As the saying goes, Brian Meakins is one-of-a-kind. No one else in this state grows horseradish on a commercial scale like he does, and no one else in Australia takes it from paddock to plate.
For most part, it’s understandable. Before Brian, 68, invested in an exhaust fan in his Langhorne Creek shed 15 years ago the smell from this raw beastly veggie made his eyes swell and he felt like his nose had been stuffed with a thousand chilies from hell.
“You had to prise your eyes open with your fingers so you could somehow stagger to the coldroom and stand there to cop the full cold breeze to get them going again,” Brian recalled. The tears almost returned with the memories.
And in this factory then ran by seemingly blind mice, no one ever complained of bad sinuses. No, never in this place, for once the flesh of the horseradish is broken fumes from one of its glucosinaloate enzyme releases an explosion of volatile mustard oil.
“It was horrendous,” Brian said. “We had to wear masks in those days, but now the fan next to the mincer whips the fumes straight outside.”
Tough, our Brian has been for more than 45 years growing his horseradish under the brand name of Newman’s, which for decades has been one of this state’s icon products, and now supported by another 10 ravishingly tasty condiments including horseradish and beetroot, a selection of mustards plus crushed garlic, crushed ginger and a chili.
Yet, beneath an almost customary crusty farmer’s face lay a soft side, a genuine bloke who has never been in this game for a proverbial million dollars, but the mere satisfaction of doing something different with no fear of change.
Brian and his wife, Anne, employ six staff at the farm and he lives by the rule he wouldn’t ask any one of them to do dirty work that he wouldn’t do himself. At the end of a long day he can be there cleaning the toilet just like anyone else; he’s genuine, alright.
And gosh, this tough farmer wears Lycra when he rides his bike to Milang and back every morning.
“It (the Lycra) makes it more comfortable on a bike seat, no doubt about that,” he says. The cycling ritual came from the need to cope with two knee replacements 11 years ago, and the results have been amazing. The real passion is with golf – he has played at Tea Tree Gully Golf Club for 59 years making him clearly the longest-serving member, and he’s there no matter how cruel the weather and without any thought of joining a club closer to home because he treasures the long-time mateships.
Almost everything about Brian is different in a most positive way, which seems appropriate in a market garden game like horseradish, which itself is unusual because the name was a mistake. It was known as mareritic in German, but a Frenchman doing an English translation thought the “mare” referred to a horse rather than the German word for “sea”, so it should be searadish.
For Brian, the journey has been out of the ordinary too, starting in the business created by his father, Joffrey Adolf Meakins… “Oh, dad, who was known as plain Joe, was not happy being called that long before his namesake came to power,” Brian said.
“My father and his brother bought the fruit and veg business from the Newman family (the nursery business remains at Tea Tree Gully) back in 1947. They had not made horseradish for five years, and when we put out our own label, Meakins, nobody would buy it.
“We went back to Fred Newman, and he not only gave us permission to sell our horseradish under his name, he gave the rights and his recipes for free. Yeah, that’s very unusual in business… I just think he was trying to help us out, and it has snowballed from there.
“I was share farming in Tanunda in 1985, and when the other guy told me he was going for a hand-out from the government (retiring) he said, boy, you had better go and find yourself some land, and that’s what we did and came here at Langhorne Creek. It has been a good move.
“I know of only one bloke in the Barossa who grows a little bit of horseradish for himself and Maggie Beer. He wouldn’t have the size of a tennis court of the thing.”
Brian grows his horseradish on 20 acres, and supplies two companies in Victor with the raw product from which they produce their own goods. At $8000 a ton, it’s a lucrative business.
“Once you have got horseradish in your yard it’s there forever,” Brian said. “It’s hard to get rid of… it hangs around. You think you’ve dug it all out, but you only need the tiniest bit left in the ground and up she’ll come.
“I do feel good about being the only real producer of something,” he said.
“There are challenges for all producers; it can be tough to sell into the big supermarkets because everything has to be audited which costs $800 every year… you need to write down everything that you do in case there is a recall of the product, which has never happened to us.
“The beauty of this stuff is that the mayonnaise and the vinegars we make to put into the horseradish are below 4.4 on your pH scale, and bacteria won’t grow in it. We are pretty safe. (Brian did not dismiss the theory that nothing could possibly grow among raw horseradish).
“But being a producer is not necessarily about being the best grower… it’s being prepared to diversify; you have to.
“I was never going to get involved in wine until I became friends with one of the Potts family, who are renowned grape growers (Bleasdale Vineyards), and Bill said to me, you have the best land in Langhorne Creek without grapes on it. So in 1996 we put some in, and before long we were making a ton of fruit cabernet just for friends and relatives.”
Now it’s 15 tons under the Rusicana label – Latin for horseradish is Armoracia rusticana – and again it was about being different. Brian chose to plant Durif vines, a French variety, and an Itralin variety, Zinfandel.
“We planted those two reds because I thought, if you are going to be down here selling wine, you want something that is a point of difference,” Brian said. “Everyone has cab and Shiraz. I put some of this in and it has been one of the best moves I have made.
“You have got to think differently, and it’s the same with the horseradish products… years ago you’d see it alongside Worcestershire sauce, a little bit of mustard, mayo and a few little condiments on a supermarket shelf, but now there are rows and rows of condiments.
“I thought, if we are going to be part of this we are going to have to start producing other stuff, and that’s what we are doing. Now we have 11 lines, and they are all doing well. Life is all about change.”
And so is golf. Brian, who is on a 12 handicap having been on two in his glory days, complains about his iron shots. “I need to do something… I probably should hit golf balls into the horseradish for 10 minutes every night… I’m hitting the ball too flat.”
Change your backswing Brian; it’s too fast.