The town of Kununurra, founded in the 1960s, lies in the spectacular East-Kimberley region of Western Australia. The area has the two extremes of wet and dry seasons, and it is also irrigated with waters from Lake Argyle on the Ord River. This is the largest fresh water storage in mainland Australia, with a capacity of about nine times the water volume of Sydney Harbour. The area produces up to 60 different crops, including melons, mangoes and Indian Sandalwood.
Raymond (Spike) Dessert started off in California, but all that changed when he arrived in the Kununurra area early in the 1970s. He is a fourth generation seedsman who knows well the advantages of the Kununurra climate for growing seed crops, for there is a frost-free growing season, nil in-crop rain and abundant water for surface irrigation, which won’t damage the seeds. Spike founded the RB Dessert Seed Company (Austra- lia) in 1986 and set out to produce a vast range of seed crops which are exported around the world, with Japan and the US currently being their largest clients.
The seeds produced by Spike’s company are world-class, but the industry in Australia is going through an adjustment period. The current price of the Australian dollar is one factor, but there is also the disparity in production costs here in Australia compared to countries like Chile, or even the United States, one of the top world producers. Nevertheless, Spike and his family carry on producing very high quality seeds for planting and sprouting, in addition to herbs, vegetables and pasture seeds.
Spike’s daughter Kalyn looks after the seed business and the financial side of the operations, while his son, RB, is in charge of the farming and mechanical aspects. They have recently added a John Deere 7250R tractor to their equipment, purchased from Andrew Simon and his team at Vanderfield Kununurra.
When asked why they chose John Deere, the answer came in a flash: it was ‘the options’ that the tractor offered them, including the ‘front and back hitch points’ and ‘having a higher lifting capacity compared to other tractors with similar horsepower’. Spike remembers well his first John Deere tractor, a 2-cylinder horizontal machine, and he can also talk about the wonders of technology, specifically the possibilities that VNet Precision Farming offers to his business and how his modern tractors can ‘talk’ to a world-wide net. He is glad to let RB get on very capably with all things technology, though.
Spike’s brain is not one to sit idle for any amount of time, and about eighteen years ago, a trip to the wine region in Southern Australia got him thinking. He wondered whether wine production could be in the cards for him. It did not take him long to work out that the climatic conditions that suit his seed business so well are quite different from those needed to grow grapes, but, then again, the weather does suit cane production, so another idea came: what about a distillery? And that’s how The Hoochery, Western Australia’s oldest, continuously operating, legal distillery, was born.
The Hoochery is a fascinating place, built from used metal, and well worth a visit. This rather unique place is open to the public daily during the dry season and five and a half days during the wet season. Apart from offering guided tours and a large function room, it also has a saloon bar where patrons can do a spot of rum tasting, or have a counter meal and coffee and cake. Spike’s daughter Libuse takes care of the catering and functions at The Hoochery.
Spike uses local ingredients for brewing his products. He started off using the molasses from the Ord River Sugar Mill, but when it closed in 2007 Spike bought a two year supply and got into thinking again. He discovered that in north-eastern Colombia, a large exporter of sugar, cane is cut by hand, carted by horses up and down steep fields and taken to small mills that have machinery suitable for farms under five hectares. Not one to be backwards in coming forwards, Spike travelled to that area in Colombia, got the machinery he needed (‘a nano-mill’, as he puts it), and now crushes his own three or four hectares’ worth of cane. As he tongue-in-cheekily says, the size of his cane production must make him ‘the largest cane grower in Western Australia’!
The dark sugary syrup from his cane, rain water and yeast are vat-fermented, pot distilled in small lots that add up to around 40,000 bottles per year and aged in used oak barrels called ‘hog head’ wooden barrels, sourced from the Australian wine industry. The Hoochery offers a range of products of varied strengths, including rum, of course, but also whiskey, aniseed liqueur and coffee and chocolate liqueur. Spike’s products, easily recognisable by their red-eyed crocodile logo, have been recognised by the Melbourne Fine Food Awards and Australian Distilled Spirit Competition with the Australia Gold Medal and Champion Rum awards in 2014 and 2015.
When the new mill opens, Spike plans to use some of its molasses again, but it is still not clear when that will be. In the meantime, there is plenty to keep him occupied, not only in the businesses, but also the community, as Spike has been serving as Councillor for the Shire of Wyndham, East Kimberley, since 2010, and in 2013 he was elected as Deputy Shire President. Not bad for a guy from California.