Date with destiny puts ex-copper on Arab map
By Ieva Tomsons
JULIMAR date farmer Stephen Kelly (68) has worn a lot of very different hats in his life including aircraft engineer, outback cop and prison officer.
He grew up in Sydney and at 16 started an apprenticeship in aircraft engineering with Qantas.
“Those were the days when you could pick and choose what you wanted to do.”
Working for Qantas entitled employees to cheap flights, and Stephen recalls one memorable trip with work mates to Thailand during the Vietnam War in 1970.
“Bangkok Airport was crowded with all sorts of military aircraft and we spent a lot of time watching the B52s taking off to bomb North Vietnam.
They were fully loaded with bombs and needed rockets under the wings to boost their take-off in the humid weather – it really was an awesome sight.”Read more
After 10 years at Qantas, Stephen applied for the police force and was accepted by both NSW and the Northern Territory.
He settled on the Northern Territory and drove to Darwin in 1978 to complete his training before being based in Katherine for the next three years.
“I was a city boy and learning how to communicate with full-blood blackfellas was a challenge.
As a single man, he was assigned to relieve at one-man police stations such as Mataranka, Timber Creek and Daly Waters which meant travelling vast distances alone.
Thrown from truck
In Mataranka a tyre blew out, the police wagon rolled several times and Stephen was thrown 20m into the long grass where he was found by a passing truck driver.
“The seat belt actually snapped. I had a broken back, broken ribs and internal bleeding and spent eight months in a spinal unit in Sydney.”
In 1982, after three years of policing in Katherine and its surrounding communities, Stephen returned to Darwin and successfully ran for the local council the following year.
His last posting as a police officer was Alice Springs where he developed a taste for dates from a local plantation.
“Alice was where I fell in love with the date palm.”
He also turned full circle on his “ignorant” attitude to Aboriginals when he was posted to the remote tribal community of Yuendumu 350km north-west of Alice Springs on the edge of the Tanami Desert.
“The Walpiri Elders gave me a skin (tribal) name and we developed a really good rapport.”
An ancient men’s ceremonial site was located next to the police station and while Stephen was invited, he would not interfere when tribal business was taking place.
Speared 19 times
“One young bloke was speared 19 times in the thigh with shovel-nosed spears because he had cut his mother’s head off with a star picket. Incredibly, he survived.
“I think the whitefella justice system could learn from tribal law which is swift, painful and the recidivism rate is virtually non-existent.”
In Yuendumu he watched a major tribal dispute where a journalist from Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association had his shoulder dislocated by a flying boomerang.
“You could hear the spears and boomerangs whistling back and forth through the air and he was unfortunately in the firing line.”
Stephen is a keen guitar player and music helped him bond with Aboriginals during his career as a policeman and later as a prison officer.
The Easter Purlapa, a resurrection corroboree performed in Yuendumu, attracts thousands of people, and while he was there Stephen was invited to perform a couple of numbers after the ceremony.
Stephen got married in 1988 and “pulled the pin” on policing to settle in Perth. He worked various jobs including private investigation and truck driving before returning to Sydney where he became a prison officer in the then notorious Long Bay Jail.
In 2004 he returned to WA and started working in Hakea Remand Centre for four years.
“As a cop you lock them up. As a prison officer you live with them 24/7.
‘Prisoners on edge’
Being on remand, the prisoners are on edge and things can go pear-shaped in a heartbeat.”
The Kellys had purchased 22ha of land in Julimar Road in 2005 and Stephen continued working as a prison guard in Wooroloo Prison Farm before retiring and taking up farming full time in 2016.
“We were tossing up between running boar goats, low-cost camping and even a caravan park, but we decided on dates.”
They started the project in 2007 buying six small date palms from a South Australian grower who has mentored Stephen during the long process of establishing their grove of 115 trees.
“Date farmers need patience, something I learned as a prison officer, as it takes 12 or more years for a female palm to mature and bear fruit.”
From the beginning of spring to the following winter the palms require daily drip-fed watering and regular fertilising to produce good-quality fruit which is sold fresh or dehydrated to extend shelf life.
The date’s growing cycle starts in August when the male trees produce flowers which have to be ‘hog-tied’ in their outer casing to prevent pollen loss.
A month later the flowers are cut and dried for a day before the pollen is harvested using a small hand-held vacuum cleaner.
$7 a gram
“Pollen sells for $5 to $7 a gram and we collect about 750 grams more than we need.”
Stephen mixes the pollen with water to spray on the female flowers and for some varieties the process needs to be repeated up to four times.
A paper bag is placed over the pollinated flowers to protect them from parrots.
Around the end of December when the fruit is outgrowing the paper bags, large synthetic breathable bags are applied to the ripening dates which will be ready to harvest from mid-March to June.
Date bunches are then shaken and the ripe fruit falls into catching trays ready for sorting and packing.
“Perth’s Muslim community is our biggest customer. Their holy month of Ramadan falls within our harvest period and it is culturally significant for them to break their fast with fresh dates.
On a trip to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the United Arab Emirates government for the 2018 International Date Conference, Stephen started thinking about building a shop in the style of a Bedouin tent which symbolises hospitality.
The architect-designed plans have been approved by the local shire and once built it will be a unique attraction on the Toodyay tourism trail.
“Date farming in Australia is in its embryonic stage and I still enjoy it, but unfortunately you only get to try something new once a year.
“If I had started earlier, I would have definitely had a go at growing my own variety which would suit local conditions.”