Seven generations of the Medwin family have farmed at Black River in Tasmania’s north-west. Phil and Fiona Medwin are ensuring the tradition continues by adding flowers to the farm’s portfolio.
Motor mechanics and the mining industry may sound like unlikely training grounds for flower farmers, but that is precisely the skill set Phil and Fiona Medwin brought to their Tasmanian family farm.
Granted Phil had grown up on their Tasmanian family farm, where his parents, Rodney and Christine, had farmed for most of their lives before retiring to the historic seaside village of Stanley. They raised sheep, grew mixed vegetables and poppies for the pharmaceutical industry, continuing a farming tradition established in 1841 when William Medwin, his wife, Elizabeth, and their eight children, arrived from England and settled with a 500-acre (202-hectare) land grant at Black River.
Most of the early years were spent clearing land, dealing with bushrangers and trying to establish themselves in their new habitat, which was the first farm in the region not owned by the pioneering Van Diemen’s Land Company, established in 1824 to produce wool for mills in the United Kingdom. While the Medwins initially farmed sheep, and still have a flock of Border Leicester/Merino cross sheep as well as 10 hectares of Innovator potatoes, since Phil and Fiona have taken over, they’ve diversified into growing peonies.
“The last thing I wanted to do when I left school was be a farmer,” Phil says. “I did a motor mechanic’s apprenticeship at Ulverstone and then, in the late ’90s, went to Western Australia to work in the mines.”
Phil was working at Laverton in the WA Goldfields, where he met Fiona, a Perth girl, who was working as
a geology assistant.
“We flew in and out of the same airport,” Fiona recalls. “Mining was great for getting ahead, but gradually we both realised we didn’t want to work for other people for the rest of our lives.”
About the same time, Phil’s parents started thinking about retiring, so Phil and Fiona started flying home for extended periods to help out on the Tasmanian family farm and finally made the move to Tasmania permanent in 2009.
“Australian interest in peonies was emerging around the same time, and we started with one hectare,” Phil says. “We now have four hectares and we have big plans for the future. It takes patience to grow them as it takes three years before you can cut flowers and seven years until they reach maturity. But we are well established now and have developed a good reputation for the quality of our flowers and rootstock.”
The peony is native to Asia, Europe and north America and it’s prized in China where it is the national flower. There are somewhere between 130 to 140 different flower varieties, which range in colour from white and pale pink to deep coral, red and yellow. There are tree and herbaceous peonies as well as many hybrids, including the Itoh peony, which was developed in Japan by a man of the same name and combines the best characteristics of both varieties.
Since taking over Gateforth Peonies, the Medwins have learnt much from industry leaders in Holland, Canada and Shandong province in China. These days, the business is evenly divided between cut flowers, which they ship to florists in their home state as well as Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide, and growing for nursery stock, which they send to customers all over the country. “We start lifting the rootstock at the end of March and finish shipping around June,” Fiona says. “Then there’s lots of maintenance work to be done until October, when the first flowers start coming on. From there, it’s all-hands-on-deck and we work rain, hail or shine every day of the week until December to get the flowers cut, packed and shipped.”
Even their nine-year-old daughter, Ruby, gets press-ganged into helping out in the packing shed and the Medwins also employ two full-time staff and a casual to see them through the harvest period.
“We’re working hard, but when we plant the next three hectares, that will triple our workload,” Phil says. “It’s an exciting time for the industry as the popularity of the flower is growing here, and we want to stay ahead of the game by increasing our variety and also maintaining maximum quality. We’re also growing hydrangeas to cover the slow time over summer.”
All the hard work comes to a spectacular finale on the third weekend in November, when the Medwins open the farm to visitors for Peonies in the Paddock. The last time they held the floral spectacular, 2000 people showed up for a celebration that included live music, food stalls and, of course, the chance to see fields full of blooms and buy cut flowers and plants.
“It may seem a strange career shift,” Fiona says. “However, there are lots of transferable skills that have helped us along the way. Having an excellent work ethic helps, but also having great structured discipline with a deep sense of professionalism is important. We are able to meet schedules comfortably and with confidence through hours consistently worked and we also have great teamwork skills. Working 12-hour days, 14 days straight with a small team of mining co-workers created a necessary habit of discipline. It’s the same with our staff here on the farm, we have created a great working environment where we all dig in and work as a team.
Another valuable learning asset from mining is productivity. We aim to utilise every moment in the most productive way to increase our overall performance. It means the business is thriving and so are we.”
For more information, visit gateforthpeonies.com.au.
Photography by Ken Brass