Eastbrook Farms –
Independent approach sprouts success
OPERATOR: Eastbrook Farms
REPRESENTATIVE: Luke Samwell
LOCATION: Mt Barker, South Australia
Eastbrook Farms in South Australia, one of the nation’s largest producers of Brussels sprouts, has become an award-winning commercial powerhouse by defying convention and preserving as much independence as possible. John Power reports.
If you want to gain an instant understanding of a farming business, just take a glimpse inside the outdoor power equipment shed and workshop at Eastbrook Farms.
There you will discover everything you need to know about the business’s organizational structure, its approach to innovation, its short- and long-term outlooks, as well as its overall quality. (Europeans say the same information can be gleaned from the condition of a property owner’s shoes, but that’s a different story!)
Established 60 years ago by Ray Samwell, and still owned and operated by Samwell family members, Eastbrook Farms near Adelaide is an extraordinary business spread over four separate properties: Mt Barker (450 acres), Langhorne Creek (750 acres), Hay Valley (180 acres), and Nairne (80 acres). The enterprise was a recent finalist in the South Australia Food Industry Awards (Business Excellence category); and Scott Samwell was named Hort Connections’ Grower of the Year in 2018, and Winner of the Primary Producer Award for Business.
Not only has Eastbrook managed to unite six generations of the same family under one business umbrella, but it has also thrived by accommodating a heady mix of conservative and cutting-edge practices.
On the conservative side: a stubborn loyalty to Brussels sprouts, which (let’s be honest) have not always enjoyed celebrity status in the vegetable world; an insistence on doing as much machinery maintenance and modification as possible ‘in house’; and a long-term approach to soil and crop management despite the short-term appeal of alternative land usage or selling out to developers.
On the cutting-edge side: active participation in research and development projects pertaining to land and crop optimisation, cultivation and harvesting of a new kind of vegetable, ‘kalettes’ (created by combining sprouts with kale); and the progressive use of treated wastewater as a primary irrigation source.
This amalgam of old and new principles, unsurprisingly, is reflected in the many types of machinery servicing the expansive fields and processing facilities.
According to Luke Samwell, a qualified mechanic and Eastbrook Farms’ machinery guru, the requirements of a working brassica vegetable farm are diverse, dictated by both perennial and seasonal tasks.
This means the farm must carry a comprehensive range of equipment, including gear that might be used heavily for only part of the year, as well as other equipment used for year-round service.
To complicate matters, some heavy equipment is used only on a single property, while other OPE is moved routinely between all four properties.
“Every week something gets shifted between the properties, if not more frequently,” Luke said.
Seasonality plays a large role in the use and associated maintenance of equipment. For instance, Luke says chainsaws might only be used heavily for a brief period each year, mostly for clearing fallen limbs in paddocks and collecting wood.
“So, the chainsaws might only get 10 days worth of work a year – but they get used flat out,” he explained.
The same applies to motorbikes: “They don’t get used at all during winter, but in summer when we’re irrigating they get used all day flat out. They can quickly rack up 25,000 kilometres, after which they get clapped out and we get rid of them.”
Similarly, three small Honda pumps are used sporadically for tasks such as draining flooded trenches, but at temperate times of the year they might be dormant for months. A large diesel pump is used throughout the year to draw dam water.
Usage patterns of equipment are affected not only by seasonality, but also by the growing habits of the main crop: Brussels sprouts.
As Luke explains, sprouts are amongst the slowest growing vegetables, with typical growth periods of six to eight months. By comparison, lettuces might take only three months to reach maturity.
“Because sprouts take so many nutrients out of the ground, we will plant in one field and then we won’t put in any more sprouts there for a minimum of two years,” Luke said. “Then we’ll come back and grow in that field again.”
When fields are being rested from sprouts, they continue to be covered with other crops, including oats, barley, or different vegetables or lupines. “A field always has a cover crop, you never leave it open.” At any given time, therefore, approximately a third of the farm is planted with Brussels sprouts and Kalettes.
Irrigation requirements vary according to whether the land happens to be supporting sprouts or other crops, as sprouts are very thirsty compared with other vegetables.
