Robert Hinrichsen still remembers rising early, in the dark and bitterly cold, to pick carrots and potatoes on his family’s Aratula farm.
The conditions may have been trying but Robert has fond memories of his childhood and the hours he spent riding motorbikes, playing in the creek and enjoying the clean, open space of his family’s cattle and vegetable farm.
He knew it was an upbringing he wanted to give his own children but he also recognised that the way vegetables were farmed needed to change.
So fresh out of agricultural college, Robert approached the carrot growers in his local Fassifern Valley and invited them to join forces and market and sell their produce under one brand – Kalfresh.
Four growers took up the offer from the then 23- year-old and his fledgling business began.
“When I came home to the farm there were 33 carrot farms between Aratula and Harrisville,” says Robert, who was backed by his father Barry who, at the age of 71, continues to work in the business.
“They were all family operations, small operators who supplied to the central markets. There was a real threat from large, standalone growers who were setting up in Victoria and who promised to grow 12 months of the year. It could have wiped out the Queensland season.
“I saw that if we could get growers to work together we could compete. The younger farmers could see it was the way of the future but the older farmers didn’t want anything to do with it.”
That was 20 years ago and Kalfresh has grown from a staff of about five into Queensland’s biggest grower, packer and seller of fresh carrots.
Between June and December the company handles more than 340 hectares of carrots and Robert says their success lies with constant innovation.
“We wanted to give people a better product, a better eating experience and the freshest, most nutritious product we could grow,” he says.
“When I was growing up all of my parent’s friends used to grow vegetables. We’d lift the carrots with a ripper, pack them into hessian bags, we had a very small washing plant in the shed then we’d throw them back on the same truck and take them to market.”
Robert says as growers he and his colleagues have always pushed the envelope. They travel overseas to source better seed, better equipment and to learn to be more efficient and sustainable.
“The main things we do now is we cool the carrots very quickly and we brush them to remove the dead epidermal layer. That’s really for visual appeal and the cooling systems and protocols were really developed so that we could export to Asia and the Middle East. The boat trip to the Middle East can be seven weeks so we needed to ensure the product would survive.
“That’s why you can buy a bag of carrots and put it in your fridge and they’ll still be great a week later.”