Robert Salmon was in the Netherlands recently, viewing a paddock of carrots, when he met and got chatting to some carrot farmers from the Mallee. Robert was there as general manager of Bejo Tasmania, the Australian arm of the Dutch parent company, Bejo, which is one of the top 10 seed breeding, production, processing and marketing companies in the world. The Mallee farmers were there to look at Bejo’s latest seed offerings.
“We got talking, and then later, over a few beers, it was interesting to hear their perspective — what they liked and didn’t like about carrot seeds and what they felt about companies producing them,” Robert said.
“I’m not in the sales team, but because Bejo sells directly to the grower, bypassing local seed distributors, we’re able to get that direct feedback from the grower. Those signals help our planning.”
Robert said it was this direct relationship with growers — and their feedback — that has seen Bejo create seed niches.
For instance, they have bred beetroots for use in vacuum packs, while Bejo Tasmania is now trialling long shelf life onions suited to Victorian weather (and also for South African and Argentinian climates), as well as onions for use in Queensland (also applicable for countries such as Brazil).
Globally, Bejo does not produce genetically modified seed because its most important market is Europe, which doesn’t accept GM food. Organic seeds are one of its major niches.
Spice of life
In total Bejo produces 1000 different varieties, which represents 50 crops for different markets and climates, and distribute to more than 100 countries.
Bejo’s Tasmanian operation started in 1998 when it bought Derwent Seeds in Richmond, Tasmania.
At that time they had two employees and “a rented warehouse with old machinery”.
The Tasmanian business now has 30 employees and three farms with two seed cleaning facilities — most recently a $5 million cleaning shed built in 2014.
Aside from the original 80ha at Richmond, it has 440ha at Plenty in the Derwent Valley and 10ha at Cressy in the Northern Midlands.
In total the company has 400ha of land under seed production, producing 15 container loads, with each container containing about 15 tonnes of seed.
Many of their crops require 2km buffer zones, so they don’t cross pollinate. Given a lot of space is required to grow its seeds, about 70 per cent of Bejo’s seed production comes from leased land, including in Victoria and Queensland.
It produces seed for 20 carrot varieties, 10 beets, and about 50 brassicas, including kale, cabbage, and cauliflower, and other crops such as fennel.
Before planting can begin in Tasmania, seed breeding and selection starts in the Netherlands, where — through gene marking — desirable traits in seeds are identified.
The parent company then sends a selection of candivars, or candidates, to Tasmania where, once planted out, one or two successful cultivars are chosen.
Planting starts in January with carrots and cauliflower and finishes in August with fennel.
Throughout the growing period Bejo uses conventional sprays and fertiliser to combat weeds and diseases.
“There’s no secrets to our growing other than the intellectual property around the processes, such as the right time to plant,” Robert said.
Robert said the current season has been dry, which is perfect for their needs. Rain increases disease pressure, while it can use irrigation for any water needs.
Bejo’s Tasmanian farms have long been irrigated but the state’s new irrigation schemes will ensure high quality water, especially to the Richmond farm, which has a 30-megalitre entitlement.
“Sometimes the water has been a bit salty but the new irrigation scheme will deliver more reliable water that is higher quality,” he said.
Not all crops are bee pollinated, those that are have pollinators between October and January. Robert said at times there are a shortage of pollinators and so in the next five years they would bring in about 2000 of their own hives and will onsell the resulting 30 tonnes of honey.
Harvest starts with brassicas in January and runs through to April, finishing with onions.
They harvest while the plant is green and the seed is firmly attached, cutting and letting plants dry in the paddock for seven to 10 days before a harvester gathers the seed.
Seed is cleaned through various machines including de-bearders, gravity tables, spirals and optical colour sorters.
It is then sent by air, but mostly by sea to the specialist treatment and global distribution centre in the Netherlands. Here “it is treated with fancy technology”, such as hydropriming, which pre-germinates the seed.
“They treat it with cool water so when the farmer plants it, it’s easier to germinate and get an even crop,” Robert said.
Australia then imports seed back into the country, especially carrots, brassicas and beetroots, with Bejo’s Australian sales team aiming for the top 20 per cent of the largest growers, rather than small producers.