Indeed, water is probably the most important consideration in the business.
“Water is almost worth more than land these days. If you’ve got poor soil you can pour fertilizers on it and work with the soil to make it better, but if you don’t have water you can’t do anything,” Luke said, estimating that the entire farming operation consumes approximately 520 megalitres of water per year.
Overhead aluminium irrigation systems service three of the farm’s four properties; such systems are quite traditional, but they continue to work well and allow for good water penetration and distribution control. The lowest-lying property (Langhorne Creek), by contrast, is equipped with massive centre pivot irrigation systems – “We’re about to put in another unit next week,” Luke said.
Treated wastewater, as mentioned, plays a valuable role in the business, and there have been no problems with quality of consistency of supply. Furthermore, Luke says wastewater is easy to work with and, unlike bore water, does not corrode machinery or pipework and is unaffected by mineral deposits or scaling.
Five of the seven Langhorne Creek units are controlled by ‘Field Net’ web-based systems that facilitate remote control and activation from anywhere in the world.
DID IT THEIR WAY
Despite the business’s large collection of OPE, practically all maintenance and repair work is conducted in-house. Not only does private servicing and repairs save money, but it also promotes an elevated level of autonomy in the event of unscheduled works.
The only exceptions to the rule, Luke says, relate to some contemporary machinery. “You need a laptop to do anything with some of the latest John Deeres, but predominantly we do everything else in-house.”
The business maintains a logbook of all maintenance work, which can be triggered by calendar, hours or breakdown/diminished performance.
To expedite tasks, the business recently introduced a service vehicle fitted with a good selection of parts and tools for in-the-field applications. Tracked harvesters, in particular, are best serviced away from central workshops.
Luke says family members, who are intimately familiar with equipment, are the principal users of all OPE on the property, aided by a contingent of four or five highly experienced key staff. Casual or seasonal workers, for the most part, are not required to use heavy or instruction-dependent machinery.
“We are pretty fussy with our equipment overall, so we wouldn’t generally give someone a quick course and let them take off with it,” Luke said.
Notwithstanding the broad range of machinery models featured in the OPE inventory, Luke says there has always been a necessity to “modify bits and pieces” to suit the precise needs of sprout farming, and even to fabricate certain implements from scratch.
“Nearly everything we buy is NOT set up for Brussels sprouts,” he laments. “There are only three main growers in Australia, and nothing is built for sprouts, so we’ve bought a lot of brand new equipment and then cut it and changed it and done things you normally wouldn’t do to a brand new machine.”
Examples include strengthening components, creating new cultivator frames to suit row spacings, and making extensive changes to packing machinery.
NEW AND OLD
Another interesting feature of Eastbrook’s OPE fleet is its breadth of age – some machinery is decades old, putting paid to the theory that new equipment is a prerequisite for success.
For instance, the fleet of John Deere tractors features new and old models, each satisfying criteria of fitness for purpose. Tractors of different sizes and configurations are used for cultivating soils, carrying and spreading fertilisers, general haulage, clearing and digging activities, etc.
“We bought our first John Deere in 1984, and then we bought another and then another and carried it through – we like them and know them,” Luke explained.
“Also, as far as maintenance is concerned, a lot of the filters and accessories are interchangeable, so it’s nice to stick to one brand.”
Most new equipment is financed, and second-hand equipment is purchased outright, though Luke says the farm has made use of John Deere’s chattel mortgage program in the past.
Eastbrook Farms is a business that smacks of personal care – from its emphasis on in-house maintenance, to its pedantic crop rotations and selections to retain optimal soil health over the long term.
While new technologies and vegetable varieties have been embraced wholeheartedly, the Samwells have not replaced tried and true equipment without compelling cause. This reasoned approach has meant that some ultra-new technologies, including battery-powered equipment (see our article on pp. 16–18), have been slow to join the farm’s OPE fleet. Nevertheless, Luke says he is open-minded to experimenting with such technologies in the near future.
In the meantime, the farm’s progress – which has been characterised by astute land and equipment acquisitions and respect for operational thresholds – looks as solid as a raw sprout!