Goldfields Bushfoods Industry Potential
Bush foods in the Goldfields of Western Australia are not well studied. Interest is growing for this potential industry, which shows great promise. There are many problems associated with lack of knowledge and information. Coordination of various groups is vitally required.
My name is Phil Stanley, I don't have many years of experiences with the bushfood industry but I am reluctant to regard it or refer to it as an industry yet, certainly not in the area that I come from. For our overseas visitors, we started off way up in the top end here, (Kimberley) then out to the Wheat belt and I'm from out here in the boondocks. And it really is the boondocks when it comes to getting information about growing anything. We do have Ag Dept and Conservation & Land Management people out there. The Ag Dept people are primarily concerned with sheep and there's very little information about bush foods available.
Tapping into some bush foods web sites recently, I found that there is a lot more sophisticated and advanced work being done in the eastern states, but on a relatively confined group of plants. There's a relatively recently formed bush food group operating here in WA. Again, fairly small and not particularly relevant to the Goldfields. It seems that nobody is doing any work on plants indigenous to the Goldfields though there is a lot of overlap. The Quandong and Sandalwood we were talking about grow widely throughout the area. Sandalwood, to the point that Conservation and Land Management continue to take 2000 tonne a year of product out of the region. When you consider that this plant takes some 80 years to reach maturity, you can appreciate the problem here. I have been arguing with them for 20 years now that it is an unsustainable harvest.
Aaron finished his talk with the point that we need to work together, and that is a line that I am certainly pushing also, and it touches on what Honorlea was talking about earlier on; with Aboriginal groups. There are other benefits to be derived from growing plants, particularly bush foods, in the dryer regions, that extend beyond commercial benefits. There are social outcomes for Aboriginal communities, not least of all regaining or relearning some of the Aboriginal knowledge that has been lost. And it has been lost at a very, very rapid rate. When you are face to face with the social problems that the Aboriginal people have in the Goldfields, you can understand more readily the sort of knowledge base that has been lost. I have the utmost respect for their botanical knowledge that has been obtained over 40,000 years. How, for example, did they determine which of the Solanums are toxic? There are a dozen or so species, half are edible, and the others are toxic. Of the edible ones, they are edible only at a certain stage. There must have been a lot of trial and error, and I imagine there was a number of casualties along the way in determining which of them could be eaten.
One of the Aboriginal groups operating in the Goldfields of late is an indigenous pastoralists' and farmers' organisation. They extend from Esperance to north of Kalgoorlie. It is a group that is set up to give aid to indigenous pastoralists. They are not specifically looking at bush foods. For a workshop they had in Kalgoorlie last year, I prepared a paper on examining the potential bush foods industry in the Goldfields, which is the basis of this talk this morning. I will ask you to make allowance for the fact that it was originally presented for these people who are, in the main, unaware of the existence of the bush food industry. And I'm not talking about just Australian bush food here There is an example from South Africa. You might have seen, particularly in health food stores, Red Bush Tea, Rooibos. Aspalathus linearus is the name of the plant. It has been used by the San Bushmen in South Africa for thousands and thousands of years as a herbal remedy. Fairly recently the South African government gave some assistance to the farmers in the Cederburg region near Capetown to grow it. In 1998 they sold A$62.5 million worth of that product. Now there are products in Australia, I am sure, that could undergo a similar sort of marketing. The marketing is absolutely superb on this stuff. It is packaged and processed in New Zealand.
Honorlea previously mentioned marketing aspects of Bushfoods. Prices are not a consideration when the big restaurants are looking to get a particular product on their menu, particularly with a little story about the history of the plant and its use. The price of the product is neither here nor there. They will pay over-the-top prices for something that is unique, to put on their menu. What is important to them, of course, is continuity of supply. And that is very often where we are going to fall into a hole.
Some of those points will become clearer shortly.
It is still a bit premature to refer to a bush food industry in the Goldfields. Present indications though are that it may soon be a valid description. There has recently been a groundswell of interest throughout the region, bearing in mind that this was written a few months ago. In the past twelve months, I have had discussions with no fewer than 15 groups regarding the possibilities and opportunities available to them to participate in this exciting new industry. Local shire councils, government departments, indigenous groups, educational institutions, pastoralists, landcare groups and individuals have all expressed interest. The necessary elements seem to be falling into place rapidly.
