A CASUAL enquiry in 2012 to a supplier about what produce he would most like to source locally has resulted in a whole new world for Pittsworth's Robbie Daley and her husband Peter.
It's a world filled with fingers and magpies and a lot of kneeling, but one that is taking Robbie on a fascinating journey into the world of asparagus production.
She and Peter both have veterinary backgrounds, having run a mixed practice "with a horse bias" in Western Australia for many years.
They love the sport of campdrafting and wanted to return to Peter's home state, so they moved themselves and 42 Australian Stock Horses to a 200 hectare block on the Darling Downs. With drought and the GFC biting hard, Robbie began looking at what else she could do to earn money.
"We eat organic food - Peter has had a couple of bouts of cancer and it's a guiding principle for our life now - and, one day, I asked my supplier what I should grow," Robbie said.
"His reply was, asparagus. He couldn't get a supply locally and was sourcing his spears from Victoria. "I didn't know the fi rst thing about them but that's how I made my decision."
The Daleys bought 1000 crowns and planted out an area the size of a large house block. Possibly the only growers of any scale in Queensland and certainly the only commercial organic producers in the state, they had a number of infrastructure costs to contend with - trenches to be dug and filled with organic top soil for the deep-rooted member of the Lily family, a trickle irrigation system, and a cool-room.
Since then, it's been all systems go. Robbie has two organic suppliers in Toowoomba she sells her produce to, a delivery service and a small organic shop, and she attends the markets in Toowoomba as well. "I like the markets and talking to people," she said.
"I really believe in keeping our food local too. Imagine the cost of bringing it all the way from Peru."
The other good thing about selling asparagus at the markets is seeing the reactions of people who take a sample from her tasting plate.
"I'd like to fi lm their expressions. It's just bliss!" Asparagus has a short growing season, from August to October - it's dormant when it's cold and doesn't shoot in frosty conditions, and when it's hot the tips start opening up.
However, Robbie is considering cutting half a bed in late summer and trialling an autumn harvest as well. Although she'd consider expanding a little, she doesn't want to become a big operator.
"We went on a trip to Victoria earlier this year. They have acres and acres growing down there and employ packers and do things mechanically. "I think you'd call us a boutique operation in comparison!"
Robbie does all her own weeding and harvesting, and washes and weighs the bunches in her kitchen. "It's quite hard work but I don't know that there's enough money in it to employ staff," she said.
Now that it's warming up, the growth rate of the plants has increased and she has to harvest twice a day. On a hot day a spear can grow 12cm in the ground. Even when they're harvested and standing in water in the cool-room they grow another couple of centimetres.
They are very heavy water users when they're making spears and Robbie has added boron and blood and one to the soil at times. "Asparagus plants last 25 years," she said.
"I can just see myself in years to come, out here on my Zimmer frame, still cutting spears." In a search for an organic pest control agent last year, Robbie unwittingly enlisted the help of her local birdlife.
"We use compost for fertiliser and that meant we had trouble with slater beetles - they were ring-barking the emerging spears.
"Someone suggested half an orange in water with a pot plant over it. When I looked next morning, they'd been knocked over by the magpies in our trees playing with them, but then the magpies started eating the slaters,” she said.
"They'd been attracted by the pots and realised the beetles were there. Now they wander up and down the rows. “They're doing quite a good job."
- This article first appeared in Queensland Smart Farmer December 2015.