Mar Apr 1997
Profile Peter Hardwick
What started off in 1977 as a strategy to have the value of rainforests recognized, has taken me through a process of botanical prospecting, developing bushfood marketing strategies, new crop development, and, more recently, the formation of industry associations. Being on the cutting edge of a developing industry is a continual learning process.
Fortunately, there is a fundamental element of culture and quality that runs through the Australian cuisine movement. The perception of quality food products is critical - it's the foundation of bushfoods' recent hard-won successes. It has to taste good, and be good for you.
The bushfood industry is currently said to be worth $15 million, but the flow-on benefits to the tourism industry probably means that the industry is worth many times this figure. It makes this country a more interesting destination for visitors -breaking down this image of Australia being a slight variation on Anglosaxon culture.
The bushfood industry is as unique as native foods themselves. It's probably one of the few industries that includes indigenous cultural property rights and the environment as core ideals. Some business hardliners would see this as just 'good image' - but many bushfoodies are very real in trying to marry their ideals with reality.
It's a positive statement that an industry can also be the vehicle for enhancing and highlighting native foods. Bushfoods are like an antidote to bland takeaways.
Australian-made value-added products have a flow-on benefit for farmers. Rather than being like the cocoa growers of South America, it's important to get it right at the start and recognize that we have to establish Australia as the centre of fine quality end-products. If Australia only markets the raw bushfood product, we'll be trapped in the same low profit margin situation as most agricultural commodities. The quality of modern bush-food cuisine shows that we are capable of maintaining this as a national asset, but protection from piracy is not going to be easy.
With the farming community, the awareness of the economic value of bushfoods is beginning to function as a non-regulatory means of protecting biodiversity, with farmers retaining and making income from plants previously considered 'woody weeds', like Desert lime and Dorrigo pepper. There is a need for developing 'in-house' standards to prevent over-harvesting from the wild.
Where wild harvesting can occur, the farmers benefit from not having to put money into establishing the crop. In the subtropics of NSW, the clearing of lowland rainforests for agriculture resulted in substantial depletion of the best bushfood and so we had to focus on horticultural production right from the start.
Things like the Davidson plum and Small leaf tamarind were on the edge of extinction.
The culinary development of bushfoods was more developed in the metropolitan areas. As a result, not many local farmers perceived the opportunities, until the Greening Australia Bushfood Conference at Bangalow in '94. It was a breakthrough event that gave potential growers the first chance to see that there actually was an industry. Now we have to watch-out that we don't get an overproduction of some products, like Lemon myrtle.
The initial, small scale, mixed species plantation is an excellent strategy for risk distribution. It's a stage-by-stage process of increasing production as the market demand grows, with ecological qualities that enhance the wildfood marketing opportunities. It has been difficult for many farmers to accept the unconventional polyculture methods but there are many variations on this theme.
Bushfoods are important to the rural economy, especially with the current low prices in the agricultural commodity sector and, more so, given that Australia's climate is considered the most variable of any continent in the world.
The bushfood phenomena is an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural benefits of a more refined relationship with the natural resources of this country.
The recognition of Aboriginal cuisine and its place in modern Australian culture is inherently part of the reconciliation process. Various national cuisines have influenced modern bushfood recipes. Traditional knowledge plays a very important role in presentation, like paper bark wrapping and establishing the authenticity with Aboriginal names. More fundamentally, traditional indigenous knowledge has determined the safety of many bushfoods.
Bushfoods are a valuable bridge between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Food, like art, has a common language element. However, sometimes it seems like a big stretch between modern economics and traditional culture. The "working together" offer has been made by many elders, but it's difficult for disenfranchised communities to find the funds for bushfood development. Wild harvesting offers immediate cash-flow in some communities, especially with products like akudjira (Desert tomato) in Central Australia.
Through the democratic bushfood organisations, we are seeing a linking-up of regional and sectional bush-food talent. Ongoing success lies in the synthesis of the various creative approaches in agronomic production and cuisine. There is a massive diversity of bushfoods and this implies an obvious need to encourage and train new people to become involved with native foods on all levels.
Bushfoods have a gold-rush aspect about them at the moment, but people need to realize that it's not a simple way to make money.
With developing bushfood standards, there has to be a balance between establishing consistency and not foregoing potential market niches. Many rural industries have lost opportunities for developing new niche markets by focusing on standardisation and limiting varietal range. Say we locked into one particular Riberry flavour - we may lose the chance to develop other interesting flavoured Riberries.
From a horticultural point-of-view some bushfoods have inherent features that put them 'up-there' with the best horticultural crops in the world.
The NSW Davidson plum, Davidsonia jerseyana, is extraordinary in its capacity to begin bearing very young as a seedling tree, with an excellent ability for high yields in partial shade. The Desert lime, Eremocitrus glauca, is the most drought and cold tolerant citrus in the world. Our aromatic spice leaf products are revealing Australia as an awakening spice continent. The edible seeded wattles could, in the future, begin replacing annual cereals and pulses as drought hardy food staples.
Within fifty years, maybe less, some bushfoods could play a significant role in global food security. However, it's always important to remember that this is vision - not current reality! Making it a reality means research and development, and while fundamental bushfood research has produced tangible results, it would be more effective if that work was funded.
The bushfood phenomenon is an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural benefits of a more refined relationship with the natural resources of this country. It's worth mentioning that botanist Joseph Maiden pointed out many of these useful bushfood species in the 1880s, but was obviously going against the prevailing opinion of the day.
A hundred years later, we've found the right formula to make it work -linking botanical prospecting and cu‑
Peter Hardwick, based on the Far North Coast of NSW, was one of the original visionaries of the bush-food industry. He identified the market potential and pioneered the horticultural development of subtropical bushfoods like riberry, Davidson plum, lemon myrtle and Dorrigo pepper. Peter continues to work with identifying and developing bushfood crops. He is currently teaching bushfoods and working to establish bush-food associations. He is much sought after for workshops and sight visits and he does undertake some consultancy work. He is the current president of ARBIA (the Australian Rainforest Bushfood Industry Association).
(Peter made time in his busy schedule to write this article and for this I am extremely grateful.)
Cullinary creativity in a new mood of recognition of Aboriginality.
I find it exciting to consider that we could take this formula and apply it to the undeveloped botanical resources and cultures of many countries - in the process not only creating wealth in a positive way but also saving biodiversity and traditions that may otherwise go under with the dozer and the fast food culture.
I would like to wish Sammy Ringer and Australian Bushfood magazine best wishes for the future - creating the links between far-flung corners of the bushfood industry.
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