The demand is here. Some of you will have been aware of a survey done back in 1996 by a group called Econsult. They estimated then that the bush food industry was worth $14 million, and estimated that in five years time it would be worth $100 million. I think you would agree that their estimate was a long way out. I don't think now that it is worth anywhere near $100 million, but even if it was worth half that, it is still something that shows a lot of promise and a lot of potential.
I think we have the resource in the Goldfields, initially in the form of very large areas supporting a great diversity of plants available for wild harvesting. And in the future, that same land available for commercial production. This, obviously, is going to depend, in my area, on the availability of water. There are large reserves of ground water untapped to date. There are also changes occurring rapidly in the pastoral industry, not least of all that a lot of the pastoralists are just wanting to get the hell out of their uneconomical and unsustainable situations. But that changes from year to year. With wool prices going up, they could soon be looking at that differently.
The biggest change has come about because the mining companies have bought a lot of the pastoral properties they have mines on. Primarily because they just don't want the hassles involved in dealing with the pastoralists. What they have done is de-stock those properties, in the main, not all of them, which is great from the point of view of the Quandong and Sandalwood seedlings because the herbivores are not taking them out as quickly. This was another of my arguments with CALM. These things are not regenerating because they are being taken out by cloven-hoofed herbivores. Also, there was a major rabbit problem throughout the area until the release of the calici virus a few years ago. These little Quandong and Sandalwood seedlings are very palatable, and you just don't see them coming up. You go around the base of the big granite tors around the place and the best place to collect Quandong and Sandalwood seeds is in the Emu poo. You will very rarely find seedlings of Quandong and Sandalwood germinating in other places.
Another point that Aaron touched upon: these things are damned hard to grow, difficult to germinate. It is largely hit or miss. South Australian Woods and Forests Department put a lot of emphasis on the hygiene aspect of it: packing it in sphagnum moss, putting it in a dark cupboard, sterilizing everything, leaving it for a couple of months and hoping. Curtin University in Kalgoorlie had a course called Environmental Technology. I was teaching some of the students a plant propagation class. A group of Japanese research students were doing work on various types of mycorrhiza to try and imbue certain plants with particular characteristics, for example, greater salt tolerance. They were mucking around with some Quandongs and they dropped some seed in the black smelter slag (on the shadehouse floor) that comes from a nickel smelter up there. Lo and behold I found a Quandong coming up in it. It transplanted beautifully and didn't look back, I put it in with Acacia acuminata and it is thriving.
But, when you go to all the trouble in the world: crack some but don't crack some, saw through the nut, whatever. Miserable results. But how long does it take to germinate? When do you pick a point to actually throw them out? Or do you leave it there for months and months? For a commercial enterprise of course, time is money, and water and space are all commercial considerations.
As to the resource, it is interesting to take a look at a paper done back in 1993 by a couple of people from this very university, John Considine and Julie Plummer. I just saw their book out in the bookshop: WA Flora, Biodiversity and Economic Implications. They posed and then answered the following question: What is the probability of new crops from Western Australian flora? They answered it like this: The world has roughly a quarter of a million higher plant species and Australia has about a tenth of these. The world ratio for economic to non-economic (using current definitions) species is 1 to 50. Following this ratio, we should have 500 economic species in Australia. In fact we have over 1000 such species if we include known food, timber and ornamental species, but excluding medicinal plants. In food species alone, the world ratio would indicate 12, but we have over 200 species of edible plants.
The second question they asked: What is the potential food genetic resource from Australian species: The vast majority of world agriculture depends on less than 100 species. As a reflection of the diversity here, Aboriginals consumed over 200 species of plants. A largely untapped resource for new crops. Bear in mind, I am not necessarily talking about food crops that are going to replace potatoes or rice. I put equal emphasis on those novel products that will command a premium price even if they are produced in very small quantities.
I believe the market is here, primarily via the internet to international customers, but also in the domestic market, interstate, locally, as well as to tourists. It was interesting to hear what Honorlea was talking about, where they perceived their market, tailoring it for the tourist trade. I think if an industry is developed in the Goldfields, it won't be targeted at any of those specific areas. Rather it will target all of them. It will depend on the product that is available. Some of them will be in very small quantities. Some, for example, will have some particular problems. Ruby Saltbush (Enchylaena tomentosa) has an edible seed with a red or orange gelatinous coating around it. It withers and shrivels fairly quickly. I can see it decorating cakes in a restaurant and selling, literally, like hot cakes. It is novel; people would want to try it. It might not be the nicest thing you have ever tasted in your life, but it certainly looks great. It is going to take a lot of work to determine whether or not it will be able to be frozen or reconstituted to look just as good when it is shipped overseas. This is an example of a product that may only be available to tourists passing through, or a local restaurant, for example, on the day, or the day after harvest. It doesn't have a long shelf life.
