Growing Australian Bush Foods in WA
A grower with personal experience discusses points to consider about going into the production of native bush foods.
I am a farmer from east of New Norcia, a traditional ground farmer. My experience comes from two years of looking into the native foods industry to see how it might fit into operations on our property. What I wanted to speak about is how I believe we are situated here in the west in relation to market opportunities in this industry.
The first thing to realise, when you come to look at any industry, is the capabilities of your land, where you are situated and what you might be able to grow. The area I am focusing on is the WA wheatbelt where several bush foods are native. It is interesting to know that we are one of the last states to embrace the potential of the industry. I don't believe that is a negative--it gives us a great opportunity to look at what happened over east and in South Australia and see where, perhaps, they could have done things better or made mistakes. We should be able to learn from these mistakes and structure our plantings and marketing in a way that can address these problems. Perhaps in the future we will be better situated to compete with the other side of Australia.
Within the wheatbelt, we have virtually any soil type, you name it. A lot of different land forms and amongst all this are a lot of renewable water reserves, most of which are salt although there are fresh water reserves. There are positions in the landscape where we have under our traditional annual cropping systems ample reserves of sub-soil moisture, which I believe are an untapped resource at the moment.
If you are looking at native foods indigenous to the area, it is still important to remember that a plant needs care when it is planted to ensure that it is established and can realise its inherent hardiness. That may mean supplementary watering after planting, or perhaps just a little bit more care than the normal farm tree. I believe it is not a negative thing to be irrigating it if the water comes from your on-farm reserves, because, at the end of the day, it results in a net increase of water usage within your system, which will have impacts on salinity and water quality.
Once you have looked at the capability of the land and you are looking to develop a native food industry enterprise, the next thing you have to look at is what species you believe might be suitable to that site. That will involve looking at soil types, climate, and within the category of climate you are looking at frost tolerance, drought hardiness and heat tolerance. The further inland you venture into the wheatbelt, the harsher the conditions of all these factors. The majority of the arid species of native foods are very well suited the eastern and northern parts of the wheatbelt.
Once you have chosen your species, the most important thing to consider is the market, and working out why you have chosen what you are going to grow. There is no point in growing something that might not have an end market, even if it does grow well in the area. Once you have gone through all that and you have decided on a species that you think is going to be well-suited to your system, you need to remember that a great deal of genetic variability is inherent in all native bush foods. In order to choose your crop you have to sift through the genetics you are able to look through, and go for the selections you think will fit with your marketing strategy.
As an example, take the quandong. Initially you would be looking at the market usages of such a native food. For the quandong, you are looking at jams, chutneys, sauces, flavourings and maybe opportunities in the fresh food market. There may be other uses depending on what kind of market is out there. Within each of these products, what is it about the quandong that makes it a desirable product to the consumer? I believe for the quandong it is a unique flavour, the bright red colour, that we are familiar with. Bearing all that in mind when you are deciding what is the perfect quandong for you, this is just an example of what you would be looking at: you would want to select for a large fruit. As a general rule, larger would probably be better when you are considering processing costs. Obviously, if you are looking at the fresh food market, large is probably better as well. The size of a quandong can vary from 1 cm up to 5 cm in diameter. You will also be looking for colour. Two trees can have completely different coloured fruit. There are what they call 'moonshines,' which are white, through to yellow to red. Obviously, if you believe the market lies in the red colour, you would select for red fruit.
High-yielding biotypes, that would pretty much apply to any native food. You would be looking for annual and not biannual croppers. If you have these species growing native to your area or accessible to you the opportunity is there for you to assess these things. If there is a species you are interested in over east, that makes it pretty hard. Quandongs can be annual or biannual, and you would be looking to select for annual bearers. Whether you irrigate will have an influence on this as well.
Presently there is no market for the kernel, but it would be nice to think that if there was a market, you would be able to take advantage of that market as well. Flavour, obviously, is a harder one to select for, as you would probably get sick of sampling quandongs.
Visually, you would be looking for resistance to diseases and pests. There is the quandong moth. It is possible to find groups of trees where some trees appear to be more affected than others by quandong moth. I don't know why that is; it might just be coincidence. The quandong moths can survive the drying of the fruit: open up a container of stored, dried fruit, and it could be full of moths. You probably would not want to spray for moths, in order to keep a clean, green product. It is possible that freezing the fruits or the dried fruit could kill the moth larvae.
Some individuals send up suckers and some don't. You just have to decide if you want suckering types or non-suckering types in your system. You want to look at harvestable tree shape and size. Where we are, we have a real problem with 28 parrots. The taller the trees, the more they are affected by parrots, so we select for shorter types.
Fruit would be more desirable if it is freestone as opposed to cling stone. That just relates to processing costs. Obviously it is harder to extract if it is clinging on to the stone. The length of the harvest period will relate to what kind of market you are in. If you are looking at a fresh market, it might be desirable to have it fruiting over a two month period. But if you are looking at value-adding, you might want to have your product all off at once, so you don't have that capital cost of labour for picking. I am sure there are other things that could be selected for, as well.
That is just an example of 'quandongs aren't quandongs.' That could be the same for any bush food. Selection is just by choosing seed from trees with desirable fruit. The jury is still out about whether quandongs come true to seed, or even whether they are self-pollinating. They can be grafted.
The process of selection can be made easier if you have a relationship with value-adders or the end market. They can perhaps steer you in the direction of what kind of product they are chasing.
Once you have been through this process, you then have to decide on type of production system. What it is you think the market is going to be looking for. It is very easy to grow these kind of crops in a monoculture system, in terms of cost, but is that what the market is after given that it has more appeal if it is a wild product. It may be that it is better to grow in polyculture and mix things up with other bush food species. You would be looking at other issues like, should you become organic or stick to conventional methods. I believe the organic way, if possible, would be more desirable.
At the end of the day, if you are a value-adder, or you are supplying a green product, the people you are supplying realise that they can make a difference with their purchasing decision. It is becoming more of an issue of environmental consequences of the produce they select. They want to be able to make a difference that way. I think it is important to become a personality with passion rather than a faceless supplier.
To summarize the process of what I would be looking to do if I was considering going into native food crops: choosing your site carefully, knowing the soil types and the climate within your system, and realising the capabilities and limitations within that system, choosing your species. This is where the marketing aspect comes into it. You really do need to have a very firm grasp of where you are headed with the marketing of your end product. Know your genetics, make decisions in regard to selection for the desirable characteristics you are after. Make those decisions with the end market in mind. Choose your production system. Once again, relate it straight back to your market, exactly what kind of image you want associated with the products or produce. Lastly, one thing I feel is important is that it is always desirable to work with others and not just yourself.
On our farm, we have quandongs, desert limes, bush tomatoes and some large-seeded sandalwood, types we have selected, growing on 3 hectares at the moment. We are planning to put in another 15 to 20 this year of mixed plantings. The quandongs haven't fruited yet. I use Running Postman as a host, Kennedia prostrata, in the pot. This sustains the quandongs until they are established in the field, when they have acacias as hosts. Lack of information has been a real hindrance to me. My first year of planting was an absolute disaster. I have learned so much from that, and it would have been nice if the information was out there so I didn't have to go through that. That is where it is important for people to cooperate.
The desert lime is Citrus glauca. Once again, being a desert-oriented target species, it does sucker. The fruit is about the size of your thumb, very thin rind, beautiful flavour. There are a lot of undeveloped markets for a fruit like that. The seeds are edible as well. They are not as tart as some lemons and limes. They make a beautiful marmalade.