By Elizabeth Hart
In the vegetable growing industry, the slightest flaw in a lettuce or a parsnip can signal a recall. That is why Darren Schreurs notices every ladybird and every sign of thrip, the good and the bad bugs.
In their sustainable farming practices, Darren and his brothers Mark and Paul and their dad Peter are combining best practice from conventional farming with modern organics and biodynamics to produce fresh vegetables. As a result, their fields are healthier and more productive.
“Some bugs are good,” Darren says.
“They keep the others in check and minimise the need for pesticides.
“I’d rather find a live ladybird than a dead one, because ladybirds are good. A dead one on a leaf would signal strong use of pesticides.”
It is a fine line for a large-scale commercial producer to find the right balance between biological and chemical methods of controlling diseases.
But evidence is now clear that the killing of all pests with broad spectrum chemicals is a practice belonging to a past age and that selective control of bugs is the healthier and more productive way to go and no longer the domain of hobbyists and alternative producers.
The clean green practices the Schreurs brothers have adopted at their large-scale production and packing farm at Devon Meadows earned them the National Spray Award last year. In 2008 they won the national award for vegetable grower of the year.
At Devon Meadows the family produces seven types of vegetables at the 160-hectare property: leeks for export and the domestic market, about 7.5 million a year, baby cos lettuce, baby endive, baby wombok, otherwise known as Chinese cabbage, khol rabe, parsnips, and radicchio.
Darren took an interest in integrated pest management in the late 1990s.
“Originally we used broad spectrum chemicals,” he says. “Then one day when I was spraying for thrip I noticed the two-spotted mite, and so I sprayed for that too.
“I became sick of handling chemicals. Our entomologist Paul Horn wanted us to reduce spraying.”
Darren set up a trial in a fish tank at home, with three leeks and a grow-light. He put a handful of two-spotted mites in the tank along with six other predatory mites.
“After a while, I noticed fewer spotted mites, and after two weeks there were none.”
Darren has planted native trees to enhance the biodiversity of insects alongside the fields of vegetables, and this too has helped to control pests.
“Since 2000 I have not put an insecticide on the leeks,” he says.
“The only time I use fungicide is in extreme heat, and I am now looking at using compost tea to build up plant resistance to fungicide.
Other sustainable practices at the Peter Schreurs and Sons farm include the use of A-class recycled water, tested every day, with low nutrient content and low salt content of 500 to 600 parts and compared with dam water of 1200 to 1600 parts mineral salts.
Another is the recycling of organic green waste from the packing shed. Broken down, it is returned to the fields.
The story of the Schreurs family is also the story of new life for the post-war Dutch migrants. Peter arrived with his family at Station Pier in Melbourne in 1954, aged 15.
The next year he was working on a vegetable farm in Moorabbin, where his boss, Henry Mounsey, taught him the ropes.
By the age of 19 he had enough money to buy 20 acres in Cranbourne.
“The potato and lettuce markets were in over supply,” Darren says. “So Dad took the advice of his former boss and started growing celery.”
The Peter Schreurs family is often confused with another Schreurs family in the same neighbourhood, the celery producers J and JM Schreurs.
Soon after buying the land at Cranbourne, Peter Schreurs himself had tens of acres of celery.
Then in the 1970s, to spend more time with his family and help his disabled daughter, he wound down to grow savoy cabbages, parsnips, and potatoes, but they too created high demand. The truckloads of produce continued to come and go non-stop at the Schreurs property.
In 1984 the family bought another 14 acres and in 1985 bought an adjoining farm that produced leeks.
By then the three sons had joined the business. In 1986 they planted their first crop of leeks.
Darren and his brothers took the farm to a new level of production, moving to the property Royston Park at Devon Meadows in 1989 and concentrating on leeks and the other six crops they now produce.
There is increasing demand for leeks.
“We just lift the supply a little each year,” Darren says.
The packing and processing sheds contain assembly-line style sorting benches, strapping machines, cooling tunnels, and cool rooms of two degrees and five degrees for the different stages of packing and storage.
Darren has to think for a moment to calculate how many tractors, water trailers, and harvesters the outdoor sheds hold.
“Probably about 20.”
They sow all crops as seedlings, except wombok and parsnip, which are sown from seed.
At this farm, the crops are sown, harvested, and packaged straight from the fields.
Two dams make the farm self-sufficient, one a run-off catchment and the other a recycling dam. An evaporation pit contains any chemical run-off.
Recycled water has been a lifesaver for the farm, Darren says.
“If the catchment dam is full at Christmas, we usually get through the year.
“Years ago we had enough supply from rain and dams most seasons, but not now.”
It has not always been an easy journey.
“The first few years were difficult. We completed the dam but there was no rain, so our first crops were grown with almost no water, then came economic recession. The business faced enormous challenges.”
Diversification was a key to survival. Leeks became important for interstate and export markets, and that justified extra investment in more efficient production systems.
The Schreurs have tried many crops over the years. Some failed because they didn’t fit in with crop rotation and other normal practices.
Now, with the sustainable agriculture best practice, the Schreurs family business is moving into a new era, cleaner, richer, and safer than commercial production has been in the past in Australia and elsewhere, and they are finding it pays off.
Darren is a new-age farmer from a traditional farming family.
Vegetable growing is in his blood, but like the generation of producers in the 21st century, he is combining science with a respect for the environment – at no cost to commercial production and plenty of gain.
“Ten years ago, leek harvesting was a manual operation. People would do it all themselves: pull, cut, and stack the vegetables,” Darren said.
“Now it is an automated process.”
Cleanliness in the vegetables going to market is the most important consideration.
“I want to produce a clean, safe product from start to finish,” Darren says.
Vegetables from the farm go to outlets across Australia and to some international outlets.
By Elizabeth Hart