Food waste: a Colombian/Australian perspective

In trying to get a better understanding of our food system, I find it helpful to look at different perspectives and see things through different people’s eyes. I remember having some fascinating conversations with a former colleague Asseneth Quintero, who at the time had recently moved to Australia from Colombia, about differences in the way that we purchase our food. Asseneth kindly agreed to write down some of these observations in a guest blog which I have shared below. “Food waste: eat seasonal, cook humble, be appreciative” “Food waste struck me when Susie invited me to share my personal observations on how fresh food is marketed, consumed and sold in Australia and Colombia. Thanks to their diverse climate, both countries enjoy the fortune of having fresh produce available all year round. Similarly, both countries’ produce are highly regarded in international markets. Australia is internationally acclaimed for its produce of beef, dairy, fruit and vegetables. According to Austrade, more than two thirds of Australia’s produce are exported each year. Similarly, Colombia has made its mark on the global map for its premium-quality coffee and bananas. 2013-07-17 02.51.39-2But where these two countries widely differ is on how food is wasted. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year, being the major causes for waste: production-to-retailing infrastructure and consumer behaviour, according to a study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food waste can then be distilled into how fresh produce is marketed, consumed and sold in each country. Little advertising vs MasterChef-level marketing In Colombia, fresh food consumption is driven by seasonality rather than by marketing. Buying fresh food is so deeply embedded in Colombian culture that it needs no marketing. I can only recall advertising from peak industry bodies. For instance, Fedegan, the nation’s peak body representing livestock producers, regularly promotes beef over other mutually-exclusive products, just like Meat & Livestock Australia’s latest campaign ‘You are better on beef’. Otherwise, very little advertising goes into promoting fresh food. On the contrary, a great marketing effort goes into driving demand for fresh produce in Australia. Peak industry bodies, cooking television shows, renowned chefs’ cookbooks and specialty magazines actively promote home cooking. These efforts incentivise the use of fresh produce at heart. However, these marketing efforts also put a price tag on fresh produce by elevating its status—making it unaffordable for many. Food waste starts when we give cosmetic and gourmet characteristics to fresh produce. According to Food Wise, an estimated 20% to 40% of fruit and vegetables get rejected due to cosmetic standards. Not all produce meets the catalogue-look standard to make it to the shelves of supermarkets, let alone the award-winning look to make it to the consumer’s dinner plate. The bruised apple and the weird-shaped carrot have just been sentenced to rejection. Humble home cooking vs sophisticated eating Certainly, roulades and three-way dishes do not find a place on the average Colombian cook’s recipe book. Colombians instead cook humble meals that are quick to prepare and do the job: relieve hunger, a basic human need. Juggling tight budgets and with large families to feed, most Colombians recall their mothers or grandmothers saying: ‘eat it all! Don’t leave anything on your plate’. Colombians are taught to be appreciative of food, as you never know when you will be unable to put some on the table. The MasterChef-level marketing has left its footprint on Australia’s eating behaviours, especially on generation Y. Research has found that popularity of television cooking shows has sparked the purchase of household cooking items. Similarly, this trend has also boosted the complexity of dishes prepared at home. This trend contrast starkly with the reality of everyday life. Full of inspiration, supplied with only the best fresh produce and equipped with all kitchen utensils, Australians venture into recreating amazing dishes at home—a home cook’s paradise. Contrarily, research found that Australians reach for more takeaways and out-of-home meals than for the fridge door. No blame. This new benchmark is disheartening. With long working hours, hectic lifestyles and inflated expectations, home cooks are surely better off picking up some food on their way home. And this very reasoning leads to $2.67 billion worth of fresh food being thrown away every year in Australia—33% of all food wasted in a year in Australia. According to Food Wise, one of the top reasons for fresh food waste is buying takeaways at the last minute. Australia is not alone on this trend though. Food waste is an epidemic issue in the developed world. Down to being appreciative Consumption of fresh produce is endemic in Colombian major cities. Fresh produce is available virtually anywhere. Colombians can easily reach for fresh ingredients to put a meal together. Almost every suburb has a market where cooks can indulge in fresh ingredients at very reasonable prices. The convenience of having fresh produce at hand influences purchase behaviour. It’s not unusual to buy dinner ingredients at lunch time of the very same day. This flexibility also allows Colombians to buy in small quantities. You can easily buy $0.50 worth of thyme just before you start cooking. Flexibility in quantities and availability aid to give access to fresh food to many—even those trying to make ends meet. Low prices and abundance seems like a home cook’s paradise. However, it is not without putting a strain on farmers. The agricultural sector in Colombia is fragmented with farmers producing low volume. Since not much attention goes into cosmetic traits, most fresh produce doesn’t meet international standards. Farmers therefore become dependent and vulnerable to local demand. During high season of any given crop, selling price might not even cover for transport and distribution costs. Sadly, it results on food going to waste without even have left the farms. While Colombians are very appreciative of food, we might not be as appreciative of our farmers—a contradictory behaviour among many in this country. Australia’s reality in this area seems quite different. Farmers have the latest production technologies. Supported by well-developed infrastructure, fresh produce excess makes its way to international markets. In the local demand arenas, chain supermarkets dominate the supply chain, and make sure consumers pay a fair price for fresh produce. However, —as in any relationship—the bargaining power of the dominant party increases exponentially when power is unbalanced among the parties. This is the reason some farmers have turned to develop their own brands and distribution channels to bring their produce to consumers. As in many areas of my life, being a Colombian-Aussie has brought the best out of me. I have become more appreciative of food and farmers alike. I now turn weird-shaped apples, bought at the local fresh market, into amazing-looking apple tarts. Most importantly, I make sure my husband eats it all, so no food goes to waste. Despite good intentions, I have to admit I still run to the closest takeaway shop all too often as my busy lifestyle kicks in. Another great difference that I can’t let pass is apple and pear production. Unlike Australia, Colombia’s production doesn’t meet local demand. They are therefore imported, mostly from Chile and the United States. I hope the yummy South Australian apples and pears find their way to Colombia one day. For those who want to learn more about food waste, here is a list of useful resources:

