Patch of purple

Frank SmithCountryman

Bob and Jenny Greig retired to a small farm in 1997, as they had always planned.

Bob, who had spent his career in Perth as an industrial relations consultant, was offered a job as general manager by Griffin Coal in 1992.

Having moved to Collie, they liked the area and so they bought an 80 hectare rural subdivision block near Mumballup. The block is high on the hill, close to the Preston Valley and with spectacular views overlooking Glen Mervyn dam and the southern jarrah forest.

They moved in 1996 and started to plant lavender in 1999. “Most properties around here are investment and weekender blocks. The minimum subdivision is 40ha, ” Bob said. “We chose the block for its views and potential for arable land.”

The next problem was what to do with the property. They run Friesian steers for beef, but Bob said they were little more than lawn mowers. The couple has also planted a small olive grove.

“Olives are boring on a large scale and blue gums are fine, but you would soon lose the views we bought the property for, ” Bob said.

“Jenny had an interest in lavender, so we visited lavender growers in Tasmania. Lavender uses little water. It is hardy and has no natural predators in Australia.”

Kangaroos and rabbits do some damage, but that is manageable. “Lavender is not time critical. Jobs that need doing can be done tomorrow, ” Bob said. “We were looking for a retirement occupation with little pressure and no stress.”

Most lavender oils contain camphor, which renders them inedible, but English lavender’s camphor content is low enough for it to be used as a herb in scones and shortbreads.

Bob planted 2.5 hectares (20,000 plants) of mainly English lavender variety Lavendula angustifolia and a hybrid of English and another lavender (L. latifolia) called lavandin or L. intermedia.

He converted a cabbage planter for planting out lavender plants. Jenny rides on the back, dropping plants between press wheels.

In the field

The Greigs have no need to control insect pests, but weeds can be a problem.

“We are not organic but very close to it. Glyphosate is essential for weed control, but we are thinking of trying sheep as weeders, ” Bob said.

Although lavender plants are hardy, they do need some irrigation. Bob uses a pressurised in-line dripper system because of the hilly site. These get damaged during harvest, so he plans to put them underground. “We established the first lot with a travelling irrigator. They survived but they did not thrive, ” he said.

Lavender is watered weekly during harvest, and after harvest they are fertilised and given another watering. Irrigation water comes from a dam fed by hillside seepage. This produces water with 500ppm salt in winter, but up to 1200ppm during summer.

“Lavender doesn’t look too flash when not in flower, so I’m considering growing legumes between the rows to keep a ground cover and provide a nitrogen supply.”

The Greigs use almost all their lavender to produce oil. “If we used our lavender for the craft trade, we would need to harvest by sickle, ” Bob said.

“That means cutting 100 bunches an hour for a maximum of six hours per day, with Jenny taking and tying the bunches. Then you have to hang them to dry in the shed.”

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