WHILE once most commonly found in curries in the Western world, these days turmeric is a trendy addition to everything from lattes through to beauty products.
Turmeric’s rise in popularity came after it was hailed a superfood, due to it being a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.
The intensely orangey-yellow root is claimed to be beneficial for many health ailments, with some suggestions it could even help prevent cancer.
Traditionally, turmeric is grown in India and South-East Asia, but this year, Carnarvon growers Chinnery, Chapman and Sunga harvested their first commercial turmeric crop.
Farming wasn’t always on the career path for Jeremy and Tam Chinnery, who were born and raised in Perth before both becoming teachers.
When they were teaching in Meekatharra 12 years ago, they purchased a 5.9-hectare property in Carnarvon and leased it out.
They moved to Carnarvon in 2008, living in the front house of their property while the rest of farm was leased.
In September 2010, the couple took long-service leave from teaching and decided to try their hands at farming.
With no reliable annual rainfall to speak of, Tam described their home as “where the desert meets the sea” unless there is a cyclone or a tropical monsoon trough.
Subsequently, they irrigate crops using subsoil and under-mulch drip systems, drawing from a bore in the aquifer below the Gascoyne River.
It wasn’t a smooth transition from teaching to farming and after three months, the farm was all but wiped out by a flood.
It was around this time that Tam and Jeremy met Cameron Chapman and Hazel Sunga, and a farming partnership was born.
“We’re not farmers, we both still work as teachers at the local high school and now our business partners do all the farming,” Tam said.
“Cameron and Hazel joined us on the property just after the big flood and they are a lovely, caring and ‘green’ couple who have been farming fruit and vegies for many years.
“They have managed and worked on properties all over Australia.
“Hazel is originally from the Solomon Islands and has been involved in growing and picking vegies since she was three years old.
“We do work as a team and sharing ideas in our partnership is one of the most enjoyable aspects for us, as is outsmarting or working through everything that nature throws at us.”
Niche crops are the business partnership’s speciality, grow a wide range, along with some restaurant staples and early citrus, all of which is hand-picked, graded and packed.
Main crops include button squash, zucchini and courgette (sometimes picked with flower), Palermo paprika, butternut, Doubloon rockmelon (very aromatic with a beautiful flavour), super-sweet Italian flat beans, stringless beans and golden stringless beans.
They also grow Angled Luffa, bitter melon, wintermelon, curry-leaf, Moringa, Dragontail radish, beetroot, Tokyo white turnip and Madras turmeric.
“We have trialled growing larger volume crops but have found that the fluctuation in prices from year to year and the flooding of the market from other sources make the viability of this problematic,” Tam said.
“Over the years we have found that a crop rotation of our basic crops and niche crops works reasonably well in terms of market demand and land use in a small farm.
“Our focus is on quality, not quantity.
“We aim to supply produce that has been handled carefully and has been grown and handled for optimum shelf life.”
The property’s citrus orchard includes 500 navel orange trees which are 10 years old and 500 blood orange trees which are coming into their first season.
Tam said they harvested what were said to be the first Navel oranges in WA (or Australia) in any season: picked late March for the fresh fruit Perth market, a few weeks before Moora and Bindoon.
“Our fruit sometimes competes with American or Middle-east imports which are at the end of their shelf-life, bright orange but beginning to lose internal integrity,” she said.
“Ours in comparison are very, very fresh and haven’t yet developed their bright orange colour, even though they are ripe and bursting with juice.
“This makes it difficult to market them as buyers don’t recognise the fresh colour as being good, it’s an ongoing problem.”
As far as commercial production goes, turmeric is a relatively new crop for the business, but Tam said it had been on their radar for many years.
She said they had been feeling their way with it, doing their best to get it right before producing a commercial crop to supply it fresh to the Perth market.
Once harvested, turmeric resembles ugly, knobbly fingers but a lot of work goes in to preparing those unattractive digits for market.
“It has a very restricted growing season in terms of temperature, as it needs warmth to germinate and too much water can be an issue if drainage is not good,” Tam said.
“It needs a long growing season – 10 months if possible from planting to harvest and we try to grow it as ‘organically’ as possible.
“It is difficult to lift from the ground and prepare for sale.
“Once out of the ground, everything has to be manually done as any machine implements snap the brittle fingers of the rhizome and bruise the flesh.
“Soil clings to the rhizomes and in between the fingers, and washing is a laborious and time-consuming task.”
Tam said they marketed their Madras turmeric in one and two-kilogram boxes and so far, it had been reasonably well-received.
There is, however, tough competition from growers in Queensland who produce a slightly different variety.
“We’ve been told ours is a better quality, but demand is not high at the moment,” Tam said.
“Most turmeric seems to retail at around $29 per kilogram and Queensland growers’ produce seems to sell at around $12/kg wholesale.
“We are still investigating market opportunities and would like to hear from anyone who would like a sample.”
While Tam admits there are many challenges facing growers in Carnarvon, such as high costs, low returns and access to reliable labour, she said the positives of living and working in such a beautiful place far outweighed the negatives.
“The climate in Carnarvon is absolutely fantastic, there is great fishing and access to the ‘real’ bush with a quirky and caring community of growers,” she said.
“We’re not sure what the future holds, but we’ll keep doing what we are doing for a few more years, investigating some other alternative crops and other interesting innovations.
“We’ll see what happens, if we don’t all drop dead from exhaustion in the meantime.”