to be, demand increased and so number 10, 11, 12 and 13 greenhouses were built,” Dorina said.
Fast forward to today where Enzo, 70, and Dorina, 72, produce five to six tonnes of basil a month and supply 60 per cent of their produce to major retailers.
Not only were they one of the first largest suppliers of fresh basil to supermarkets, they also introduced plastic sleeves and a micro perforated bag to protect the herb on its way through the supply chain and onto shelves.
“Before us, they were just bunches of leaves they threw in a basket,” Dorina said.
Capricorn Fresh Produce is now a market leader, having overcome some difficult challenges including two major floods.
They employ 35 to 40 employees and have 15 acres of basil under 13 greenhouses. Their production runs all year round.
Perhaps it is a tenaciousness that comes from their Italian heritage, but Enzo and Dorina unwillingness to take no for an answer may be the biggest reason for their success.
“We had a goal in mind and we remained focused. You can achieve pretty much anything you want it’s not impossible,” Dorina said.
In recent years, they have introduced antipasti products to the mix through their Essensual Tastes production line including basil pesto, grilled and marinated eggplant, zucchini, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, capsicum and artichoke hearts.
Inspired by their Italian tastes, these gourmet foods are created from a plentiful supply of seconds produce from local growers.
“All these vegetables were around Bundaberg. The only thing we don’t have here is olives and artichokes but they rest is all here,” Dorina said.
The imperfect picks become farm fresh ingredients which would otherwise go to waste because of cosmetic imperfections.
“It is a pity because the product is really good. Just for a little mark, they have to throw it away,” Enzo said.
That’s where Enzo and Dorina come in. Between two separate facilities on-farm, they turn their basil into pesto, and locally-sourced produce into a delicious range of vegetable products, dips, sauces, and condiments.
The products are then sold to distribution outlets across Australia that supply to the food service industry.
As forward-thinking as the pair has been, one would think retirement must be the word on their lips but giving up is not in their nature.
“We have had an incredible journey, now the next chapter of our journey begins, where it will take us no one knows?” Enzo said.
Enzo D’Annibale and Dorina Lazzarani were featured in the March 2018 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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By Sam Allen-Ankins