A growing business

30 Nov, 2012 01:00 AM
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Albany vegetable growers Howard and Bev Shapland.
Albany vegetable growers Howard and Bev Shapland.

AFTER 30 years in the vegetable growing game, it's little wonder that Howard and Bev Shapland have developed quite a reputation for producing top quality vegetables.

Their range of produce is extensive, from a hydroponic system where they grow specialty lettuce, herbs and spinach, to the good old-fashioned paddock where they grow cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, baby carrots, onions, sweet corn, leeks and pumpkins - just to name a few.

It's not surprising then that Howard and Bev are kept quite busy by what they refer to as their "niche" business.

"We are really busy, but because we're both here we have full control and know what's going on with our produce," Howard said.

"People don't realise how difficult it can be, not the growing process but the marketing is the really tricky part because you're competing with some really big businesses.

"But we're niche and we like it that way, because it means we can be flexible."

The Shaplands make for quite the formidable team, perhaps another reason why their produce is in such demand with customers, shops and restaurants.

One of their more interesting lines is micro herbs, which Howard said was essentially young herbs that were grown to be very dense.

"There is a limited market for the micro herbs and we only started doing them because we were asked," he said.

"So they generally all go to the restaurant trade."

They employ a full-time worker and four part-timers to help run their labour intensive business, which came to the crossroads a few years ago.

The Shaplands were once committed cauliflower growers, but when the industry collapsed they were forced to diversify, which in hindsight Howard said was a good thing.

So although they still grow some cauliflowers on their 32 hectares, many other options have been thrown into the mix to give them a broad range for both seasonal and marketing opportunities.

Their hydroponic system has been going for about 12 years, after it began purely as an interest and grew from there.

Howard said they had two set ups, which included a hot house for their lettuce and herbs.

He said growing time using the system could be as quick as three weeks in summer and six weeks in winter.

"We do grow a wide range of things now but that spreads us out throughout the year," Howard said.

"One of our biggest challenges is the weather, but that's where the hydroponic system is handy as it's off the ground and protected, it's clean and easy to manage.

"But we'll still always keep our paddock-grown vegetables as well, we like having the two."

The broccoli is their most popular produce, followed by lettuce - of which there are about 10 different types in a variety of colours and flavours.

As well as offering farm-direct sales, people can find the Sheplands at the Albany Farmers Market, which Howard said they loved attending.

He said because much of their produce was paddock-grown and as such prone to seasonal variability, the market was a perfect outlet because they could explain to people face-to-face why certain things looked different or were in short supply.

"Plus we're always trying new varieties and the markets are a great way to test them out directly with the consumer," he said.

"We love the market, people come out in rain, hail or shine and to get that direct feedback is very valuable.

"It's amazing the amount of people that appreciate the markets and having that opportunity to buy directly from you, people get ownership of what they buy and they almost become like part of the family.

"The feedback we get makes it all worth it, it's like a reward for all our hard work."

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