The West

Fresh approach
Picture: Craig Kinder

The south-western French winegrowing region of Bordeaux' oceanic climate and clay soils are credited with producing world-class wines for centuries - and it's Manjimup's similar climate and loam over clay soils that is fuelling the town's growing reputation for high-quality fresh produce, according to broccoli specialist Brad Ipsen.

Essentially the conditions in both places were similar, he said. "We have hot days and cool nights and you only have to look at the size of the trees to get an idea of how good the soils are."

Mr Ipsen is typical of the growers in the town with a population of just over 4200 people. His family has been in the area for generations, from when his great grandfather arrived in 1906. By the mid-1970s, grandsons Eric and George had become cauliflower pioneers, exporting to Singapore until 2003, when the SARS virus and a weak Australian dollar saw their market fall away dramatically.

"We grew potatoes and kept up with the cauliflower for a few years before we decided to branch into broccoli," Mr Ipsen said. "My father (Eric) and uncle's (George) partnership had dissolved by 1993 and that's when I came back from Europe to help Dad in the business."

Around them, several other growers were doing the same, growing a number of different vegetables for WA and Eastern States markets and sending them away to be packed and shipped. The Asian markets including Singapore were being inundated by cheaper Chinese produce and avenues for export were limited. By 2009, half a dozen growers got wise and banded together.

"We came together under one brand. That's when Manjimup Fresh was born," Mr Ipsen said. "The whole operation (including packing, shipping and marketing) just kind of evolved."

While the growers still produce several different vegetables lines, each of the families specialises in one. At his Goodonga farm 8km north-west of the town centre, Gary Ryan grows cauliflowers, something his father Ian started doing in the mid-1970s.

"Back then our biggest market was exporting into Singapore and Malaysia but we're now concentrating on the WA market. We target the high end," Mr Ryan said.

Their success is built on the back of earlier generations who cleared the bush and made little income in the first few years. What keeps this crop of growers moving ahead is science. Working smarter is paying dividends for several families, with leaf and nutrient testing allowing them to grow vegetables with better flavour and fewer blemishes.

"Leaf testing allows us to detail trace minerals in each vegetable," Mr Ryan said. "We may need to lower the copper levels or lift zinc levels but it means we can produce healthy plants all year. If you produce healthy plants in the first place, there is less need to spray."

At Kim and Donnette Edwards' property, Chinese cabbage has become the specialist line and the couple produce 8000 individual cabbages every year, along with smaller quantities of cauliflower and broccoli.

"The consumer is getting fussier, and so we need to keep an eye on everything," Mrs Edwards said. "We do our testing fortnightly. We record the wind and take soil samples. People want a bigger, sweeter vegetable that lasts longer and that's what we're now able to deliver."

The West Australian

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