Spring in the valley

Cate RocchiCountryman
Bickley Valley Asparagus Farm is run by Petra and Harrie Smeets.
Camera IconBickley Valley Asparagus Farm is run by Petra and Harrie Smeets. Credit: Countryman

On the side of a hill in the Bickley Valley - what must be one of the most picturesque landscapes on the outskirts of Perth - is a small family farm producing green, white and purple asparagus.

Picking starts at daybreak and the shed is full of crisp spears packed carefully in tidy bunches.

We arrive at morning tea time and the farm looks like a little bit of Europe, with rolling paddocks between native forest. The valley surrounding is crisscrossed with a patchwork of small farms in different shades of green and brown. It is gorgeous and a friendly golden Labrador comes to meet us.

Aptly named Bickley Valley Asparagus Farm, the venture is run by Harrie and Petra Smeets, who have been asparagus farmers for 26 years. They bought the two-acre property in 2003 from Mr Smeets' parents, Will and Maria, but previously also farmed asparagus on a plot on Heidelberg Road from 1988 to 2003.

Roughly half of the property is planted. Historically, the original 12-acre family plot had three acres planted in asparagus. The family immigrated from the Netherlands in 1981, with Mr Smeets' two brothers and sister.

Mr Smeets' grandparents were also farmers and grew asparagus, and before coming to Australia his father, Will, was a mushroom farmer and ran a shop selling Persian carpets.

Mr Smeets said his parents set up their operation at Glenisla Road, Bickley, because land in WA was cheaper than the Netherlands. In fact, many families came to the State from the same small Dutch village.

Things have ticked along for decades in roughly the same style, using chicken manure, fertiliser and a little herbicide to stop the weeds germinating.

But this year, after long consideration, the Smeets decided to convert their operations to organic. Mr Smeets said it was a challenge because there was more manual work - without the herbicide, weeds had to be constantly pulled.

"If you don't spray, you have to keep hand weeding all season," he said. "Especially with this kind of weather, you get a bit of rain and then sunshine and then rain. That is ideal for weeds."

Picking has been under way since early September and the season winds up in November.

Then the plants mature into ferns that are watered throughout summer. "If the fern covers the land well, you don't have as many problems with the weeds later," Mr Smeets said.

The summer is the slow time and then the asparagus ferns eventually die in autumn. They are then removed and the land is hoed.

Currently, about four tonnes of asparagus is harvested annually.

It is mostly sold by Mrs Smeets at markets in Manning and Kalamunda and via the farm gate.

"I absolutely love going to the markets," Mrs Smeets said.

She enjoys meeting other stallholders and bartering leftover produce after the city customers have gone home. For the past two years, Mrs Smeets has not picked but she works sorting and packaging.

There are also orders for several Perth eateries including Restaurant Amuse in East Perth and Gala Restaurant in Applecross.

Furthermore, due to a smart website using a Vistaprint template designed by daughter Karina, an order for white asparagus was recently received from a Sydney restaurant.

Among farm highlights has been providing asparagus for the garden party as part of Queen Elizabeth's visit to Perth in 2011.

Interestingly, there was little demand originally in Perth for white asparagus. "We had a lot of trouble selling it, because in the beginning people don't know what it was," Mr Smeets said. "Only the chefs bought it."

Each spear is handpicked and a $5 bunch holds eight to nine spears. It is cut in the morning, because it is fresher and keeps better.

Staff vary in terms of competence and picking asparagus is skilled work. On hot days it grows fast, has to be harvested twice and can be hard to judge.

Plants are grown from seed. When the couple started decades ago, seeds to produce the luxury vegetable were $1 each. Seedlings are grown in pots and then planted in the field. Then the plants are removed and replanted.

"They grow in one direction so, after a year, you need to uplift them and spread the roots so they grow straight," Mr Smeets said.

Every 10 to 15 years, beds should be renewed. "The bottom plot is 20 years old and is overdue - we can't really plant new ones on the same property," Mr Smeets said.

Some recently planted will last 15 years and that will see the family out. "We don't want to be picking asparagus after that," Mr Smeets said.

He is looking forward to fully converting operations to organic.

"Even though spraying is easier it is not worth it," he said.

The conversion to wholly organic practices was a moral decision and Mr Smeets expected labour costs to be higher. He did not expect to recoup those costs by charging higher prices for the asparagus.

White asparagus was already a high price and he did not expect customers would pay more.

If his application was approved, he was hoping the produce would be organically certified in 2016.

Mr Smeets admitted the life of an asparagus farmer was not easy but it was a lifestyle decision because he enjoyed work in the open and liked his home.

As a hobby, Mr Smeets makes wine. He does not have a licence to sell it but the prized home-made wine won silver and bronze medals at the Perth Royal Show recently.

However, as with many farms, sadly asparagus growing is not enough anymore to make a living. Mr Smeets works as a remedial massage therapist, while Mrs Smeets works in a government department.

This wonderful little farm inspired me to whip up some hollandaise when I got home, and soon you can see for yourself how pretty it is. The couple are converting a 100-year-old home into a farmstay, or you can call in for a bunch of asparagus until November. Agritourism at its best.

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