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Frank SmithCountryman

Agrape growing operation established by two brothers in the Swan Valley more than 85 years ago is still a family affair.

Edgecombe Brothers today features a fine range of table and fortified wines produced from vines, most of which are more than 30 years old.

The operations of the family company, established by brothers Don and Frank, have changed over the years.

Five siblings - John, George, Walter, Alfred and Gay - now work in the business, while cousins Richard, Neil and Marion are based in Merredin.

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"Agriculture goes through boom and bust, it is constantly changing," Alf Edgecombe said. "The property doesn't owe you a living."

And while grapes - for drying, the table and winemaking - have remained central to the business, the Edgecombes are also into vegetables, fruit and tourism.

"My grandfather (George Edwin Edgecombe) was an accountant with the Bank of New South Wales in London," Alf said.

"He sent my father and uncle to Australia with a letter of introduction to a company exporting grapes from WA to Singapore and the UK in the 1920s while based at the old Fremantle markets.

"Don made contact and was introduced to landowners the Barrett-Lennard family who in 1900 had 4000 hectares of land and employed 100 men packing grapes in summer for the export market.

"The brothers bought 20ha from the Barrett-Lennards for £300 in 1925 with my grandfather acting as guarantor.

"They grew their own vegies and ran a cow, so they were largely self-sufficient. Table grapes provided a cash crop."

Alf said grandfather Edgecombe was remembered in All Saint's Church, Henley Brook, one of the oldest surviving in WA.

"He was keen to buy his way into heaven," he said.

"He had a latch gate made to a design of one he liked in Brentwood, Essex, to celebrate the centenary of Western Australia.

"He also donated the stained glass window that is a feature of the church. The window's design is based on a painting called Christ knocking at the door, by Holman Hunt.

Alf said there were older churches but they burnt down.

"One spark was enough to ignite the timber shingles, but this church is protected by its unique location on a bend in the river," he said.

_Traditional operation _

At 86 years, the Edgecombes are not the oldest family in the Swan Valley.

"We are about mid term," Alf said.

Their traditional operation of growing grapes for drying was a thriving cottage industry until the 1970s when competition from Turkey, Greece, and Iran caused prices to crash.

"There is a high labour demand with pruning, spraying, picking, spreading and taking off the drying racks," Alf said. "Few people in the valley are drying grapes now.

"Our drying rack can hold 30 tonnes of grapes which dry to 10 tonnes of currants and sultanas. We dried about half a tonne this year.

"We can still compete because we are specialised and sell direct to the gourmet market."

The Edgecombes started producing wine in the 1950s when they built a small winery in partnership with Doug Kendal.

Wine sales are now the backbone of the business.

They make and sell about 5000 cases of wine annually through the cellar door and by mail order.

Executive winemaker is one of Alf's varied roles.

"We have a good cellar door location - bang on the doorstep of the city and surrounded by greater Perth," he said.

"It is also close to the growing suburbs of Ellenbrook, Aveley and The Vines."

Cellar door buyers go on a database and get offers from the Edgecombes throughout the year.

"Database marketing is the only way small wineries can survive," Alf said. "The marketplace is tough."

But wine is the only arrow in their quiver.

They also grow vegetables, citrus fruit, water and rock melons and make their own jam and pickle their olives.

Walter Edgecombe is a part-time apiarist, adding honey to the list of produce.

"Asparagus is our signature vegetable crop," Alf said. "Walter is in charge of the asparagus enterprise. We grow up to five tonnes a year on a one-hectare bed consisting of 30m x 100m rows."

_Fresh asparagus _

All the asparagus is sold through the cellar door and café and at Maggie's Place, a weekend gourmet shop run by Maggie Edmunds. Maggie rents a shed on the property and sells some of her produce as well as the Edgecombes'.

"We take a crop of asparagus in early May then the main spring crop over two months in spring," Alf said. "We cut as the café needs it."

They also sell up to 100,000 grape vine cuttings, but unlike other produce, these are distributed by a nursery supplier in Wanneroo and the Olea Nursery in Manjimup.

"We take care not to introduce infected material and not to spread disease on secateurs - hygiene is important," Alf said.

Their café is adjacent to the tasting cellar and offers brunches and lunches with an emphasis on tasting plates. "It is a full-on café but the aim is to help sell wine," Alf said.

The Edgecombes believe they have been successful for such a long time because they have let the business evolve to meet customer demand.

We have a good cellar door location - bang on the doorstep of the city and surrounded by greater Perth. ALF EDGECOMBE

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