FOUR GENERATIONS AND STILL GROWING STRONG: Minter Magic farm’s Darren Minter inspects this season’s asparagus crop on his Iraak property. Also pictured, Darren’s son Garry in the ‘Minter Magic’ packing shed.
Photos: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

PICKING wild asparagus spears from the banks of an irrigation channel 90 years ago was a pioneering farmer by the name of Frank Minter.

Little did he know that he was sowing the seeds for what would turn out to be a ‘magic’ farming dynasty.

Located in Iraak, ‘Minter Magic’ farm is a modern operation growing predominately almonds, citrus, and asparagus on a sprawling 265-hectare property.

Asparagus season is in full swing, and the farm is buzzing with activity in the field and packing shed, where between five and eight tonnes of asparagus spears are processed and packed, ready for shipping to local and overseas markets, on a daily basis.

This is a fourth-generation, family-run business headed up by Darren Minter, ably assisted by his father Geoff, his mother Betty, wife Anne-Marie and son Garry.

Geoff is in his 70s, and worked alongside his father Norman, who worked with his father Frank before that.

“My great-grandfather started asparagus farming during the depression years, and would put the wild spears he collected in a ‘banana-box’ and packed with it lucerne to keep it fresh,” Darren said.

“With the train connection from Mildura having been established in 1903, he was able to ship his pickings to the markets in Melbourne overnight, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Darren leads a busy life, and was appointed to the Australian Almond Board 12 months ago. He also sits on Citrus Australia’s Regional Committee, and the Australian Asparagus Council, based at Koo Wee Rup.

“I wasn’t always enthusiastic about farming, and went through a period, where drought and floods, plus a host of other issues, were weighing down on me, and I thought I would give it away,” he said.

At the insistence of his parents, Darren spent time in England and Europe working with some asparagus farmers his family knew, and returned to Australia with a fresh resolve to expand the farm into a bigger operation.

“I came back with a fire in my belly and said to the bank manager, this is my plan, I want to buy more land to plant a new variety of asparagus I’ve found overseas,” Darren said. “I owe a lot to a friend of mine, winery owner and businessman Peter Yunghanns, who owned the property next door.

“I got in touch with Peter, and said I wanted to buy 100 acres off him, we met once, where he said: ‘Make me an offer for the whole 300 acres.’

“I said I can’t afford 300 acres, he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll come to an arrangement’.

“If it wasn’t for that lucky break, I wouldn’t be what I am today.”

The plantings on the farm are divided into 75-hectares of almonds, 90-hectares of citrus and 100-hectares of asparagus.

Asparagus has a rich history, and humans have been eating the crunchy green spears for

thousands of years. Indeed, asparagus is shown on a 5000-year-old Egyptian stone carving.

The ancient Romans and Greeks loved asparagus, and there was plenty of it, with 300 different species growing naturally between Siberia and Southern Africa.

American variety ‘UC157’ is the main type of asparagus grown at Minter Magic, and is the most widely planted, fresh market asparagus in the world.

This variety shows earliness in production, multi-spear initiation (three to five at a time), uniformity in colour and size, and produces heavier yields than most other varieties.

Asparagus starts its life as a seed in a nursery, it is then planted to a depth of six-inches, and matures, ready for picking, almost three years later.

Early morning sees a workforce of 60, mostly overseas backpackers from Korea, Japan and Taiwan, busy in the field, slicing the spears off with a custom-made blade, fashioned from a cut down golf club with a paint scraper attached.

After harvesting, the asparagus spears arrive in the warehouse, and are put through a processing line, where they are washed, and graded by colour and size as they move along a computerised conveyor system.

Long-term employee of 22 years, Vivienne Hamence, said the business had gone ahead in leaps and bounds with the introduction of new technology, especially in the sorting process.

“We used to sort the spears on the old line, where you had to physically pick out the size, now it’s all computerised,” she said. “We have anywhere up to 60 people in the shed at peak production time, and at the moment, it is constant and we are working 10 or 11-hour days.”

Darren’s son, Garry, is showing me around the hi-tech production line, a highlight of which is the computerised sorting system, which also tracks how many spears have been processed.

“So far this morning, 56,000 spears have been through the line in less than three hours,” he said.

Minter’s asparagus is shipped every day to airports and distribution hubs in Melbourne and Adelaide, from there the product is sent to local and overseas markets, arriving within two days of being picked.

Japan takes 80 percent of Australian export asparagus, Singapore takes 10 percent and Hong Kong, the Arab Emirates, China, and South Korea collectively make up the other 10 percent.

The Japanese market is the farm’s most lucrative customer, and they are supplied with a thicker, ‘A-grade’ Spanish variety of spear, known as ‘Jumbo-size’, which is packed in special, anti-bacterial pine crates.

Once packed, all of the cartons and crates are put through a ‘hydro-cooler’, which is set at two-degrees, this has the effect of ‘stunting’ the asparagus growth, and also sterilises the spears.

Maintaining freshness is important, with the Japanese spears also being kept moist by saturating their pine crates in water, helping to maintain crispness, and retain colour, which appeals to that market.

Carton sizes on average vary between five to 10kg, with the Jumbo-size packs weighing around 11.5kg.

The asparagus spring season opens in late July, and runs through to October, this is followed by a summer season, which commences in mid to late December.

While content with what the farm currently produces, Darren points out that he is always on the lookout for new, innovative crops, and is constantly monitoring market-place trends.

“We always look for new crops, we’ve grown avocados, percimans, wine and table grapes, and have consolidated into the three main crops, but I am always on the lookout for another one, and have an experimental crop in the ground at all times,” he said.

Unlike vines, almonds and citrus, asparagus is drought resistant, although it does use a high volume of water when conditions permit.

“If I have to turn the water off, asparagus will survive, you can’t do that with vines, citrus or almonds,” Darren said. “The asparagus may not be commercially viable the following year, but the plants will survive, and therefore you can get through the drought period with little irrigation.”

A particularly impressive piece of technology, designed by Australian company MAIT Industries, is the computerised irrigation system Minter farm uses.

By selecting an area of the farm displayed on-screen, Darren can determine what time the irrigation is to commence, how long it’s to run, and what quantity and type of fertilisers are to be added to the water during the process.

“It’s all done with the click of a mouse, I can even activate the watering of the farm from my phone, anywhere in the world,” he said.

Minter farm has conservation in mind with many of its on-farm practises, particularly with water usage, where they collect and recycle 80 percent of their drainage water, which goes back on the farm…now that makes for a good story.