Gold fever in Tolmie

North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer
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Kevin with his crop.
Emma Oliver

FIRST impressions of Kevin Marriott, of Tolmie Gold Saffron, is his inherently positive outlook on farming and his appreciation for all the lessons learned, good or bad.

The Marriotts (Kevin and wife Marie) planted saffron 11 years ago, and Kevin is not ashamed to admit that the first seven years were mistake after mistake after mistake.

Kevin purchased 10,000 plants from Tas-Saff in Tasmania, and though they were incredibly helpful, he soon realised he had to work it out for himself.

“It seems to grow differently wherever it is,” he said.

In the first year he lost half of his bulbs to rot, after he planted the raised rows the wrong way on a slope and hindered drainage.

Crocus sativus or saffron requires minimal irrigation and Kevin only waters the bulbs when they first come out and the root systems start up.

Unless it’s natural rain, the Marriotts avoid watering altogether.

Once they had rectified the issues with drainage, cockatoos were the next major concern they had to deal with.

Next door to Kevin, the neighbour had chestnuts.

They didn’t harvest the chestnuts, so every year between 300 and 400 cockatoos spent their days gorging themselves on the nuts.

When the supply of chestnuts was exhausted by August the cockatoos began to size up the fields of saffron.

The birds followed down the stem of the plant to the bulb and cleaned it out.

“And you don’t just lose the bulb, you lose the multiplication of those bulbs for the year, and that can be up to five,” Kevin said.

If growing properly, one bulb produces between three and five bulbs as offshoots.

Depending on the seasons, this can take between one and two years to be achieved.

The Marriotts took a couple of hits, where cockatoos cleaned out entire rows of bulbs, before they rolled out the chicken wire and covered the entire plantation.

“I reckon we’re the only area that nets their saffron,” said Kevin about the problems of growing in Tolmie.

The Marriotts lost so many plants in the first few years, that they are five years behind where they expected to be now.

However, Kevin talks of all this as a big learning curve and admits that they had no idea at the beginning.

GOLDEN COUPLE: Kevin and Marie beside the huge spring-fed dam.

He and his wife wanted to fully understand their crop, the processes and the business before they retired, and as a result every setback or issue has been greeted as a challenge to overcome.

They are now quietly confident in their retirement plan, and are now at the point where they are considering employing people.

March sees the plants sprout, and the second week of April they start to flower.

Harvesting happens over a five week period.

Flowers are collected and shelled to harvest the vivid crimson stigmata or ‘threads’.

The threads are then dried over two hours in a dehydrator.

“If it’s been a warm season, and we get a cold snap the flowering goes stupid.

“It sets it off, and 24 hours later everything is flowering.

“Flowering generally takes two weeks when it’s all coming on, two weeks when it’s ridiculous, and then a week and a half of it tapering off.

“You’re damn sick of purple at the end of it,” Kevin said with a laugh.

“It is an intense five weeks, but it is only for five weeks.

“The rest of the year you just do a bit of fertilising and weeding and that’s it.”

This was one of the attributes that attracted the Marriotts to saffron as their retirement plan.

Originally from New Zealand, the couple had come to Australia in 1984 on a working holiday.

Five kids later, the Marriotts were working in Melbourne and looking for a rural block as they had always been country people.

One hundred acres became available in Tolmie, and as a family that loved shooting, hunting and motorbike riding, Tolmie ticked all the boxes.

It was then that Kevin began researching his retirement plan.

SEA OF PURPLE: The plants only flower for five weeks of the year and then stop growing over summer.

Saffron quickly became the crop of choice, as it didn’t require a lot of water, and no water at all over summer.

The Marriots would also not have to worry about bushfires as the bulbs lay dormant in the ground during summer and would not be affected.

It grew well at altitudes, and loved the cold and tolerated snow.

“And if you’ve got a hectare of saffron you’ve got a lot of saffron,” said Kevin.

And the Marriotts do have a lot of saffron.

Currently they have 200,000 bulbs planted in 45 rows of between 2000 and 6000 plants.

These produce up to a kilogram of saffron.

In 2018, the Marriotts sold everything they picked, and some from another grower as well.

The product has been very well received, especially when people hear it’s grown in Victoria, and locally owned.

“It’s also very fresh,” said Kevin.

This will all become part of the pitch when the Marriotts begin to market their business.

Up until now, it’s been farmers markets and local produce stores and restaurants who have been the main customers.

The new chapter for Tolmie Gold Saffron is marketing their product on a larger scale.

Kevin muses about the allure of saffron.

“It’s a nothing thing, an insignificant plant, that looks like a bit of mondo grass.

“Unless it’s flowering.

“When it flowers that’s a whole different thing.”

More farming news and stories can be read in the August, 2019 print edition of North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer or click here to access digital editions.