Shopping day

Today was my shopping day. Now, on the whole I don’t particularly enjoy grocery shopping – it is one more thing to fit in to an already busy week. My local independent supermarket does a pretty good job of having an interesting range of quality products, which helps a little bit, but on the whole, it is just one more job to get done.

I do however, enjoy my visit to the butcher and today was no different. So what is the difference? What does my local butcher provide that I can’t find elsewhere?

Sense of connection and trust

My butcher is more than just a place to buy meat. My butcher and I are on first name terms. We share all sorts of stories and local news. As with many other of their customers, I have shared in the roller coaster ride that he and his wife have been on over the past 6 months when their son was born 14 weeks premature. In turn, I share with him what is happening in the apple and pear industry and find points of common interest. He always has a slice of fritz on hand for my children if I have them in tow. I do not know him outside of the butcher’s shop, but have a real sense of connection with him which helps to build a sense of trust.

Knowledge and trust

My butcher tells me all about the meat he sells, where it comes from and what is good at different times of the year. He gives me good, reliable advice on the best way to prepare different cuts of meat. In return, he often asks me for feedback on what he is selling. He genuinely wants to make sure that he is delivering the best possible quality, so he listens to his customers. Today he wanted to know if I was happy with the taste of the sirloin steak I have been buying recently as we move into winter pastures and the appearance of the local grass-fed beef changes. I could gladly report that it is still eating well and I now have a greater appreciation of the impact of changing seasons on meat quality. He is open about his product and as a result, I trust it.

Quality and trust

He consistently supplies a very good quality product and if on the extremely rare occasion I am not happy with something, I know that I can give feedback and he will go out of his way to supply me with something better next time. I don’t even think about buying my meat elsewhere as I can trust him to deliver a great product every time.

So what can the food and agriculture industry learn from this? What can we do to build that sense of connection with the consumer? How can we share our knowledge with them? How can we make sure we deliver a quality product and build in a feedback loop to make sure we know when we are going wrong?

These are not new questions and there is no one simple answer. However I am sure that I am not the only consumer that is fed up with the sterility of the shopping aisles. I certainly understand the draw to places like the central market and farmers markets, where there is atmosphere and vibrancy. It doesn’t however, particularly suit my life at the moment to drive 30 minutes or more for my regular shop and it doesn’t suit me to always shop when the markets are open. I love the convenience of being able to shop locally at a time that suits me and supermarkets (and my local butcher) provide most of what I need. It is a fact of life that supermarkets provide food for the vast majority of our population and will continue to do so. But I believe there is something really key missing – the sense of the food that we are buying being more than just a commodity, the sense of knowledge about our food and its seasonality, the sense of connection to where it is grown and in turn, a sense of trust.

At a recent apple orchard open day, many parents reported to me that they brought their children along to show them where their food comes from. Parents and children alike relished the experience to be able to wander an orchard, pick fruit directly from the tree and soak up their surroundings – smells, sounds, sights and flavours combined to form long lasting and tangible memories.

IMG_3862It is not possible or practical to take all shopping experiences back to the source of production. However, imagine the impact if some of that experience could somehow be brought into the shops and retail outlets in exciting and creative ways! Here lies a challenge for our industry!

