Garlic adds up for banker turned farmer

By Ian Williams

Career banker Paul Cooper never flinched when he was made redundant during the gloom of the global financial crisis eight years ago.

Instead of despair he saw an opportunity to follow a long-held dream of becoming a farmer – he just had to work out what to farm.

It was while studying a Bachelor of Business in agribusiness commerce that he came up with the idea of growing garlic, a food that’s in great demand across Australia.

“One of the last units I had to do was a commercial business plan and rather doing something straightforward I opted for garlic because it was something I ate and wondered where it came from,” says Paul.

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Organic farmer Paul Cooper (left) on the garlic production line

“Generational farmers tend to focus on what they know and try to find a market but I took an opposite view of what does the market want to pay for and my business plan identified garlic as coming back into vogue.

“That was the start of it. I looked at the numbers and thought this was something I could trial on a small scale with my limited resources to see whether it’s a goer.”

A good friend told him about a 12-hectare block of land for sale at Mypolonga on the River Murray and Paul suddenly found himself in business.

The region has been traditionally known for its citrus and stone fruits but the conditions are ideal for garlic.

“The average rainfall is perfect, it’s got light sandy soils, cool winters, warm dry summers and plenty of sunshine which contributes a lot to the pungency of garlic,” says Paul.

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Paul Cooper’s 12-hectare block at Mypolonga

But while garlic requires much less water than fruit, one downside is that it’s highly labour intensive and to upscale mechanisation is imperative.

Support came in the form of an Irrigation Industry Improvement Program (3IP) grant under the South Australian River Murray Sustainability Program. This is funded by the Australian Government and delivered by Primary Industries and Regions SA.

“The grant has been the difference between me trying to accumulate the capital to scale up, to having the equipment to grow the business to a viable size,” says Paul.

Mechanisation allowed him to go full time in February and is used for planting, trimming, cleaning and grading the garlic

“I’ve been doing about one hectare a year and the aim now is to scale up to eight hectares where I’d be looking at up to 100 tonnes of garlic annually, all grown on an organic basis,” he says. “Australian organic garlic is highly sought after so the selling side is easy.”

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The 25-year banker turned farmer is also having an influence on his neighbours with two couples planting garlic on their land.

Paul turns 50 in August and is excited at the future. “Why have a mid-life crisis – just go farming, it’s a really honourable profession.”

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