Kalfresh Vegetables was founded in 1992 by Robert Hinrichsen and his father, Barry. Their vision was to unite growers under a common brand. Since then, Kalfresh has grown from a small, family-owned company into one of Queensland’s leading vegetable production companies. Rob oversees the farming operation of the company, and two of his three sons — Jon and Matt — now work alongside their father. Kalfresh is passionate about good farming practices, and about growing fresh, tasty and nutrient-rich produce, with a focus on carrots, green beans, onions and pumpkins, as well as pre-prepared vegetables. (www.kalfresh.com.au)
JON & MATT HINRICHSEN
How and when did Kalfresh begin?
ROB: Kalfresh is in its twenty-fifth year this year. We started in 1992. We were always farmers in the valley, here. My dad was a farmer and his father before him. I am third generation and these guys, my sons, are fourth. We always grew a lot of grain and dabbled in a few vegies. We weren’t really serious vegie farmers until I came back after uni, and we decided to get into vegetable trading and packing. Back then, we didn’t grow, or anything like that, to any great extent.
I went to uni, then I went and worked in the markets for twelve months in Rocklea, and finished my training. Down there, at that time, it was a time that the fruit industry had consolidated for packing. They could put in the best automation and technology, and better post-harvest procedures. When I came back to the valley, here, there were still about thirty or thirty-two small carrot sheds. The industry was completely fractured and there was very little refrigeration. It was all very ad hoc. I think it was just very timely that there was an opportunity to jump in and do something.
So, we started a brand called Kalfresh. By the end of four years, we were packing out of four different sheds in the area and we’d changed the grading so we had a point of difference. It was something the market really accepted. They really grabbed hold of it. We made sizing more consistent. We started doing one-kilo and half-kilo pre-packs — that was brand new. And we put an air cooler in, so we had better cooling. We stepped up the pace of harvesting a bit and it went very, very well. After four years, we knew we’d have to consolidate in some form, and that’s when we built the first shed down here. In that shed, we put in the second hydro cooler in the Australian carrot industry, and we put in the first mechanical graders in Australia. It was a purpose-built facility. It was a very nice facility for its time.
Is technology important in your industry?
Technology will keep driving efficiency in the industry. You can’t not become more efficient. I think one of the main drivers for us has been travelling — getting around to the manufacturers, to other producers around the world, seeing what’s going on, latching onto the next thing and then spending the money. That’s all about risk.
So, you sell your beans to the supermarkets?
ROB: Yes, we sell our beans to the chains and we export to New Zealand. We fly out of Brisbane airport. These beans that we’re picking here this morning, they’ll be in their boxes — the white export boxes — they’ll be on the plane this afternoon and on tonight’s flight. Essentially, the same time our trucks are arriving in at supermarkets in Australia with the same beans tomorrow morning, our customers in New Zealand will be receiving them. It is a good supply line and one that they appreciate as it gives them extra days of shelf life and time to sell.
Are you one of the biggest bean producers?
ROB: We are not the minnows, but we’re not the big fish, either — in beans. We are in carrots.
Do you all get along?
ROB: You usually find, in growing land, that everyone tolerates each other and there’s a degree of respect, but then there are people you actually network with, who you are close with and who you share everything together with. It is a real strength of the Fassifern Valley, I think. Everybody gets together and everyone helps each other out. It is unique.
What is it about the Scenic Rim?
ROB: It is hard to put your finger on it, but it is people’s attitude — a good attitude. That’s what it comes down to. It is people’s desire to build that ag community and to be part of a solution, rather than part of a problem. I think people here are dedicated to building a community. We are a small-producing area. The Lockyer is probably ten times bigger than here. I think to find significance in the industry, to find our place, we’re better off together than apart.
You have three sons and two are involved in the business. Jon, what do you do here?
JON: I started off up the back, doing the composting. I really got into that and built it up. We began by doing a short-term compost that we use on our farms and sell to local farmers. From there, we built a long-term compost, which we use on the farms.
ROB: So, the long-term compost is actually the green waste out of Boonah tip. We take all of the green waste every year and then we mix it with our waste onions. So, we recapture the nutrition out of those onions.
JON: Matt has taken his gap year and he’s taken over that, and I’m learning new stuff all around the farm. I’ve done the onion-planting for the last three years.
Matt, what do you enjoy about the farming lifestyle?
MATT: It is the sense of being free, of not being confined to a suburban area. Some people can work here, but I live here as well. I have that continuous, very open world, I guess you’d say. Growing up, my mates always came to our place. We went down to the creek for a fish. It was all outside activities.
Family is important to Kalfresh, is that right?
ROB: Dad and I worked shoulder to shoulder for twenty-five years. We built this joint up. He ran the farms and I ran the packing shed. It was one of the great partnerships of Queensland horticulture.
I think what is most important with families, these days on the land, is that you give your kids the ability to leave, the freedom to go, because agriculture is hard. We had a flood through here last month that cost us a lot of money. We’re back to scraping soil back and fixing things up. Not everybody can wear that and you can’t just expect that people are going to embrace that. To be in farming today you have to be very passionate about it. To some degree, you have to love it because sometimes it is going to turn around and sock you in the teeth.
What are your plans for the future of Kalfresh?
ROB: I think that’s where our soil health program, our composting, our cover crop program and some of the other things we’ve introduced here factor — they’re legacy programs. They might not make us money this year or next year, but they will leave the farm in a better place than when we started. That’s why we jumped into that.
Tell us about that.
ROB: The soil health … While I was sitting in the chair here, running this business, I could see new technology coming into other industries, especially the controlled traffic systems where the tractors run on GPS, so your tractor always drives in the same place. So, essentially, we don’t drive on the farm where we are going to grow our crops, and what that does, in our clay soil, it doesn’t compact it. It lets it breathe and you start to see things like worms coming back. Because we weren’t compacting our own soil, we didn’t have the clods of soil, and it takes literally a third of the diesel now to run a hectare of land on our farm because of that program. So, that’s the first thing.
The other thing was composting, where we’re recovering our nutrition and bringing it back to our farm. One of the things we’ve lost in modern agriculture is the fungus. We don’t give fungus a chance because we drive over it and we smash it up with implements, then it just doesn’t have the food source — enough carbon — to feed on. With our long-term compost, we’re bringing the wood from the trees back into our farming system to reinstate that fungus. At times you can go into the paddock and tear open the soil and there are strands of fungus running through it. That is very gratifying. Fungus interacts with plant roots and creates metabolites, antibiotics and plant vitamins that you can’t get any other way. It builds resilience into your cropping program and in your plants, and therefore that brings resilience to the eater. It is good food and good nutrition.
A part of that has been the compost, and then the cover-cropping brings green carbon back into the soil to build up the biology, especially the biology the bacteria love — the green carbon. So, we try to do, once a year, the cover crop. And then we use microbes. We put microbes into our system wherever we can with our seed — we drill it in. It comes down to the way we cultivate our soil. It is a system we built and it all goes in together. It is not a silver bullet. It is not easy. Sometimes it completely screws up on you and you get angry, but the whole drive is less input — lower input on the farm — and less chemical. Ultimately, the next scope for us is organic.