Embracing change

The self propelled robot navigates its way along a row of fruit trees, constantly checking its location to ensure its wheels are placed to within a few centimetres precision of where it needs to be. It takes many thousands of images and measurements of the tree canopy in a split second, assessing fruit quality, colour, size and ripeness. Based on the information collected, it harvests only fruit that is at perfect colour and ripeness. The fruit that is picked by the robot is then once again photographed several times. Blemished fruit is separated out. A wealth of information is collected by the robot about each individual piece of fruit, down to which individual bud on which branch on which tree it was picked from. This information is compiled and analysed to adjust future management decisions.

Robotic fruit picker

Image of robot used by Salah Sukkarieh, professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney

The supermarket shelves consist of fresh produce of colours, forms, shapes, sizes and tastes like we have never seen before. There is also food that has been produced by 3D printers, made to a precise formula to provide specific nutritional needs and more consistently than ever before possible to meet pre-determined flavour profiles.

Fresh produce is no longer just grown in rural areas. It is also grown in cities, in specially built warehouses, on city walls and rooftops, in closed loop systems that use recycled city water.

Consumers can scan a printed QR code on their fruit or vegetables to get nutritional information, recipe ideas and information on where the produce came from and how it was grown. This is matched against their individual taste preferences, determined by brain scans to provide suggestions on what they should purchase.

Am I talking science fiction, a future that our children may experience many years down the track? Absolutely not! This is picture that is almost a reality now and will more than likely occur within the next ten to twenty years.

Robotic technology is advanced and already exists in many arenas. Scientists tell us that we will quite possibly have commercial robotic apple harvesters within 10 years. Advanced breeding programs mean we are seeing a range of new and exciting fruit and vegetable cultivars coming onto the market at a rate never seen before. 3D printing is a reality and NASA is already creating food for the space program using that technology. Vertical farms and warehouse farms are already a reality.

These changes described alone may sound sterile and surreal, and like any change may invoke feelings of fear and trepidation. But these innovations will not replace our existing food system. Instead, they will add many new layers of complexity, richness and excitement to our food and serve to bring about different ways of producing food. Food will continue to remain at the centre piece of our social fabric and bring great pleasure and enjoyment.

Just as we have been innovating since the beginning of mankind, so we will continue to innovate. Australian agriculture continues to lead the way in innovation, steeped in a history of resourcefulness and incredible adaptability. Our modern farmers have to adapt and change their practices at a very rapid pace to stay competitive. They are constantly seeking to improve their management and find new tools to not only take care of our fragile landscapes, but also improve them, all the while seeking to provide safe and healthy food.

The modern farmer is a far cry from the stereotypical and sometimes patronizing images that often bombard our television screens and magazines. They are, in every sense of the word, professionals, going about doing their jobs to the very best of their ability. It is because of their constant innovation that our farming practices have evolved and that the quality and choice of food available to us today is greater than ever before.

We are spoilt for diversity in choice of how our food has been produced and the types of foods that are available to us. This is only a reality through innovation in all kinds of farming systems. As an industry, we are also fortunate to be able to provide a wide range of opportunities for enthusiastic individuals seeking innovation and diversity.

No matter what our food choices are, we can all be grateful for innovation.

The real cost of perfect food

According to the recently released National Food Plan, it is estimated that a whopping 30 to 50 per cent of all food produced on the planet is not eaten. In Australia, on average each person generates roughly 360 kilograms of food waste every year.

These figures are staggering. In order to feed an ever growing population, we cannot just continue to strive for greater production efficiencies without ignoring the issue of food waste.

There are various reasons for food wastage that occur. For many of us, food that goes off in our refrigerator before we get to eat it or left-overs from restaurants that get discarded are the obvious ones.

However a significant degree of waste is also occurring as a by-product of our seemingly insatiable demand for fresh produce that looks perfect, has consistent eating quality and is of perfect size and colour. Much of this waste is not even taken into account in the quoted figures above!

Fresh produce that does not meet a required specification is often discarded before it even leaves the field. Perfectly good food is rejected for a minor blemish or for being the wrong colour, size or shape.

Further, growers are having to go to extraordinary lengths to produce this “perfect” produce; investing heavily in complex growing systems and fighting a battle they can never win completely to iron out the “imperfections” of nature. It takes a lot of effort and costs a lot of money to grow the perfect piece of fruit and vegetable. It takes even more effort to grow an entire field of exactly the same perfect fruit or vegetables.

I would like to share the story of how Australia’s apple growers are tackling this challenge.

Right now as we move into winter, apple growers around the country are beginning a year-long challenge of fruit production. They are taking care of post-harvest nutrition to ensure that the trees have plenty of reserves as they go into dormancy. They are also beginning the process of winter pruning, which goes on for many months. Every single tree in an orchard is pruned by hand. Pruning is a complex science and also an art form that sets down the shape of the tree for the coming year, its vigour and how many pieces of fruit will be carried by each tree. Every tree may be pruned several times over to achieve the desired result. It is one of the most fundamental processes in a commercial apple orchard, but also one of the most labour intensive. 20120724_162910Modern orchards are planted at very high tree densities and dwarfing rootstocks to enable greater control over tree vigour and allow for pruning trees to a shape that allows for even light distribution throughout the canopy. This is critical in achieving even colour distribution and fruit ripening.

The amount of fruit that each tree carries directly affects the size of the fruit. So this is a key consideration in all orchard activities. For example, growers strive to grow a Pink Lady apple of a 75 mm diameter, because this has been shown to be the size of apple that consumers are looking for. Apples significantly bigger or smaller than this just won’t sell as well.

As we head into spring and the first blossoms appear, some growers may also consider a process of root pruning, where the tree roots are gently ripped to reduce tree vigour and improve consistency of yields from one year to the next. Bee hives are introduced into orchards to assist with pollination. Good pollination is critical in achieving target yields and the target number of fruit per tree.20121001_102029

Then growers assess the numbers of flowers and viable fruit buds. On many trees, various methods of fruit thinning are then required to reduce the crop load. This is usually achieved through a mixture of chemical applications of plant hormones to induce some shedding, followed up by hand thinning. This is another manual process that occurs during spring, where excess fruit is individually picked off each tree and thrown onto the ground.20121025_165448Through the season, growers then continually monitor and assess the growth of their trees as well as the size of the fruit. Often, growers will go through and do a summer prune to remove excess canopy that is shading the fruit – another manual process.

Growers also closely monitor pests and diseases and use integrated pest management techniques to minimise any damage to fruit. In the heat of summer, sunscreen may even be applied in periods of extreme heat to minimise the effects of fruit sunburn (a special food-safe fruit sunscreen)! Often extremely expensive netting structures are used to avoid damage from birds.

Closer to harvest, if fruit size is a problem growers will adjust their water and nutrient management accordingly, and also may consider a second hand-thinning. Many growers also roll out a reflective matting onto the ground surface that helps reflect light into the lower canopy and improve evenness of fruit colour.IMG_3027

At harvest, all picking is done by hand, to ensure fruit is not bruised or damaged. At this point, any obviously blemished, pale, misshapen or poorly sized fruit is discarded straight onto the ground. Fruit is picked at the correct ripeness for its storage needs, then immediately cooled as quickly as possible to ensure it is maintained at optimum freshness. IMG_3057IMG_3044 Fruit that is identified to be at risk of not storing well will be sold straight away. Fruit that is to be stored for longer will be kept in high tech cool rooms where gas levels and moisture levels are controlled to ensure maximum fruit quality after storage.

At the point of packing, growers have to aim for at least a 90% pack out rate. This means that at least 90% of the fruit they supply to the pack house will be sold as first grade fruit. As much as possible of this fruit needs to be of the optimum size range to get the best returns. Any lower pack out rate, or if they get the sizing wrong, they will be losing money. The returns on second grade fruit going to juice or processing just aren’t enough to tip this balance.20130130_092730All their activities throughout the year are targeted towards providing a product that is deemed in demand by the general consumer. What is referred to in industry as the “mars bar fruit” – something that looks and eats exactly the same every time, no matter what part of the tree or orchard it comes from.

This story is not unique to the apple industry. It is across all fresh fruit and vegetable production.

So the question becomes is all this effort and in-field wastage really necessary? Further more, by the very essence of demanding consistency of product, are we as a result creating a more mediocre eating experience? Are we providing a consistently good product, but missing out on the surprise experiences that occur through natural variability and complexity.

Are we jeopardizing the very variability that is essential to natural order and life? Are we missing the chance natural genetic mutations that may provide new opportunities for further exciting eating experiences?

What are your thoughts? What do you look for when you go to buy your fruit and vegetables?

 

How those three small steps are changing my purchasing habits for the better

In my blog Three things we can all do to make a difference I challenged myself to make three small changes when I go shopping to try and make a difference to my purchasing habits.

I set myself the task of:

  1. Checking the labels on at least three different items to make sure my choices were locally grown and produced.
  2. Asking a shopkeeper if I couldn’t find a local option or wasn’t sure of the labeling.
  3. Sharing with my friends and social media networks about fabulous local brands

Now into the third week of this challenge, I am really pleased to say that I am gradually changing my habits and I feel great about it.

I am discovering new things about what is and isn’t available and am making conscious decisions about what I am buying. Looking and taking notice is starting to become a habit, rather than a chore.

On the weekend just gone I set about preparing for our Sunday afternoon ritual of enjoying home made wood oven pizzas. I ventured into the local independent supermarket and sourced some wonderful, local ingredients. I found a superb artisan wood smoked prosciutto that was no more expensive than any of the commercial imported brands. This went beautifully with some fresh South Australian La Casa Del Formaggio Bocconcini and Lucia’s Fine Foods olives, and the finely sliced Red Anjou pear from Paracombe was a highlight!

The enjoyment of sharing wonderful, freshly prepared food with family was particularly special because I knew that by and large, everything we were eating was grown, made and produced by an Australian farmer and food company. Even more special was the fact that most of it was produced within a 50 km radius of our home.

However I am also making some discoveries on this journey. I now know that most packaged ham is made from local and imported ingredients (don’t ask me why). I now know that a large percentage of fruit juices are made from 100% imported juice concentrate and diluted with Australian water to show a label of made from imported and local ingredients.

I also have a much greater appreciation of just how confusing our labeling systems are and how many discrepancies there are in the standards. Often labels will not even show if a product is made and/or grown in Australia.

I was in the Adelaide Central Markets on Saturday morning, an icon of Adelaide renowned for its atmosphere and range of produce. I was astounded to see that in a market where many shoppers go specifically to source local produce, there was no enforcement of country of origin labeling. Californian cherries were proudly on display front and centre of one stall with no indication whatsoever that they were imported. The only giveaway to the discerning eye were the few loose, empty boxes that they had arrived in strewn under the stall.

I also know that I need to work on raising my voice further, because instead of questioning the stallholder I walked away under the excuse that I was in a hurry.

So my journey of change continues. As I grow in confidence that what I am doing is making a difference, I am more determined than ever to share my story and encourage everyone to join me. So if you are prepared to join me in this challenge, let’s raise our voices together and help spread the word!

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Earth, Water, Wind, Fire – Part 2

Water

tap_water-otherAs human beings, our need for water is basic and fundamental. The access to clean drinking water is one of our primary humanitarian needs. However, water is also integrally linked to food and fibre production. Without water, plants would not grow and animals would not survive. We also use water for industry and in our daily lives in many ways. Our entire planetary ecosystem is ultimately dependent on water.

Australia is a land of extremes, with crippling drought and raging floods all too familiar to us all. Water is not something that we take for granted and it never seems to be available in the quantities we need when we really need it. There are also competing needs for water, with difficult struggles to ensure all stakeholders have an equitable share.

Approximately 67% of all water used in Australia goes towards producing food and fibre through irrigation (2004 ABS data). This water generates an annual irrigated farm revenue of $9.6 billion! The remainder of our food and fibre production relies on water from natural rainfall.

However irrigators also share the pain and stress of water shortages. Their whole livelihoods rely on reliable access to water. And it is not only their livelihoods, it is the livelihoods and social well being of whole communities that those farmers support.

The story that I want to share here is one that shows how Australian farmers are among the most efficient users of water in the world. Our innovators and researchers are constantly seeking new ways to grow more food and fibre with less water. Our farmers are embracing world leading water management methods. Internationally, we are leading the way in water management and others are looking to us to learn from our experiences.

I don’t say that flippantly. I have been lucky enough to travel to many of the most significant irrigation areas in the world. From my observations our adoption of technology and careful, judicious use of water is paralleled in very few other regions, and certainly not to the wide extent it is here.

Professor of Water and Environmental policy, Mike Young, from the University of Adelaide recently backed up this assessment when he shared with ABC Rural his view that Australian irrigators are by far the best in the world and that the rest of the world is now looking to us for water management solutions.

This has not happened over night. It has been a huge industry effort, with many great minds working on this challenge for many years; well before the recent droughts and woes of the Murray Darling Basin brought our perilous water situation into sharp focus of the general population.

The Irrigated Crop Management Service was first set up in Loxton South Australia in the 1980’s and introduced for the first time a holistic approach to water management, tailoring the amount of water applied to the varying soil requirements through soil mapping and soil water measurement. This was an introduction to early concepts of Precision Farming well ahead of its time.

At around the same time, soil water measurement and monitoring services were being established in cotton growing regions of NSW, to fine tune the amount of water being applied to match the crop needs.

Thanks to the early innovators driving industry forward, these two regions can be classified as highly efficient irrigators with extremely high adoption rates of new technologies and management techniques.

Private innovative Australian companies such as Sentek Technologies then successfully commercialized new products in the early 1990’s, which enhanced these approaches and introduced the concept of integrated soil water management to the rest of the world. Many other exciting and innovative products and approaches have been developed by Australian companies since. These approaches have been widely recognised and adopted by consultants and irrigators alike.

100_0181Ground breaking research has been conducted in Australia on enhancing quality of fruit crops through regulated deficit irrigation, where water is withheld at critical times of the growing season. The practices are now adopted commonly in the wine grape and stone fruit industries to achieve exceptional quality with reduced amounts of water. Peter Dry’s team at the Waite Institute revealed Partial Rootzone Drying to the world, where the approach of only watering part of the plant’s root zone at any particular time enabled significant water savings in some crops without impacting on yield or quality.

Our plant researchers are also hard at work to develop new plant genotypes that are more drought tolerant and use less water.

Without a doubt, we still need to strive to do more, and produce more with less. We need to work through our policies to ensure our water resources are shared fairly and that we all have access to the water required to meet our basic needs. Once again though, despite all the difficulties and hurdles we are going through at the moment, Australia is leading the way in setting sound policies to secure our future water resources. These are difficult negotiations as they impact on so many people’s livelihoods, but the ground work being laid now will hopefully ensure the long term security of our water resources.

As the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia can stand up and be proud of our achievements and how far we have come in the last 30 years!

Click here to read Part 1 of the Earth, Water, Wind, Fire series of blogs, which takes you one a journey underneath our feet.

Reflections of an apple orchard in Autumn

One thing that farmers are often overlooked for is their deep affinity for the land. A farmer has an intrinsic sense of appreciation for the physical landscapes around them and never takes them for granted.

I am fortunate to live on an apple orchard and every single day I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am. No matter how stressed or unhappy I may be after a particularly difficult day, a walk around the property has an incredibly calming effect. It never ceases to amaze me how often my breath is taken away by the beauty of my surroundings.

cropped-img_0838.jpgAutumn in the heart of apple growing country is in particular a very special time of year. It is the time when the long toils of the year come to fruition, when the fruit ripens and is harvested. It is a hive of activity!

The sounds of autumn here are listening to the low rumble of tractors shifting bins of apples, the clank of ladders and the gentle chatter of pickers in the orchard. It is the growl of trucks carrying bins of fruit to be packed or stored, with a steady line of trucks heading to the cool stores well into the evening. It also means very long working days as growers start at first light, pick all day, then work to get bins out for the next day and put fruit away late into the night,

IMG_3050Autumn is also when the night temperatures drop, with cold, crisp mornings followed by clear, sunny days. The cool nights and warm sunshine combine to bring out the best possible colours and flavours in the fruit. The cold morning air and hint of frost or dew on the ground takes your breath away when you take the first few steps outside, then invigorates your body. Before long, the sun creeps up over the horizon and gradually warms you through. Then as the sun plummets over the horizon again at the end of the day, so does the temperature, ready to begin the cycle again.

Autumn in an orchard is also a brilliant display of colour, with leaves changing to a kaleidoscope of yellows after the fruit has been harvested. By late afternoon, the dusty air filters the sunshine to a golden yellow, reflecting off the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees and the dry grassy paddocks nearby, contrasting with the deep greens of the orchard grass and the brilliant pinks and reds of the fruit still ripening on the trees.

100_2457In an apple orchard, Autumn is also characterized by the sweet smell of ripe fruit on the trees and in the cool rooms, and discarded fruit fermenting on the orchard floor. The smells of autumn in an apple orchard are divine!

But the greatest joy of all is biting into a crisp, sweet, juicy apple that has been freshly picked from the tree. Savouring the loud crunch resonating through your ears, the intense flavours and magnificent juiciness.

As harvest draws to a close and winter approaches, now is the time where apple growers take stock, review their activities for the year and consider the commercial gains or losses of their enterprise. However it is also a time to pause and be grateful for having the privilege to be caretakers of this amazing corner of the world and to provide fresh, healthy food to our communities.

A beautiful celebration of family and food

Today was a great day for me. I was woken early by my two young boys (4 and 6), bursting with excitement and eager to wish me a happy mother’s day and share with me their special presents they had put so much effort into making. I was up with a rush of energy, ready to tackle the kitchen and prepare a feast to share with my beautiful mum.

In fact, the feast preparation had begun yesterday, when I had decided that mother’s day this year was going to be a celebration of family and food, two of the fundamental pillars of life. The slow cooked pork belly sourced from the local butcher (from local pork) was braised for most of yesterday afternoon in preparation.

The plan was for hand made pork belly ravioli. Like all good plans, they usually go astray somewhere along the line. So when I went to make the pasta this morning I realised I didn’t have the two ingredients; eggs or flour! Should have planned that one better! Eggs should be easy – my mother in law next door has chooks. Only, when I went to get some more, I find out the chooks have stopped laying. So I quickly drive to the nearest shops (10 minutes away; we are lucky on the farming scale) to stock up on supplies.

Eggs in the supermarket, I am faced with 15 choices. Caged, cage free, free-range, home brand, other brands ….. what to choose? Then flour. Another 15 choices. Keen to make sure I am buying Australian flour from an Australian company, but in a hurry, I scour the labels. Confused and no idea from the label on what I am really buying other than it is something marked “Premium Flour – Australian Produce”, I load the packet into my basket then move on to grab some other last minute supplies.

I am thrilled that my toilet paper is 100% made in Australia from an Australian company. I have no idea where the wood chips that made the paper came from. By the time I got to the shaving cream and deodorant for my husband I grabbed the brands that I knew without any clue where they come from, threw a bottle of Tweedvale Milk in my basket (real, local milk) and rushed home.

Well, the ravioli was superb, and went down an absolute treat with the pear, rocket and walnut salad, topped with olive oil and lemons (all either home grown or sourced locally). And of course, our family favourite, apple pie made with freshly picked Pink Lady apples.

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Most important of all was the special family time, but food was the fundamental core, and if we view all great cultures and celebrations, this is true across all.

So as I sit down on reflection at the end of the day, enjoying a glass of our home-grown and home-made wine, what I begin to question is my own values as a consumer and what I experienced today. How often as an ardent Aussie farmer supporter do I really make the effort to scour usually confusing labels and do my homework to make sure I am making sound purchasing choices. How often do I just quickly grab what I know, or what looks good, because the kids are playing up or I am in a hurry?

So, if, as someone who should know better, still makes impulsive shopping purchases, how can we expect anyone else to do any different?

Labeling laws are part of the battle, but not all. If I am shopping in a hurry, I don’t have time to stop and read the labels. I will grab what I know. The brand I recognise and have had a positive experience with previously.

So is the big question, how do we brand our produce to make it stand out? How do we tell the consumer what the “brand values” of our produce are?

Raising our voices in tune, not discord

Last night #Agtalks hosted a discussion titled “Food is trendy, so why doesn’t anyone want to grow it?”. It got me thinking about my journey into agriculture and why there is still a big divide between the realities of farming and public perception.

Both of my parents grew up on farms in Victoria. Long held, family farms – one in dairy and the other a mixed sheep & grains farm. They were the younger children in their respective families, with older siblings taking over the running of the farm and so they both moved to the city in search of other opportunities. Consequently I grew up on a large semi-suburban block in the Adelaide Hills; a far cry from any kind of farming lifestyle. I have many happy memories of family holidays visiting my uncles and cousins on the farm, but it never even entered my mind that I could possibly have a career related to farming. It just seemed like a completely inaccessible world. Unless you were born into a farm, how could you possibly become a farmer?

It was only when I was feeling lost at school in Year 12, with no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life, that a very smart career adviser suggested that I might consider Agricultural Science as a career option. My initial reaction was one of incredulation. I never even knew that there was such a course you could study! But once I started looking into it and could see the diverse range of opportunities available I was instantly taken with the idea. This was the career for me! A mixture of indoors and outdoors, helping farmers to grow food and fibre more efficiently, fascinating and complex science and the chance to help feed the world!

In the 20 something years since that moment, my experiences in agriculture have led me on an amazing journey that I could never have fully predicted and that have far surpassed my initial hopes. I have conducted research trials in Victoria working on postharvest packing lines, I have been in and out of countless soil pits anywhere from Margaret River to Mannum, I have travelled the globe from Sri Lanka to Spain helping irrigators manage their water more efficiently, I have learned about many different aspects of business and most importantly, I have met and worked with an amazing diversity of people and cultures.

My love affair with agriculture was further cemented fairly early during that journey when I met and married an apple grower. I have truly become a part of the rural community and I feel eternally grateful to be involved in such as special industry as agriculture. I also feel truly blessed to be able to raise my children in an area where they can grow up with a sense of freedom and awareness in their environment.  I wonder where I would have ended up if it wasn’t for that very wise career adviser. Clearly even in the 1980’s there was a huge disconnect between farming and the broader community and if someone hadn’t steered my in the right direction, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wonder how many bright and clever school children there are today who would thrive in the agricultural environment but are as equally unaware of the opportunities as I was. I wonder how many career advisers today are also unaware of the possibilities and are not encouraging children to consider agriculture as a career.

