LEO and Graham Smith's retirement plan has the smell of success, writes KIM WOODS
The roses may be thorny and straggly, but the perfume they yield is gold.
Each spring Leo Pendlebury and Graham Smith debud 4000 damask roses on their Gundagai, in southern NSW, property to produce a fragrant rose oil.
The two tonnes of rose petals equate to four litres of oil which is used in perfumes, hand creams, lotions and shower gels.
The damask rose dates back to pre-Christian times and was brought to Europe by the Crusaders.
Today the majority of rose fragrances come from the damask variety kazanlik.
There may be plenty of romance around the fragrance, but the work that goes into cultivating and harvesting the rose can be back breaking.
To achieve 1kg of attar, the foundation of rose perfume, 1.2 million blooms are needed.
Leo and Graham took to rose growing as a "retirement plan" but have found the crop labour intensive, though rewarding.
With an army background, Leo had no experience in horticulture and relied on Graham's passion for gardening to get the enterprise started.
When they bought their 9.7ha block at Gundagai 11 years ago, it had been badly eroded by the Slate Quarry Creek.
Tree plantings have arrested the erosion and produced an attractive extension to the home garden.
Due to the farm's small size, the pair needed an intensive horticultural enterprise that could occupy them into retirement.
"We were living in Albury at the time and looked at persimmons, grapes and olives," Leo said.
"My sister Maureen was reading an article on rose oil and said why don't we grow roses."
Knowing roses were hardy, the pair researched the various varieties suitable for oil production.
"We thought rose growing could be a bit of glamour but it's not as glamorous as it is made out to be," Leo said.
The red loam soil, with a pH of 6.7, was ploughed and formed into raised beds.
"We put in a string line and planted the roses - it was freezing weather, so bitter we had to jump in the car to warm up," Leo said.
In the early stages, 1000 bushes of kazanlik were planted on a 1.8m by 1.8m row spacing, and irrigated from a bore via a dripper system.
"We over-watered the roses and by the following July they were monstrous," Leo said.
"It has been a learning curve. Now we use a bit of logic, and trial and error.
"We propagate our own roses but I haven't had much success at multiplying them in pots and the ground.
"It was hit and miss, after propagating 6000, I got 1000."
Leo and Graham have built up to 4000 bushes and hope to expand to 14,000 to 16,000 bushes, complete with an on-farm sales outlet.
The newer plantings are on 1m by 3m wide row spacings to allow machinery down the rows.
They are fertilised in leaf with a seaweed foliar spray. An organic aphid spray is also used.
The roses are pruned down to waist height to create a "table top" for ease of picking.
"We are picking from the top and not going down the sides because of the tiring aspect of bending," Leo said.
"All the picking is done by hand, one bud at a time."
The pruning is carried out over summer by 20 agisted steers, the steers leaving no prunings and fertilising the ground.
"The cattle got in one day and I saw them eating the roses," he said.
"I thought, I'm going to get into trouble when Graham gets home, but they pruned them nicely - it saved us slaving away with hand shears.
"The cattle have reduced the workload."
Leo spent time picking fruit on cherry and fig orchards to get a feel for the industry before launching into roses.
"It was valuable, I was learning and can appreciate other people's operations," he said.
The first year of full production was in 2005 but the crop was hit by frost in 2008, resulting in a 50 per cent loss.
Roses like heat and cold, but do not tolerate frost during budding.
"The buds start off quite burgundy and then open to a bright pink in full bloom," Leo said.
"Touching them will stimulate the blooms to open in your hand."
Harvest consists of an intense four to five weeks of picking, which started last year on October 15 and was carried out in the cool of the morning.
After four weeks of picking, a storm in November destroyed the remaining buds and flowers.
"The rain took the petals straight off - some were just a brown mush," Leo said.
"What we managed to harvest beforehand gave us two litres of oil."
The petals are frozen and freighted to a plant where the oil is extracted using a solvent. It then goes to a perfumerer to produce fragrances, hand lotions, shower gel and moisturiser.
The products are retailed under the label Damasque Australia.
Leo and Graham plan to have a their own extraction unit within three years.
"At first, we took our products to markets but found the long distances difficult," Leo said.
"We now sell locally and on the internet, although we need to get more internet savvy.
"It has been a slow build up by word of mouth."
The pair retail their rose oil perfume at $10 for a 5ml bottle.