Greg Whitten is a pioneer of quality organic herb production in Australia, author of Herbal Harvest: Commercial organic production of quality dried herbs – a publication that is well regarded and much sought after by experienced herb growers, as well as beginners, such is the quality and clarity of information. Where there is generally a paucity of good information on herb production, and many of the previous publication are loaded with anecdote, Greg’s book is brimming with sound, usable suggestions on site selection, crop choice, layout, growing techniques, harvesting, processing and market potential. There are also good cultural notes on many common, and some less common herbs
Greg and fellow Tasmanian herb growers, Martin and Anne Joyce, have started Bronzewing Herbal Teas, a brand that is widely available in Tasmania, and can be found in selected organic retail outlets on the mainland.
The growing area of less than one hectare on Greg’s secluded property is sheltered by bushland. Isolation from other agriculture, and particularly distance from any potential contamination source, was an important factor in selection of the land. Some of Greg’s herbs will end up in medicinal use, and some of the herb tea customers are very sensitive to residue issues. They can be confident that the product from this Tasmanian farm will be as clean as possible. The thoroughness and attention to detail that Greg showers on his small production area are evident from a passing glance at the herb beds themselves, but even more so from an examination of the dried and packaged product. The quality of the final product is obvious and invites immediate appreciation from all the senses. Brightness of colour, crisp texture, full flavoured aroma and taste are a delight. Even the pleasant, crisp sound of product when handled is a delight, and evidence that it has been dried to the perfect moisture content for storage and transport.
Quality, according to Greg, is what herb producers must strive for and achieve if they want to stay in the business and make money.
Rapid turnover of producers and short life of many growers within the industry are features of herb production. Australian producers cannot match the cheap costs of production, except for a few highly mechanised crops, therefore producers must differentiate their home-grown product on the basis of quality, freshness and essential oil content, which is itself largely a factor resulting from quality production and post-harvest processing and handling.
Greg’s advice to new growers is that the beverage market (herbal teas) is the easiest market to break into and be successful. The fresh market is notoriously difficult, because of distribution problems. Domestic consumption of culinary herbs is definitely rising, but each household consumes only small quantities, keen consumers are likely to grow some herbs in the garden, or even in pots on the patio, and a few larger producers dominate the supermarket distribution chain. Dried herbal teas permit some value adding, and the dried product can be stored and transported.
Although some of Greg’s herbs go to herbalists and alternative medicine practitioners, because of the Therapeutic Goods Act, no health claims may be made on the product, there are only a few quantity buyers of medicinal herbs and they tend to have world-wide contacts, and exploit them to reduce price, so long term supply contracts are rare and demand fluctuates according to international price/supply.
Greg and his partners do all their own processing and wholesaling as well as the growing, so Greg finds the diversity of activities holds his interest. He is also just completing the construction of an owner-build passive solar mud brick house, so only about one third of his time is spent in the garden.
I expected to see a good garden, from the author of a good book, and I was not disappointed. Although going into winter, with little production activity occurring, the garden was still ordered, and soil and plants were a joy to observe. There were perennials preparing for dormancy, but some still bearing fruit, and even winter gardens have healthy insect life when the sun is shining. There were also compost heaps to admire, and seed heads to inspect.
One of the main crop pests in Tasmania is the possum, or rather possums plural as there are so many of them. After several experimental versions, Greg has finally produced a satisfactory possum fence. The original fence had 80cm of 50mm wire mesh at the base and a series of live and earth wires above that to discourage possums climbing through. But after a while both possums and wallabies had figured out how to negotiate these.. Possum pressure is really high there, and they know a good feed when they smell it. (They are murder on fruit trees and one year they even ate out a row of garlic) The aromatic smell of this organic garden must be attractive to a possum. The current fence is based on 800 centimetres of 40mm rabbit-wire mesh, with a floppy top made from 90cm of lighter 50mm mesh chicken-wire., and three electric wires on the outside. They are spaced at approximately 85,, 105 and 130 centimetres.
A floppy fence discourages possums because it feels too flimsy to support their weight. When they let go of it the high tensile vertical wires spring it back into shape. However, a floppy fence on its own cannot be relied on 100%, nor can an electric one, but the combination of the two has proved to be possum proof for the last 3 years.