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The bountiful harvest at our doorstep

Food and beverage manufacturers, whether they are an SME or multinational, are always looking for new ideas, new recipes – the next big thing in terms of trends within the industry. Every part of the world has its own speciality that is associated with its region – the spices of the Indian subcontinent, the processed meats of northern Europe, the chilli sauces of central and South America, and the rice-based dishes of southeast Asia are just a few.

Australian companies have been good at adapting these foods into our production runs. There are the ready-to-eat meals that have become popular in the last five years, plant-based proteins have taken off in the past 18 months, and all sorts of wonderful combinations are coming to fruition as food technologists and inventors start to mix and match products to tantalise consumers’ ever-expanding palettes. Anybody born over the past 20 to 30 years certainly has a lot more cosmopolitan tastes than those of us that are little older in the tooth.

Yet, here in Australia, there is one group of ingredients that have yet to reach their potential, and have taken a back seat to more exotic imports – our locally grown superfoods.

Lemon myrtle, Kakadu Plum, Davidson Plum and a plethora of other ingredients have made peripheral splashes within the industry of late, but nothing mainstream. And if Hayley Blieden has her way, that will change over the next five to 10 years.

Just over 10 years ago, Blieden – a nutritionist – was plying her trade with the North Melbourne AFL side. And it was while she was there and working with some of the club’s Indigenous players that she first got an inkling of what native produce was capable of in terms of health.

“I was talking to the players about the food they eat during the preseason – some players were Indigenous, some were not Indigenous, and some had put on weight, some had not put on weight” she said. “I started hearing about ingredients like lemon myrtle and Kakadu Plum and other foods from the Indigenous players. As a food expert I’d never heard of them. What surprised me was that we were importing superfoods from all over the world, yet there were these foods in Australia that were of superfood status that food experts and dietitians had never heard of and were not recommending them to people.

“It was both a ‘A-ha!’ moment but also a shameful moment – how do we not know about these foods? What else have we missed out on? What else don’t we know about our history of Indigenous Australians?”

It was then that Blieden saw an opening not only in terms of creating a commercial enterprise but also an avenue to create employment for Indigenous Australians and give non-indigenous farmers another series of crops to grow – ones that were suited to Australian conditions.

“It became a mission of mine to engage with Indigenous communities, to engage Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers and native producers and start working with them to bring native produce and foods to the forefront and to start the conversation about native produce. This was five years ago,” she said.

One key to making sure native ingredients are in the mix when food and beverage processors and manufacturers start thinking about using them, to ensure that there is plenty of supply. And currently that is an issue – one that Blieden is addressing – using a three-pronged approach.

“First, we need to work with Indigenous communities to wild harvest more produce but to also start cultivating produce if they are interested in doing that,” said Blieden. “Second, we have to work with farmers that are currently cultivating native produce to plant more. This gives them more confidence that the market is there and that we will be a customer at the end. Thirdly, we are working with farmers of non-native produce to diversify or repurpose their crops.”

Persuading farmers to take up the option of diversifying was initially met with some resistance. What Blieden and her team did do is equip them with the resources to be able to make the transition as simple and easy as possible. With current farmers, some are already growing ingredients. One of the Australian Superfood Co’s Davidson Plum farmers has already planted an extra 1,000 trees this year.

“We’ve got agronimars and propagators that can go out and do farm assessments, recommend what produce they should be planting, and can then supply the cultivars,” said Blieden. “The agronimars can help the farmers right from the beginning and go to their farms and give them things like the environmental impacts, water, sun – also market demands so they will recommend what should be grown.

“Furthermore, we help with things like pest prevention. We try to make it as easy as possible for farmers and other growers, but also to make sure that they know that they want the guarantee that we will be the customer at the end and we’ll take the crop. Some farmers want to give us the right of first refusal but they also want the ability to supply to other food services. It is a conversation between us and the farmer as to how that works out. As long as it is getting produce from farmers that is all that really matters.”

Then there is the type of product that is being produced. It takes time to grow some foods, with fruit generally taking longer to grow. Any fruit, if it is native or non-native, will take longer than a herb.

“Herbs you can plant and you can have it ready in a few months,” said Blieden. “Then there are some trees like lemon myrtle, and they may take 12 months, while the Davidson Plum might take two years. So it is a matter of having that conversation and working out what the grower’s priorities are. If they want the return immediately, then they should be going for one of those crops that grows faster. If they are interested in the fruits then it might take a little longer. We can also recommend mixed plantations. A quandong might grow really well with a muntrie and they might have a small return in year, one but are happy to wait for larger returns in year three.”

She wants to get the story out there about the viability and taste attributes of native fruit and vegetables and to hopefully – from a business perspective – be the one supplying those food and beverage manufacturers with the ingredients.

“Within the next 5-10 years I would like to see the industry be part of Australia embracing the country’s native bounty,” she said. “I want to challenge food and beverage manufacturers to sample Australia’s native produce. To taste the flavours, to figure out ways to incorporate native produce into their product ranges.”

One area Blieden thinks will lead the way is the ability to tell the story of native ingredients. She believes food and beverage manufacturers understand how important the story is. Then there is the employment aspect that helps those within the Indigenous community to have jobs.

“When Woolworths launched a range recently they put our company at the front of the campaign and said, ‘This is who is supplying our ingredients’. Then that led to us having an article in the Herald Sun,” she said. “Even before we launched the business I wanted supplies to be from Indigenous people. I wanted supplies from them because Indigenous people and native produce go hand in hand and you can’t separate them and you wouldn’t want to separate them.

“It has given over a 1,000 women seasonal employment, and in addition to that we also work very closely with our not-for profit partner Red Dust Role Models. Red Dust have been around for over 20 years. They send role models – be it sporting stars or comedians – into communities, and helps promote initiatives that focus on individual segments for the development of children, women and men.”

A final point that Blieden wants to make – and it could possibly be the most important – is that the products produced from Australian native soil are good for you. They are called superfoods for a reason. Blieden’s whole raison d’etre is to get products out in the market. It is the company’s goal to increase awareness and acceptability of Australian
native ingredients.

“Native produce is highly nutritious, delicious and unique to Australia,” she said. “The nutritional profiles are exemplary, which is why I first entered this market. I was passionate about being a dietitian. We import Camu Camu from overseas, yet in Australia Kakadu Plum has the highest vitamin C content – almost three times that of Camu Camu, and is growing in our own back yard.

“Over the next five to 10 years, where I see us moving forward is that in order to get to that point, we need to expand the supply chain and that is where the Native Harvest Initiative plays a really important part. That is for us both as a company and the industry as whole.”

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