When Donna Campagnolo’s parents imported the first pepper plants into Australia in the 1970s, everything was done by hand.
From digging holes for the posts, to planting, picking and processing the precious black peppercorns, they built the estate from scratch on a section of their cane farm at Silkwood, in far north Queensland.
“I don’t live on the farm anymore. I don’t work weekends and I figure if there’s an easier way to do it, then that’s the way it should be done.”
That’s not to say harvesting and producing pepper is an easy business in the modern era.
It is a painstaking, labour-intensive process, squeezed into a critical two-week window in October in which 10 tonne of ripe berries and leaf material are hand-picked and processed into about 2.5 tonne of product.
Firstly, the pepper ‘spikes’ are stripped from the twigs and leaves in a threshing machine. They are then put through a large tumbler with blowers to eliminate more of the unwanted leaf matter before the two-to-three day drying process begins. The sun-dried peppercorns are dispatched to an independent seed cleaning facility for one last clean before finally being ready to grind, crack or kibble, and packed to order.
But with demand for homegrown, Aussie pepper outstripping supply, Ms Campagnolo said it was well worth the effort.
“Now people are quite willing to buy Australian made so that’s a good push for us because we are an import replacement product if you want to buy Australian,” she said.
Ms Campagnolo said about 50 to 60 per cent of the farm’s operating costs related to labour, which was why any expansion needed to be managed carefully in line with what could be handled in the harvest.
Next wet season, there are plans to put in another 1,000 plants which would boost production by about three-quarters of a tonne in the next three years.
But being able to process it would remain the biggest challenge, which was why the capital outlay to continue to develop new, improved machinery was worthwhile
“I prefer to do things an easier way rather than the manual, physical way so if we can mechanise as much as possible, it cuts out a huge cost,” Ms Campagnolo said.
With one eye on the existing harvest season, the determined, young farmer is focussed on a future beyond expanding the existing black peppercorn production through mechanisation.
She said the potential of pepper was almost limitless, with scope to establish a niche market for fresh, green peppercorns, as well extracting piperene, oleoresin and other natural oils and resins for perfume, distilling alcohol and a range of products.
“Everything has a risk…You could get a cyclone and it knocks everything over and you’ve spent a considerable amount of money for no return,” she said.
“[But] it’s my livelihood so the point is, I want to make it as simple as possible so if I spend the money, I can make my life a little easier.”