Quandongs, on the other hand, do. (Incidentally, a quick rinse in salt water will get those little grubs out of that fruit). Silky Pear (Marsdenia australis) is another one that I have a lot of faith in. In fact it is how Kalgoorlie got its name, Karlkurla.
There are many different Aboriginal groups throughout the Eastern and North Eastern Goldfields, well placed to be involved in the Bushfood industry, yet, to date, there is not one that I am aware of that is.
I think that a cooperative approach to get these products to market is going to be the only way to go. Now if that means some kind of umbrella group, liaising with all these different groups and doing the co-op stuff, packaging and marketing, then so be it. The different groups have different levels of sophistication to enable them to enter the market chain at different points. Some of them, for example, may only be involved in seed collecting. The other social benefits I have touched upon earlier are not to be overlooked. They can, for example, in that process of seed collection, take their kids out and show them how it is done. If we do no more, then, we have had a win there.
Some mine sites that have reached the end of their life have fairly sophisticated mess facilities, with all the stainless steel that is required to meet health department requirements (for processing) Some groups could get into the processing side of things. It is not just an opportunity for Aboriginal groups either. I would be looking at specifically, pastoralists, as a way of diversifying. Bear in mind that many pastoral properties are now owned by mining companies. We know they are only going to be there until the end of mine life. I am not convinced at all, regardless of the number of environmental awards the mining companies want to give themselves that they have any interest in the long term future of that land, beyond their mine.
So what happens to it after that? If seed collection offers an opportunity for the pastoralists to take advantage of a crop of a particular Wattle seed that would bring perhaps $150 per kilo, and he has got a labourer he is paying $15 an hour, and he has got a spare day, well, why shouldn't he collect it? But he doesn't want to go through the hassle of processing it, taking him away from his main, core business. It would be easy if he could, for example, take it into Leonora, where there was a small enterprise set up there to do the germination tests and viability tests, the marketing and packaging. And the marketing includes selling the unique qualities of this product. It may not necessarily be for bush food. It may be for rehabilitation works in the Middle East or the like. Let's say it is Atriplex nummularia, Old Man Saltbush, and it is coming from Leonora. They might be able to tout that it has some greater degree of hardiness than the same species of plant coming from Merredin with a higher rainfall. All these aspects should certainly be looked at in the marketing process.
From a marketing perspective, organic foods and novel foods command premium prices. Foods that are both novel and organic will find a niche at the top of the marketing ladder. Most bush foods are used as flavourings and essences rather than as main ingredients. Adding value to products that are already widely accepted by the addition of bush foods can further widen the range of possibilities. Wattle seed bread, biscuits and ice cream are already being produced. In fact, a large bakery in the United States is looking to secure a contract with suppliers of wattle seed.
Quandong and Olive Pickle, Karlkurla and Carob Conserve, Hop Bush aroma therapy oil, they are all possibilities. The range is limited only by our imagination. Talking about bush foods really narrows the range of possibilities. If we widen that scope to include all the things that can be harvested and utilised from the bush, then it really does widen things up. I know a gentleman in Melbourne that would take any quantity of Dodonea lobulata (Hop Bush) plants to get the oil from them. It is the plant that gives the Goldfields bush its really distinctive aroma after a rain, a really magnificent perfume. Whether or not it has any other useful properties remains to be seen, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if you give it to the right sort of spin doctor, they will concoct one, and they will sell it.
That, incidentally, was a thing that distinguished a recent study tour to England and South Africa. One thing that distinguished, in my mind, the difference in the agricultural situations of those two countries, was the marketing. The problems that English farmers had, mind you, most of the small farms have been taken over by the very large organisations. They are aware that there is a big demand for clean, green, environmentally friendly products, and they have got the bean counters and spin doctors to come up with all the glossy, you-beaut magazines, convincing people that they are the safest producers and their food is the best in the world. They are in bed with the chemical corporations. They get their scientists to do the paddock walks and determine what their chemical inputs are, and they are spending millions of dollars per year putting the chemicals into the fields, advocating that organic gardening may not be the way to go, perhaps a compromise of using chemicals and some organic techniques is probably the best way. And with all the best photos and glossies under the sun. The average Joe Blow in the street would probably have no reason to doubt that.
