Turning over a new leaf: Innovative spinach grower flourishing despite obstacles

From devastating floods to crippling COVID-19 border restrictions, spinach producer Dicky Bill Australia has used innovative thinking to pivot around the many obstacles it has faced in the past decade. 

The Queensland-founded company has grown to become one of Australia’s biggest producers of spinach and other fresh cut salad leaves including wild rocket, coloured lettuce and Asian greens – but not without its fair share of challenges along the way. 

In the summer of 2010/2011, severe flooding to Dicky Bill’s Gin Gin-based farm in the Bundaberg Region caused the company to suffer a $2 million loss, while the global pandemic drew its export business to a grinding halt in 2020.   

However, thinking outside the box has helped the company flourish despite these obstacles.

Following the Queensland floods, Dicky Bill established a second farm in Gippsland, Victoria, allowing the company to grow produce all-year-round.  

Dicky Bill also became the first grower in Australia to invest in custom-built machinery allowing it to increase crop bed spacings by 25 per cent, creating a rise in production efficiency of 10 per cent.

The innovative concepts saw the business grow to collectively yield about 3500 tonnes of fresh cut salad a year, allowing it to begin to explore the export market.  By the time the company won the Australian vegetable industry’s National Exporter of the Year in 2018 it was exporting nearly 10 per cent of its overall product to markets including Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia.

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But then came COVID-19 and border closures, the collapse in air transport, and periodic lockdowns.

Dicky Bill Australia director Ryan McLeod said air freight costs rose dramatically, with the company facing the prospect of its exports being wiped out and links with overseas customers severed. 

However, the introduction of the Australian Government’s International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IFAM) provided some stability to the air freight industry, according to Mr McLeod. 

“It was a really tough period but having IFAM there really helped sustain access to international markets and maintain our relationships with customers,” Mr McLeod said. 

“Last year we were only able to export about a third of what we usually do, but without IFAM we would have struggled to move anything at all.”

IFAM is a temporary, emergency measure in response to the pandemic kicked off under the Australian Government’s $1 billion Relief and Recovery Fund to support regions, communities and industry sectors that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan said the introduction of IFAM flights had allowed growers like Dicky Bill to be able to continue exporting to existing markets during the global pandemic.  

“Dicky Bill are a fantastic example of the resilience and determination of Aussie growers when faced with extraordinary obstacles,” Minister Tehan said.   

Major existing international export destinations for Australian spinach include Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, which make up 85 per cent of total exports.

But with spinach exports forecasted to drop to 237 tonnes in 2021 due to lingering international travel restrictions, Dicky Bill is instead focused on the domestic market, where the company continues to enjoy ‘organic growth’.

“Spinach is fast becoming a staple on Australian dinner tables and with the export market still not yet at full capacity this year, we will focus locally and be looking to keep growing our sales domestically instead,” Mr McLeod said.

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