THE sun is slowly setting, causing long shadows to stretch across the bare earth as a hissing sound emanates from a nearby tap. “Ah bugger, we’ve got a leak.”
Gary heads off to stop the spray as I take in my surroundings.
Hundreds of polythene rows are spread across the two hectare (five acre) plot - sitting neatly atop homemade metal tables - a home to a variety of different lettuce and herb seedlings.
The former nursery at the back of Gatton was painstakingly converted about 10 years ago to become one of the largest hydroponic operations in the Lockyer Valley.
Named after a local murder mystery, Ghost Gully Produce has quickly become the go-to brand for high quality, fresh produce from Toowoomba to Brisbane.
“I was a dairy farmer in the Lockyer Valley before and I worked in a nursery with Kym's family business as a delivery person and while doing that, I noticed the hydroponics,” Gary said.
“It was a growing industry about 15 years ago and then this property came up and Kimmy and I talked about it and decided to take it and do a trial.”
The pair started off simply with three small benches in one shed.
“We got some baby cos lettuce in and grew them out.
“From there, we established a market and started expanding. One shed led to three sheds and then three sheds led to what we're doing today!”
What the Samuelsen’s are ‘doing today’ includes a 250,000 plant turnover per year, but Gary assures me there is still room to grow.
“A lot of people will look at our tables and say, 'What a great idea,' and it's a space saver for sure. You don't have any gap and one table can fit around 150 plants.”
Gary said although each shed was slightly different, the average can accommodate around 20,000 holes or individual growing units.
The couple work closely with an agronomist to ensure the plants are fed and nurtured with the correct levels of nutrients.
“We’ve been working with him for about 10 years to design our food mix or ‘brews’,” Gary said, adding anyone interested in getting involved in hydroponics should look into having an expert test their formulas.
“I would highly recommend someone like that to come in and work with you if you're starting out.”
The Ghost Gully Produce feed program has been set up to contact Gary and Kym should there be any issues.
“It alerts me if there’s any kind of problem, whether it be a blow-out, empty tanks or other emergency.
“It's all connected and we can see it wherever we are - it'll show us what's happening in the water, how much food is left, what the pH is, water temperature, pressure and levels so I know what's happening in individual tanks.”
The automatic system is timed to ensure the plants are fed and watered to the minute.
“The system will run for 15 minutes with water and then they'll have 15 minutes of air-time. That system goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
With the plant needing a delicate amount of both water and oxygen, Gary says this system allows individual seedlings to pick up the necessary nutrient from the water before coming up for air.
“They'll keep growing, all day.
“It's an incredibly efficient way of growing plants because it's only using what the plants will drink and then it does a full circle - from the tank and is gravity fed back in if it doesn't get used.
“We still need to make sure it's working every day and, if you don't, then the plants will tell you if they're running low or high on something.”
The system is run on a Nutrient Film Technique which is just a film of water which runs through the bottom and the roots spread out in the water.
Gary said the spray-free operation has been a hit with Ghost Gully clients.
“The brew is just filled with all the things a plant needs to survive including potassium, nitrates, calcium - whatever you need as a human, that's exactly what a plant needs.”
Gary said using organic and fish based products to feed the seedlings had worked to the company’s advantage.
“We don't use any pesticide or fungicide and it's all going straight from us, to the restaurant, to somebody's plate - all on the same day.”
Gary says his love of growing plants is far outweighed by the satisfaction he gets on a daily basis from talking to a happy customer.
“That’s what it’s all about and it’s what we keep striving for - to make sure it’s the best.
“I'm not up for making tonnes and tonnes of it, I can't do that here. But as long as somebody comes up and tells me it's good then I've done my job.”
Harvest time at Ghost Gully is a little different to most farming operations with the team going to work each day to deliver the freshest produce to restaurants and shops.
“We harvest every morning and plant out new seedlings at the beginning of every week.
“We get quite a few thousand seedlings per week. In winter their harvest time gets pushed out from four to about six or seven weeks but that’s normal because it’s cooler and everything slows down a bit.”
“Some of the varieties do grow a little bit faster than others, some of the herbs are even quicker than that.”
Producing micro herbs and several lettuce and edible varieties including basil, coriander, mint, and chives is all in a day’s work for the Samuelsen family who prefer to use natural methods of pest control.
“Chives in particular work as a companion plant to eliminate pathogens in the water.
“It also keeps the roots healthy and if they're healthy then the plant will be all the way through.”
Recently heading into edible flowers, Gary said he was happy to see the colour scheme of the property grow a little wider.
“It's very exciting because we get to enjoy the visual - you get greens and reds all day long and then, suddenly, you get purples and yellows and, when you put them in a bowl, they look amazing.”
The new venture has evolved solely due to demand from well-known clients including Wild Canary Cafe.
“It's a delicate operation but the chefs who get them know they haven't been sprayed with anything so they can go directly on their cakes or whatever they're making.
“To see them making their dishes with something we've grown, that's the best feeling and it's what it's all about - it’s really satisfying.”
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