Contrast that with a group in South Africa we met, called Capespan, who are 100% genuinely committed to environmental sustainability and organic growing. The contrast was just unbelievable. Capespan is not well-known in Australia, but they are about the third or fourth largest fresh fruit supplier worldwide. They believe that in the not-too-distant future, just about anything that is going to be sold will be sold by only three or four global concerns. They also admit, though, that that leaves more room for smaller niche players in the market. I suspect that this is the gate through which bush foods in Australia will be entering, and specifically the industry in the Goldfields. As I mentioned earlier there are different products and opportunities in the marketplace for the products. Starting at a cottage industry level will help elicit, over time, which of the products can be harvested in such quantities to meet much larger demands and move beyond that cottage industry.
While there are many species in the arid zone yet to be introduced to the market, we are not restricted to growing arid zone plants. The Lilly Pilly tree of eastern Australia, for example, could produce a base for a jam flavoured with our indigenous plants.
At a talk in Kalgoorlie delivered by Professor Yosef Mizrahi from Ben-Gurion University on new plant products being developed in Israel's Negev desert region, examples included species of cacti known to thrive in the Gold fields. As they flower mainly at night when pollinating insects are not active, techniques are being developed to hand-pollinate the flowers to produce the fruit which is then attractively boxed and marketed as exotic new fruit in Europe. It is the novelty, and the timing to a degree, and you are in with a chance.
The size of the market in a place like London, where there are as many people as there are in the whole of Australia - you only want 1% of them to think, "Ah, yes, I wouldn't mind trying that." Interestingly, there was a WA food produce week at Selfridge's chain of stores last year. WA's agent-general, Clive Griffiths, was instrumental in organising that. It was immensely popular. Some of the fruit juices and drinks sold out in the first few days. There were tastings going on. I thought it was interesting to see a local, boutique brewery, trying to get their product into a country like England, dispensing it in little pill cups. You couldn't taste the stuff. Anyway, they had gone to all the trouble to get over there, right in front of the market, and then gave them something that would barely wet their tongue.
Presentation in marketing is of prime importance also. Labels carrying Aboriginal patterns and motifs would add a distinctive touch to a range of products on the shelves. I hark back to the example of the packaging of Rooibos Tea. That tea had healing properties, and was used by the San Bushmen as a face wash, dermal as well as internal use. It really makes me wonder at the potential of some of our local plants for health-giving properties. Why was it used by the Aborigines? Why hasn't the work been done to find out why it was used? I guess, coming from the boondocks and not having access to answers to these sorts of questions that keep cropping up has hardened me to the degree, where you can't afford to ponder those things for too long because you just can't get anywhere. The advent of the internet has really brought us up to the mainstream now, when it comes to accessing information about some of these things. So it was with some disappointment that I realised that the work just hadn't been done on a lot of the plants that are indigenous to the Goldfields.
As an example, there are plants up there that are not even recorded as growing there. There was a recent edition of the Society for Growing Australian Plants booklet, a little journal called Australian Plants, that spoke about a plant that is grown commercially, called Bursaria spinosa, to produce a drug called aesculin that I believe is used for the treatment of heart disease. That article stated that it grew in every state of Australia except WA and NT Yet it grows between Menzies and Leonora. This plant is a thorny little thing. You start to realise that plants out in that area that have survived have usually got some quality or attribute that enabled them to survive, and I don't mean just surviving environmental conditions. We have changed that landscape drastically in a little over one hundred years that we have been out there. The first thing we did when we started mining was to cut down all the decent-sized trees for fuel to burn for water desalination or to produce power. We have altered the ecosystem enormously, taken out the dominant species of the whole ecosystem. The next thing we did was bring in a lot of cloven-hoofed herbivores that took out most of the understorey. We still continue to harvest Sandalwood and Mulga (Acacia aneura), a couple of the survivors. It is largely a rape and pillage mentality that prevails up there. There are not enough votes out there to stop it; to try and learn what was originally there or to do anything about it.
So, this plant (Bursaria spinosa) is a survivor because it has thorns that stop the grazers getting into it, until it gets to about 4 metres high. It is still palatable, and I have seen where cows and camels pushed it over so they can get at the tops of it. It has occurred to me that if you could figure out how to direct-seed it, you could grow it as a living fence line on a pastoral property, and have a harvestable commodity at the same time.
