Cool winters and light alluvial soil make the Fassifern Valley some of the best carrot-farming land in Australia. Meet primary producers Mick and Tracey Rieck, who grew up in the region and now run the family farming business. In the 1980s, Mick’s parents began growing carrots due to the slump in grain prices, and carrots remain the main crop today. The carrots are washed, packed and distributed by Kalfresh to supermarkets nationwide. The Kalbar carrot farmers work together to support each other and have created a close-knit farming community. The farmers’ wives have recently hatched a clever marketing plan to put the wonky, not-so-perfectly-straight carrots to good use. Kalfresh are now packaging and marketing bags of shredded, stick and coin carrots to the supermarkets. The smaller snack packs are a healthy alternative to sweet snacks for kids’ lunch boxes.
MICK & TRACEY RIECK
So, Mick and Tracey, you grew up in the area?
MICK: We moved here when I was only little. I was about five, I think. We shifted here from further up the valley.
TRACEY: I’m from this area, about five minutes away from here. All my life, I’ve been in Kalbar.
Have carrots always been grown on the property?
MICK: It used to be mainly grain and dairy. Most farms, then, had their own dairy and a piggery. It was mainly grain, though — grain and hay. Then grain prices started going down and a few things tapered away, so my parents ventured into carrots.
MICK: This is a good area in winter for growing carrots. Our soils are relatively light, and carrots grow well in light soils. The majority of the vegetables my parents first started growing were potatoes, and then the potato price slumped a bit. They looked for something else and carrots fitted the bill. It has been gradually building over the years.
Do you rotate the crops?
MICK: Yes. If we grow a block of carrots, we won’t grow back there for at least three or four years. We’ll give it a three- to four-year rotation. And in that time we’ll grow a paddock of onions, because they’re a winter crop, as well. Then we’ll grow green beans and pumpkins through the spring and autumn period. We still do a little bit of grain to fill in any spare dirt we have.
Is there anyone who inspires you?
MICK: I work pretty closely with the Hinrichsen family. They’re probably our biggest mentors. They’re a little older and more experienced, and they’ve been here equally as long, if not longer.
TRACEY: There’s such a great group of growers, locally. We’re different to some regions where everyone is in competition with each other. Specifically at onion-harvest time, if one person’s block is coming off, you’ll have five different farmers here driving the forklift to help them, which is just amazing. We all work together and it is very inspiring.
What does an average day entail?
MICK: It can vary. It depends upon how late you worked the night before. But, usually, we start around half past six or seven. Then, usually, you’ll check the irrigation that happened during the night. You check it made its way right to the end. We already have our plans for what we’re planting — the next crops. So, if planting has to happen on that day, we’ll go out and plant … maybe some beans or pumpkin, at this point in time.
Who buys your produce?
MICK: The majority of our produce goes to a local packing shed at Kalfresh. They do the washing, packing, marketing and the transport. They deal with that side of the business, which allows us to concentrate a lot more on the growing.
Have you experienced adversity?
TRACEY: Yes, the floods. Pretty trying times. We were thinking, okay, are we still meant to be here? Can we come back from this? We didn’t have crops in the ground, so we didn’t lose the crops. But on the flipside, there was nothing in the soil to hold the soil where it was, so it was taken away. But we have a fantastic community around us. There were only a small few that weren’t affected, but still everyone was in there to help each other.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
TRACEY: The other thing we’re doing at the moment … we are using our waste product. Instead of giving it to cow feed, we’re cutting it and processing it. It is not really a waste product; it is just not that pretty. The carrot might be bent or it has a little cut on it. We’re turning them into shredded carrot, carrot sticks and coins. It is very early days. There are lots of creases to be ironed out, but it definitely has the potential to get there.
MICK: It actually costs a bit more to pack. They’re cheaper to buy, but the packaging costs the same, so there’s not the margin in it. But, if those carrots were something you were going to feed to the cows anyway, you are still making more than you would have otherwise.
Our aim is to have perfectly straight carrots all the time. We’re still learning about how to do that, but we’re doing a pretty good job. Keeping your soils healthy is the main way. By building up your soil biology … It is like probiotics in your stomach — the more good bacteria you have, it fights off the bad bacteria.
When we first started doing carrots, it was fresh soil. Carrots like fresh dirt that has never had carrots in it before. There, they’ll grow fine. But, after a few years, you start getting diseases and things. The standard practice was to inoculate the soil with a soil fumigant, so you just wipe it out and start from scratch. It wasn’t something we wanted to keep doing. You not only kill the bad stuff, you kill the good stuff. It is not a nice chemical to use and we don’t want to be heading down that track, anyway, so we’re leaning towards a more natural way to keep the soils healthy.
There are some new things we’re learning about — biofumigants — plants that naturally let off toxins. You put them back in the soil and it cleanses the soil. We’ve been working with the DPI, doing a few trials. They’ve been doing a few samples of different varieties. I think that’s important, too.
What’s the best thing about farming life?
TRACEY: We’re very lucky and the kids love it. We love a Gold Coast holiday every now and again, but we’re always happy to come home. Always. There are stressful times. I won’t say it is all roses, but it is fantastic just to get out and actually walk down to get the mail and take in the scenery around you. You come back very grateful.
I went to Brisbane to go to university, but I would come home every weekend. I am definitely not a city person. It is just beautiful out here. All you have to do is walk down the track and look at the range, at Mount Edwards. It is just breathtaking, especially on a day like today.
What about you, Mick? Do you like the farming life?
MICK: I don’t think I could do anything else. I like the variety of things that I do. There’s a lot of problem-solving. It is always throwing up a challenge somewhere, and to be able to solve the problems is very rewarding. Already today, we have had a few challenges and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do to solve them. I think I like that. It keeps your brain active.
TRACEY: Look around. It is funny, you’ll go away for a day shopping, or you’ll be out for a day, then as soon as you come over that hill there and you see your farm and the range, it is just like, yep, we’re home.