HARSH conditions and little rainfall on the edge of the desert may not sound like the ideal setting for an intensive farming operation.
But that is exactly what Simon Thomas and his wife, Caroline, have achieved 10 kilometres east of the frontier town of Wiluna, along the old Gunbarrel Highway.
They have turned 10 hectares of red dirt into a field of green vines. They took over the 202ha lease of Backsaddle Farm from Caroline’s parents in 1995 and established Gunbarrel Grapes, which produces table grapes for Perth’s supermarkets.
Yet it is by no means the first time a horticulture project has been attempted in the area. Italian families operated market gardens during the 1930s, feeding Wiluna’s (then) population of 10,000. Then, during the 1940s, a peanut plantation was established, and by the 1970s a citrus farm called Desert Gold was established by the Aboriginal community.
While the various horticultural projects have long since withered on the vine, and the citrus fruit rots on the trees while the Aboriginal community wrangles over ownership issues, Mr Thomas remains bullish about the future of horticulture in the region and of the family venture.
His optimism is fed by an abundance of water, which sits in an aquifer just seven metres below the surface, and by idea soil and weather conditions – warm summers and frosty nights during winter.
More than $1,000,000 of the family’s money has been invested so far. While early ambitions included plans for a much larger vineyard, red tape and Native Title issues frustrated these dreams. Without freehold title the banks were unwilling to back the project. In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise, according to Mr Thomas, who also trades his time as Wiluna shire councillor, because it meant they were never over extended financially.
Recent hot and dry weather has scorched the fruit resulting in yields falling by almost 50 per cent. It has been a tough blow for Mr Thomas and the family, but not one that has dented his enthusiasm for the project, despite years of trial and error.
In the early days Mr Thomas relied on advice from Carnarvon-based grape growers or from the Agricultural Department, but more often than not the unique growing conditions in Wiluna made the assistance almost worthless.
“Because we are so isolated it is very difficult to compare notes with others,” Mr Thomas said.
Since then help has come from the other side of the Great Sandy Desert – from a group of grape growers located near Alice Springs.
“Our mentors have been in Alice Springs, They have been going for about six years longer than we have and have similar issues to our own,” he said.
The family is also hoping to capture some of the market provided by the growing number of tourists travelling the Gunbarrel Highway each year by providing much needed accommodation.
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