There is another fascinating little plant that grows in the North Eastern Goldfields and out at Warburton, that has enormous potential in the horticultural industry as a garden specimen. Pukara Thryptomene masoneuvii. Beautiful plant, flowers in winter. The old people used to hold a bowl underneath it and tap the branches. The frozen flowers would fall into the bowl, be steeped in water and make in to a drink. Now if that had some health-giving properties, imagine the marketing potential of it.
Where do the Aboriginal people get involved in this? Are they going to have ownership rights to Bush foods lock, stock and barrel? Or is some company going to come along and decide, here is an opportunity, here is the pastoral property, here is the water, we will just monoculture the whole thing. I'd venture to say there is going to be a lot of money made out of the Bush food industry whether Aboriginal people are involved in it or not. It is going to happen regardless. I would like to see them involved sooner rather than later.
I think we have many plants that have potential in the Goldfields, on which insufficient research has been carried out.
There are some bright spots though. Pending a successful funding application, the recently formed Northern Goldfields Rangeways Strategy Group will undertake a study of the Aboriginal knowledge base of the region. In adopting this as its first major project before others short-listed for consideration, the group recognised the importance of collating this information before more is lost. This study will include traditional botanical knowledge, and will undoubtedly reveal more plant species, once widely used, which can gain acceptance in the bush food industry. The Northern Goldfields Rangeways Strategy Group was set up with assistance from the Ag Dept., Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, CSIRO and other organisations. We got a lot of assistance from the CSIRO to develop a mapping system that is incredibly convoluted and complex. Ultimately what it was to do was to produce a map of best-fit to represent the various, lets call them wishes and aspirations, for the future use of that land. I am on that committee representing a group called Diversifiers. Now you can imagine that the pastoralists wishes were not always the same as the mining companies wishes or those of the tourism group and the prospector's group and the Aboriginal groups and the conservation group. The trick was to try to express the wishes of those groups and then overlay them so that we can come up with a map of best-fit. We came up with a computer-program that had the potential to generate 1054 different maps. That really didn't achieve much. Unfortunately, it became far too unwieldy and cumbersome to derive much from. I hope an outcome easier to use will be worked on.
Another other aspect of that group's work is in sourcing funding. This is an important issue. It's just about a profession now, accessing funding. There is plenty of it out there, but getting hold of it can be a full-time job.
We have two different Aboriginal groups represented within our study area, which is basically from Menzies to Wiluna; we are hopeful we will get the funding and can begin work. Arpad Kalatos from Perth has already done a lot of this work, but there is still plenty that needs to be done.
Apart from the food plants, traditionally considered in the bush food industry, other opportunities exist: food not directly derived from plant source. For example, honey ants, Wichetty grubs. The latter retail for $2 to $3 each plus packaging and postage.
Dyes, fibres, craftgoods, specialty timber and products for the floriculture industry, are all possibilities. Our Pearly Blue bush, Mariana sedifolia, is exported from South Africa and Israel to the Dutch flower markets. The figure is a bit dated, but I heard 16,000 bunches a year were being sold. Mulla Mulla, Ptilotus exaltatus, recently received high acclaim from potted plant growers in Europe.
In land restoration programs, attention should be given towards growing a suite of plants biased toward providing financial benefits in the form of seed collection, stock foods and carbon credits, as well as improving diversity and rehabilitation of degraded lands.
The volume of product required by major players in the global market, coupled with achieving continuity of supply, can present a daunting picture for individual companies. Not everybody in the industry will be a producer. Greater degrees of specialisation will evolve, the same way the nursery industry has evolved here in the last thirty years: from a grower supplying a consumer to specialist growers and propagators supplying wholesalers who use specialist transporters to deliver the product to retail garden centres who sell it to consumers, along with gift lines, morning teas and a whole lot of other add-ons.
Cooperation between participants on a regional scale must ultimately be the way forward to develop the potential of this emerging industry.
There will, I believe, be lots of different levels of specialisation within this industry, as it evolves. I think there will be a relatively small percentage of participants who will be doing everything themselves, collecting and propagating seed, growing it on, harvesting, marketing. I think it really does need to be done on a regional scale, which also brings the benefit of regional branding. If we try to compete in a global market against a product like Rooibos tea, we need to be looking at regional branding. I think we can justifiably lay claim to the fact that our products are coming from the cleanest state in the cleanest continent and from that perspective aiming at the clean, green market.