After years underground, this grower was 'done with dirt'
FOURTEEN years as an underground miner and Dean Halpin was done with dirt.
In 2000, having never ventured into horticulture before, the father of four started up New Reef Hydroponics, a hydroponic lettuce farm, with wife Alison at their Grasstree Beach property.
While they started off with infrastructure to grow 2000 lettuces, they have continued to expand over the years and now have equipment to grow 35,000 at a time.
A willingness to learn, especially from mistakes, fuelled the success Mr Halpin believes.
"It was a big learning curve," Mr Halpin said.
"When I look back on it now I think 'I never had a grey hair in my head until then'."
When the family first moved to Grasstree Beach, south of Sarina, Mr Halpin said it "was thriving", and many people from Mackay would travel down to enjoy seafood on the beach on a weekend.
"It was like Pitt St in Sydney," he said.
Mr Halpin had always had a green thumb, and after meeting one of the biggest hydroponic lettuce farmers in New South Wales, as his dad trained horses for him, decided to give hydroponics a go.
Hydroponic farming involves giving the plants their nutrients through water, rather than growing them in soil.
As the set-up and initial infrastructure costs are expensive, Mr and Mrs Halpin continued working on and off for the first five or six years they operated.
Mr Halpin said he also had a stint at being "Mr Mum", the stay at home parent, which he loved.
During those initial years, Mr Halpin said everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
The lettuces "caught just about every disease there is" and because the same water is pumped through the whole operation it wiped the crop out.
"They said it never hailed here but in the first year it hailed. It put holes all through the lettuces," Mr Halpin said.
"They said it never frosted. We got frosts four times.
"It got to the stage where we hoped people would stop saying 'It won't happen'. Because it always did."
But getting thrown in the deep end taught Mr Halpin to learn quickly.
"It was sink or swim," he said.
As he walks between the trays of produce he has growing, he can spot a minor blemish on any given plant and work out why it is there.
But this ability only came after years of research.
He read books and learnt on the job, but also sought out advice anywhere he could find it.
He became "good mates" with a hydroponic lettuce farmer at Alice Springs, who he called after seeing him on television one night.
"I just called up and said 'Hey mate, how you going?' And he shared his knowledge," he said.
"That was beneficial."
While a single disease could wipe out an entire crop, Mr Halpin said if that happened he would have another one ready to harvest within three to four weeks.
The water circulating throughout the farm is tested every day, and the crop is only given the exact nutrients it needs.
He said this meant they grew up to twice as quickly as they did in the ground.
As New Reef Hydroponics grew in size during the past 16 years, it also grew in diversity and Mr Halpin now produces about 20 different varieties, including lettuces, spinach, bok choy and herbs.
But life is about more than just work for the Grasstree grower.
When he needs to relax, he hops the fence to see his horses.
As his dad was a horse trainer and raced pacers in Newcastle for 45 years, Mr Halpin has always loved being around the animals.
"They're an outlet for me. So at the end of the day I can go and give them a pat," he said.
Champion race horse Black Caviar's half sister, called Secret Belle, also lives there, but Mr Halpin said while she was fast, she couldn't run straight.
"She was really fast, but had a problem with her head," he said, with a laugh.
He's also managed to breed one of the horses, two-year-old Northern Secret.
"Hopefully she can pick up a sprint race. But with horses, you never really know," he said.
To try the produce from New Reef Hydroponics go to Veggies Unlimited, Fruit World, Grower's Own, the Mackay region IGA's and the Greater Whitsunday Farmer's Market.
"Some people think you can't have friend in business, but I don't agree with that," Mr Haplin said.
"If it wasn't for these suppliers, we wouldn't be here."