Down to earth

Frank SmithCountryman

Werner Fritsch, of Freshline Organics, grows 2.5 hectares of organic fruit and vegetables on an isolated 16ha block in Keysbrook.

Born in Cologne, Germany, he came to WA more than 25 years ago and ran a vegetarian restaurant in Fremantle.

“Customers kept asking where they could buy organic food. There was not much available at that time, so when the opportunity arose, I bought this block and started growing my own vegies, ” he said.

Werner used to live on the block, but now he lives in the city and travels every day. The block is part of an old fruit orchard.

“The owner used to grow fruit and supplement his income with tomatoes. Now, it is the other way around. I grow tomatoes and supplement my income with fruit, ” he said.

“The remote location is good. I need to be aware when other people are spraying.”

Where Werner differs from most other growers is in his marketing. For the past 10 years, he has delivered fruit and vegetables to customers’ homes every week.

“They specify a box of fruit and vegies to a minimum of $40. We also sell organic bread and meat, ” he said. “We deliver from 50 to 90 people weekly. This has dropped off from a peak of 120 because of the competition from farmers markets, which have emerged over the past three years.”

In the market

Werner also sells his produce at Mt Claremont Farmers Market. “We risk losing customers if we are not at the markets, ” he said. “Farmers markets are making it easier for us to sell, because customers get to see the product and know what they are buying.

“While the farm’s production has increased by an average of 10 per cent a year, the major growth limitation has been lack of labour.

“There is good business potential to direct sell into shops, but after finalising the balance of the harvest to an organic wholesaler at Canning Vale Markets, further marketing runs into time constraints.”

He manages a cool room and packing warehouse in O’Connor to organise the home delivery service. He also buys in organic produce from wholesalers.

Being certified organic limits his choice of pesticides, so rotation is a big part of his disease management system. The property is inspected by an organic auditor and recertified by Australian Certified Organics (ACO) every year.

The rotation includes alternating members of the nightshade family — tomatoes, aubergines, capsicums, chillies plus strawberries — with brassicas.

“Nightshade species are more difficult to cultivate but they bring in more money. Lettuce and root vegetables can be grow again in the same place year after year, ” Werner said.

His summer range includes lettuce, curly kale, beans, capsicum and tomatoes. In winter, he changes to leeks, cabbages and garlic.

Werner does not grow unusual vegetables like okra, because they can be hard to sell. “You have to pick okra every day or the pods grow fibrous. You can’t take weekends off. I can’t do everything, ” he said.

Werner also grows hot chillies under contract for a processor, who dries and sells them as powder or makes them into pickles. The processor provides her own seeds.

“There is never just one crop; crops mature at different times and need different picking routines, ” he said.

The fruit orchard, mainly plums and peaches, provides an income for four weeks of the year.

The block is a full-time job, so Werner employs up to three casuals to help him manage the work.

Dam good

At the bottom of the block is a 120,000 cubic metre dam filled with quality water, which is kept topped up by a permanent spring.

Werner applies as much water as possible by trickle irrigation and uses fertigation for manuring the crop.

When the weather is hot, he turns on the overhead sprinklers. “Ten minutes sprinkle restores the moisture content and the wind keeps the plants cool, ” he said.

“This is particularly important for curly kale. You have to start early; it takes six hours to pick a load. Then it can be in the cool room at O’Connor or Canning Vale Markets within an hour of picking.”

Werner makes his own compost and buys in certified organic compost made from chook manure. Trace elements come from rock dust, and he also uses fish emulsion and Seasol.

Pests include sucking insects. He uses pyrethrum and Dipel, an organic insecticide incorporating Bacil? lus thuringiensis toxin, to kill caterpillars. “Diseases hit tomatoes; we don’t get the yields of commercial growers, ” he said.

“Birds are a problem. We are surrounded by forest. The amount of damage they do depends on what food is available in the forest. Scaring works to some extent, especially on 28s.”

The other pests are kangaroos. Werner has built a fence around the property but they still find their way in — and kangaroos have developed a taste for lettuce and curly kale.

“They can destroy hundreds of lettuces overnight, ” Werner said.

“I had a male dog that worked with my bitch Mishka to keep them under control. They stayed in the fenced area and seldom chased kangaroos into the bush. A single dog doesn’t work so well.”

Werner’s kangaroo-chasing dog died after being bitten by a snake.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails