Greenhouses are gas for Dendra
“Before we put the greenhouses in, our business was seasonal and we couldn’t employ many people permanently,” explains Dennis, whose 20ha Dendra Gardens nestle in lush, undulating country at Cuprona, on the North West Coast. “This meant we couldn’t offer stability and security to our best people, and often lost them. Being able to produce all year round and expand our product range fixed that. We now have a reliable, stable, experienced workforce and the high standard of their work makes all the difference for our enterprise.”
Dennis and his wife Sandra, who runs the business with him, employ an average of 30 people full time, adding about 10 casual employees during peak season. All planting, weeding and harvesting is done by hand, and with a large range of product lines, including a variety of Asian vegetables, snow peas, leeks, radish, spring onions, parsley, silver beet, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes, and up to 500 plantings a year, there is plenty for them to do.
“We average more than one and a half million plants a year so we do a lot of hoeing,” says Dennis. “But doing it all by hand means our plantings are much more accurate and efficient, and gives us a lot more control over the quality of our harvest. The process is labour intensive but is worth it because we live or die by the quality of our produce.”
Everything is also washed and packaged carefully by hand in a facility at the gardens, ensuring a premium quality product for delivery and Dennis guarantees his buyers that anything not up to scratch is replaced. Premium quality means a premium price, which underpins the success of his business.
The success has been hard-earned. Dennis worked in the shipping industry for many years before deciding on a sea change 17 years ago. He had grown lettuces as a hobby and for extra cash for some time beforehand, so decided to become a market gardener.
“In hindsight I was mad because I knew virtually nothing about the business, but I enjoy a wild ride,” says Dennis. “I had to learn as I went and I learnt from plenty of mistakes. But I had some really valuable advice from an experienced friend, which really helped in the early days, and not having an agricultural background sometimes proved useful rather than a hindrance.
“Farming people were forever telling me I couldn’t do certain things, and my reaction was to think ‘why not?’ instead of just believing everything that I was told. It meant I achieved things a lot of people thought could not be done.”
His huge, sprawling block of greenhouses is a perfect example of this. He originally intended about 1000 square metres, but this grew into 11,000 by the time the last bolt was tightened on an immense structure of his own design that he was told would fall down in a heap.
Although largely constructed with fencing wire and 1.2mm piping that can be bent by hand, the numerous tunnels interlock in such a way that they support the whole configuration with immense combined strength.
“A master builder told me it would collapse like dominos from one end to the other, but I always believed it would work,” says Dennis. “It’s certainly been put to the test. We get some wild weather here and the whole greenhouse rocks but it’s designed to flex and absorb. Four years ago a storm ripped apart a neighbour’s shed and ripped trees out by the roots but all we lost from the greenhouse was a bit of plastic.”
The greenhouses have allowed year-round continuity of supply to his buyers, control over watering regimes and climate in a wet, windy environment, and provide sheltered working conditions for his employees when the weather is bad. The run off from the roofs also fills a dam with rainwater for irrigation.
But most of his produce is still field grown, and the attractive rows of veggies and seedlings criscrossing the chocolate soil blocks of Dendra Gardens are like the vegie patch that every backyard grower dreams about. This is no coincidence.
“I tried a lot of methods in the first few years, following advice from agronomists, but in hindsight I didn’t know enough to ask the right questions and none of them really worked.
“So I decided to go back to basics and start from scratch with what I knew from looking after the home garden for my dad when I was young and from growing 17,000 lettuces a year in an old lady’s back yard off Steele St in Deloraine when I was still in shipping.
“The land at Dendra had been flogged to death so I started with restoring the soil and gradually turned it into one great big fertile vegie patch. It is also tended much the same way as a home garden but on a much larger scale.”
The next problem to overcome was marketing, and again Dennis fell back on what he knew.
“I did a wide range of different things in shipping and this gave me a good understanding of how business worked, which helped me create this enterprise,” says Dennis. “But in the end your workers are everything to the business. I am very lucky with mine.”
They seem to think highly of the boss too.
“On my 65th birthday last March they laid on a feast at work and gave me a card that was signed by ‘your extended family’,” says Dennis. “I was greatly touched then and I still am now.”
Tasmania Online | Service Tasmania
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