So with agriculture providing so many fantastic opportunities, why are enrollments in university courses for agricultural science and agribusiness at an all time low? I am sure there is no simple answer to this question, but I am firm believer that this disconnect is largely due to the way our industry portrays ourselves.

Let’s think about the kinds of headlines that we see all the time …. “farmers struggling with drought” ….. “high Aussie dollar hurting exports” …….. “lack of opportunities for youth in rural areas”  ……. “bank foreclosing on another farm”  ………… “farmers struggling to survive with high costs and low returns” .

Can we really blame people for not wanting to get involved in agriculture when they are constantly bombarded with this negativity? Sure, there are challenges which should not be underestimated, and those headlines are generally true, but they only paint one side of the picture.

What about the headlines that talk about all the great stuff?

………”Aussie farmers leading the world in efficiency of food production”

………”Australian researchers develop new, drought tolerant wheat varieties”

………”Australian farmers amongst highest adopters of new technology in the country”

………”Australian farmers working hard to preserve our natural environment”

….. and the long list goes on …..

We should be singing these messages from the roof tops and beating our chests with pride. We ARE a great industry and our nation and the world’s population rely on us to meet their needs for food and fibre. If we sing it loud enough and for long enough in unison, maybe, just maybe we might start getting heard.

Just imagine what could happen if this became a reality? Our next generation of clever innovators will want to work in our industry, where there are some of the greatest needs for continued technological advancement. Our consumers will want to support us and purchase our fantastic Australian product, because they are hearing positive messages about it and they believe those messages. Demand for our product will increase, providing more opportunity for investment and growth. Politicians will listen to us because the general public wants them to.

It may seem like an idealistic dream, but surely it is worth a shot! I am going to sing as loudly as I can. Who is going to join me?

… and finally to leave you with a quote from Brenda Schoepp – “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher, but every day, three times a day, you need a FARMER”

Price is not the only factor

With food prices falling and more fresh imports arriving on our shores, why should Australian consumers care?

It is no secret that food production costs in Australia are amongst the highest in the world. This means that in order to survive and remain competitive our farmers are highly efficient operators. In fact, in many farming sectors Australia leads the way in setting world best. Farmers in other countries view Australian farmers with a mixture of respect and envy.

Sadly, with globalisation and cut-throat pricing strategies, even being the best in world is not enough for many farmers to remain viable today. The major retailers would have us believe that consumers are driven by solely by price and are aggressively sourcing the cheapest available product, supposedly all in the name of the consumer. They are importing more and more produce, often guised as a generic home-brand with unclear labels. Local suppliers are operating at world’s best practice, but still can’t compete.

Is it an insult to assume that consumers only care about price and should our farmers even try to be competing on price alone?

Food is relatively expensive to grow and produce in Australia because our Australian farmers meet the highest of standards and take the greatest of care.

Yes, our labour costs are higher than in almost any other food producing nation in the world, but this is so that every Australian can be assured of receiving a minimum wage that will afford them a decent standard of living. This is intrinsic to our Australian values.

Yes, regulation and red-tape places additional cost and burden on businesses, but this means that every worker in Australia can go to work with the knowledge that safety is paramount in work practices and that they will be provided support if they are injured at work. Every Australian worker has access to one of the best health care systems in the world. Every Australian worker has access to a guaranteed superannuation contribution.

Yes, our energy costs are high, but this means that we are not wasteful of energy and are constantly being driven towards more energy efficient means of production.

Yes, our overall cost of production is higher than many other countries, but this is because our farming systems take care of our environment. We invest heavily in new technology and research to ensure that we continue to lead the world in sustainable agricultural production. Caring for our country is ingrained in our farming culture, as each generation strives to pass the land on to the next generation in better condition than they received it, with more and more attention to detail. Our clean growing environment also means that we are free from many pests and diseases found in other parts of the world.

Yes, there are additional costs all the way through the production chain, from the moment the product leaves the farm gate until it reaches the dinner plate, but this means that our Food Safety Standards are exceptional. Our strict quality procedures mean that food hygiene is paramount and that fresh produce is kept at the correct temperatures throughout the entire supply chain. Our produce is tested regularly to ensure it complies with the strictest of food safety standards. Our consumers can have confidence that food grown and packed in Australia is safe.

Aussie Farmers delivering a proven and trusted product

Where else in the world can you purchase food with such confidence as you can in Australia? When you are buying Australian you are investing in something of enormous value.

Buying Australian means you know what you are eating. Buying Australian means you are supporting our environment. Buying Australian means you are supporting local jobs and employment. And most importantly, buying Australian means you are helping Aussie farmers survive. Without Aussie farmers what choice will you have?