Viticulture

How a Melbourne architect is building transition into pomegranates

By Vanessa Wiltshire

As Melbourne and provincial cities such as Bendigo expand, would-be tree changers and aspiring farmers are casting their eyes to smaller, hidden communities.

With the "discovery" of Daylesford, Castlemaine and Kyneton, people are looking further afield to communities such as Redesdale.

One hundred and fifteen kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Redesdale offers proximity to Melbourne’s outer suburbs and Bendigo for work.

Crucially, it delivers balance between rural living and city life.

A tight-knit community of 250 people, Redesdale has traditionally been a sheep farming community since European settlement. Today the town is evolving, merging farming with food, a rural provedore that plays host to boutique food producers: wine, olives, even walnuts.

Even pomegranates are on the list

Simon Webb, together with his partner Estelle Symons, recently planted 500 pomegranate trees at their 16.2 ha property, replete with 500 metres of Coliban River frontage.

By weekend the couple are micro farmers and active members of the Redesdale community.

During the week they live and work in Melbourne.

Simon, a landscape architect by trade, runs his own interior architecture practice.

Estelle, who is originally from the country, works in the fashion industry.

"I was searching for a property to take me into 'retirement' for years," Simon said.

"It had to be within striking distance of Melbourne and give me an opportunity to be hands-on.

"A friend, a sixth-generation sheep farmer in Pyalong, tipped me off that this property was available. That was eight years ago."

The property came with a weatherboard dwelling, a shed and a vineyard.

"The vineyard was in terrible condition," Simon said.

"We spent time restoring 12 rows and managed to get a vintage in 2013.

"Phil Meehan of Meehan Vineyard was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. I will always remember him as a great mentor."

But then in 2014 drought and bushfire hit.

"It was a tough," Simon said.

"We weren’t able to produce wine that year.

"I think that's when we woke up to the reality of farming; it's very rewarding, but it's no fantasy. You've got to love what you do."

Undeterred, the couple started to experiment.

"We did test plots of cherries, apples, even citrus," he said.

"The apples did well, however, we found that citrus suffers from the frost."

After a chance conversation on a plane, Simon decided to try pomegranates.

"Pomegranates are traditionally grown in hot and dry conditions, not dissimilar to Australia," Simon said.

"I was on a plane and got talking to a cattle farmer who was in crisis with drought.

"He had investigated persimmons and gave them a go. The return made more money than cattle.

"He told me the key was to find a specialist crop and then workout the minimum number for a return on yield."

Initially Simon and Estelle grew pomegranate trees from seed.

"They grew brilliantly, and we found that pomegranates are very compatible with the area," he said.

"Then we planted out another paddock that was originally meant for vine, another 500 trees, sourced from the Sunraysia region."

With access to irrigation, Simon said the fruit would be ready for next season.

He believes he can produce between 10 to 20 tonnes of fruit over time.

"It’s an adaptable plant, once it gets going it produces a lot," Simon said.

"It can be used in many ways. There are the fresh seeds, which are delicious and can be used in cooking. The seeds juice beautifully, too."

Though the Australian pomegranate industry is miniscule in comparison to the global market, 0.08% of total production per annum, a 2018 report by AgriFutures Australia, pinpointed the fruit as one of 26 emerging industries with multi-million-dollar potential.

"I will sell as much as the market will bear," Simon said. "Anything that is split, I will juice or convert to grenadine or molasses."