As you sprinkle pepper over your dinner have you ever thought about where it came from and who grew it?
Chances are your pepper has travelled a long way to your dinner table, with the bulk of commercial pepper grown in India and Vietnam.
But there’s a family in Far North QLD, which has cracked the local market.
Since the mid 1980s the Campagnolo family has carved a reputation as Australia’s only commercial pepper farmers.
Brothers Louis and Levi Campagnolo started farming pepper as a way of diversifying their sugarcane farming business.
Since 2006 Levi’s daughter Donna has run the business, after buying out her dad and her uncle.
Donna admits that Australian-grown pepper will always be a niche product, she simply can’t compete on price with the imports.
However she says when you buy her pepper you are buying fresh, aromatic pepper that’s been harvested this season and cracked to order.
“Pepper is a world commodity,” says Donna.
“When you buy a container from overseas you’re not necessarily buying last year’s crop. With ours every year you get the fresh crop. It stays as whole black peppercorns until someone wants it cracked, ground or kibble, which we do as the order comes in. Once you break the peppercorn the oil and aroma dissipate.”
Donna’s grandfather first arrived to Australia from Italy in the 1930s, attracted by the offer of work cutting cane. It was the start of a three-generation farming history for his family in the region.
Donna grew up on the family’s sugarcane and pepper farm and says she always hoped farming would be her future too.
“I love it,” she says.
“I’m a girl and I’m not supposed to be farming but it’s all I wanted to do. I got a science degree at university and worked as a research officer for the DPI, then I worked for a private tree company. But when dad and my uncle reached retirement age they sold their farms. I bought this one.
“I just like being outside. It’s nice and quiet, it’s a nice environment to work in. We don’t really use any chemicals and it’s quite pleasant.”
That said, pepper farming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The first hurdle for the Campagnolo family was finding plants to propagate. The first cutting came from Levi’s doctor, an Indian immigrant, who had a plant growing in his surgery garden.
Next the family had to establish the best way to grow pepper in Australia, a years-long succession of trial and error experiments.
“It was a hard old slog,” says Donna.
“We sourced plants from around the place and started propagating them. That was in 1984 and 1985.
“We trialled trellising and live hosts but decided to stick with hardwood posts and we grew form there. We had some help from an Indian horticulturalist from Darwin.”
Despite the resulting success Donna isn’t surprised that she’s the only commercial pepper farmer in Australia.
“It takes three years before you even get a commercial crop,” she says.
“To propagate the cuttings takes anywhere from six to seven months for them to be ready to plant. We have the largest amount of plants to get cuttings from but we don’t sell cuttings to people.
“We’re trying to build an industry which we can expand. Like any niche market if you get 10 farmers competing then the advantage has been lost and you end up cutting each other’s throats to sell your produce. We want to build a business and a brand and then eventually other farmers can supply their crops.”
The Sunday Mail (Queensland)
Apr 13 2014
This story first appeared in the Sunday Mail Queensland. Each Sunday you can read my Ask a Farmer column, which profiles QLD farmers.
This is the Paddock to Plate journey of pepper, as told by Donna:
Cuttings: We plant from cuttings on hardwood posts. The cuttings take six to seven months to be ready to plant.
Irrigation: Pepper is very similar to other tropical crops, it needs about 100mm of water/month. We have to be able to maintain that water moisture so we irrigate.
Flowers: It takes two years for the plant to start flowering and the third year is when we first harvest. From flowering to harvest is about six months.
Vine: Pepper grows on a vine, but it’s not a vine with tendril. It has little sucker roots that stick to the posts. We tie the vine to the post, there’s a bit of labour involved. You have to keep them pruned and cut them so they form extra shoots.
Spikes: These spikes come out of the leaf axle. They only flower on the side shooting branches, not on the stem that goes up. The spike is anything from one inch to 9inches long. On that spike there’s a spiral of tiny little white flowers. They form the peppercorns on the spike. Those flowers pollinate and the fruit sets.
Harvest: We wait fro the berry to ripen and go red and that’s when we pick. It usually happens around October. In Asia and India they will pick the red berries as they ripen, going through the same vine many times. We just can’t afford to do that. We harvest using a team of about 20 people, locals and backpackers.
Aroma: Pepper isn’t that aromatic in the paddock but when it flowers it has a really nice smell. It doesn’t make you sneeze when it’s on the vine.
Drying: We developed a machine to remove the peppercorns from the spike and then we dry the peppercorns in the sun until they go black. Sun drying gets that crinkliness in the skin. We take it back to a certain moisture content.
Cleaning: Then we take it to a seed-cleaning place on the tablelands to remove sticks and stones and grade it.
Store: We store it in our shed until it’s sold. Last year we picked three tonne and that got us through to just before harvest this year.
Potency: Potency of the pepper relates to variety but also the microclimate and soil types it’s grown in. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine.
Weather: Weather affects our yields. Since I bought the farm I’ve had two cyclones. The first cyclone hit after we had harvested so we had pepper that year but none for the next year. We lost about 40 per cent of our plants. Production was low for the next three years. We had just started to pick up and then we were hit by another cyclone in 2011. We’ve just started to recover now. That’s why we also farm sugarcane.