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Well - we were all soooper enthusiastic back then.. from Qld Country Life, 2000

Native food industry moves ahead

BY MARILYN FLYNN

9/02/2000 5:00:22 PM

GROWING Australian native foods - or bush tucker as it is otherwise known - is as close to ''farmer nirvana'' as agriculturalists are likely to get. This is according to native food producer Larry Geno, who explains:

''This is farming a crop where there's no competition from overseas or the neighbours. ''It's an industry where we're growing demand as we grow the crops - we're not serving the market, we're creating it.'' Of course, this fledgling industry still has a long way to go, despite the fact it has moved well beyond the early days of ''wild harvests''.

At that time - around 15 years ago - the industry was largely the domain of a handful of urban-based entrepreneurs who periodically supplied niche markets with product of varying quality and limited supply.

Today, native foods are gaining popularity beyond the hip metropolitan cafes.

Afterall, a large percentage of this produce is now being processed and incorporated into food lines such as jams and relishes, although these are still more commonly found at markets and delis than in the supermarkets. Yet it appears consumers are gradually acquiring a taste for the unique flavours of native foods, while also tapping into their unique nutritional qualities.

''The nutrition has been bred out of many crops over thousands of years of development in favour of size, colour, sweetness, etc,'' Mr Geno said. He said overbreeding and hybridisation had also made conventional crops virtually dependent on chemicals to combat pests and disease In contrast, he described native food plants as ''smart''. ''Wild plants, in general, have those capabilities still remaining.

Many of the flavours we're utilising in bush foods are oils which are generated by the plant to repel insects or disease - you get pest and disease resistance and strong flavours all in one.'' Mr Geno said these characteristics, coupled with a growing market, presented opportunities for traditional farmers. Having worked with new and tree crops for the past 25 years, and having established the first native food plantation on the east coast near Lismore, Mr Geno said the industry gave farmers the opportunity to create ''viable bio-diversity'' in their operations.

''Primary producers are constantly under attack. But if they can link into bio-diversity and move to more ecological farming, the more effectively they can fend off the bullets, including those being fired by government regulators.

''Of course, it's too early for a mass market and mass plantings of bush foods, but why not do something as simple as using native food trees as windbreaks and at least have the option to harvest bush food from them? ''Think of all the soil set aside for contour banks and imagine trees on top of those. ''Farmers have the ideal opportunity to move to polyculture or multi-cropping systems by using, for example, rows of wattle trees with grain planted in between. ''It offers tremendous benefits in terms of land stabilisation and rejuvenating the landscape.''

However, Mr Geno is quick to point out native food production did not offer a quick fix for both environmental and farm business concerns. Rather, his advice to interested parties is to start small with some trial plantings. Unfortunately, there is no blueprint to follow, even when it comes to trials, given that species tend to be region specific. However, Mr Geno said a general rule of thumb was to plant species which were marketable and adapted to the local environment. ''You have to walk out the door, go into the bush and find what tastes good and grows well.

''Go out and do a few trials. Plant some seed and see what it does. Find out how to use the end product. When you pick up a Davidson Plum and taste it you'll think it's too tart for anything, but add some sugar and it makes the best jam.'' Mr Geno said while rainforest environments along the coastal fringe offered the best environment for diverse plantings, inland areas should not be overlooked. ''The drier you get and the colder you get the more limited the choice but everywhere in Australia there are native fruits and nuts which thrive in that particular environment.''

The Genos have put this philosophy into practice at their Lismore plantation as well as a small Central Queensland block, located just north of Rockhampton. The block was purchased three years ago when Dr Geno was transferred to the area through her work. The couple selected the property based on its frost-free environment, sufficient water and rich, red soils. However, rich soils are not a prerequisite for all native food plants.

As Mr Geno explained, the Burdekin Plum, a large spreading tree suited to drier regions, survives well under bitumen on the banks of the Fitzroy River. To gauge what food plants may be suitable for the local area, Mr Geno undertook trial plantings of 20-30 different types of bush foods, which were established in March last year. This was no easy task given the region's bush food industry is virtually non-existent, with only a handful of interested nursery owners and small-scale growers, and a corresponding lack of performance data. ''So we started by planting a mix of local, North Queensland and some southern species including a number which did not perform well at Lismore because they prefer a drier climate.'' Included in the selection was the riberry, a reasonably widely recognised native food which grows on a medium size tree that has a reputation for being hardy and without significant pests of disease. It also produces masses of red fruits, which are multi-purpose and can be used in juices through to preserves.

However, whether the riberry or the other species are suitable for the Rockhampton climate is not yet clear. As to the cost of establishing an area to native foods, Mr Geno said those wanting to minimise costs could follow his example of buying small trees at a cheaper price and growing them out to planting size on-farm. ''At our Lismore plantation, which was initially set up as a demonstration bush food plantation, (7000 trees across 2.8ha) we were then able to keep the planted cost under $1/tree, excluding labour.''

The plantation was converted from a run-down, former dairy farm and planted using a simple approach - rip, plant, mulch and water - using a multiple-cropping approach. In other words, each row was densely planted to a mix of species, all of which grow to varying heights to form a multi-storey canopy. Mr Geno said this was central to a risk management strategy with varied and dense plantings allowing for plant failures given the questionable performance of some species. ''So we can cut out two or three species and still be left with a producing row and we've already taken out three or four that haven't done well or are not valid in market. ''It does mean we have to go to a bit more trouble at harvest, but it also means we reduce pest and disease risk and plant shade tolerant varieties.'' However, Mr Geno said for those considering producing commercially, he was suggesting single species rows.

''Have uniformity down the rows to aid in harvest, but have diversity across the rows by planting 'x' species down one and 'y' down the next and so on.'' He's hopeful relevant information will become more widely available as groups such as the recently formed Northern Bush Food Association (NBA) take shape. After several years of varying degrees of representation, the NBA will undertake such tasks as redirecting a research funding program, start looking at co-ordination of standards for export, production and marketing initiatives. * For further information about the native food industry contact Mr Geno, who is the NBFA secretary at PO Box 149, Lismore, 2480. ENDS ÿ