IT’S A LONG way from the highlands of Ethiopia in eastern Africa to the open plains at Wakool, but a Riverina family say an African grain crop is having no problems making the adjustment.
Fraser McNaul said he was excited with the results he was getting with teff, a type of grass farmed for its seed, which forms part of the staple diet of people in the Horn of Africa.
Together with his family, Mr McNaul operates Outback Harvest, a business selling teff in both wholegrain and flour form.
They will be among the 160,000 farm businesses honoured as part of National Agriculture Day, to be held on November 21 where the contribution made by the ag sector to Australian society is recognised.
Mr McNaul said the family was enjoying the chance to have a vertically integrated business stream through the Outback Harvest brand.
“We’re involved from the production to food processing to retailing, it is different to mainstream grain where you are not as involved throughout the supply chain.”
The Outback Harvest products are currently available in NSW and Victoria, with a view to further expansion.
“There’s been really positive feedback,” Mr McNaul said.
He expects Australian demand for teff to move beyond the expatriate Ethiopian and Eritrean communities as people become more aware of the health benefits of the crop.
“It is gluten free, high in fibre and very filling,” Mr McNaul said.
Teff is also markedly higher in protein than other grains and has better levels of vitamins and minerals than comparable products, all of which have nutritionists excited.
In Ethiopia it is primarily used as flour to make the fermented pancake-like bread injera which is eaten with virtually every meal.
The McNauls began growing teff in a bid to find a sustainable diversification to their irrigated cropping program.
Teff, a short season crop, is ideally suited to fitting within a dual winter and summer cropping program.
“This is traditionally rice growing country, we’ve grown corn as well over the summer in recent years and now we can also put teff into the mix as a summer option,” Mr McNaul said.
In the Riverina, teff can be planted in January for a March harvest.
Mr McNaul said the plan would be to continue to grow the crop under irrigation.
“It certainly copes well with our hot summers, as there are parts of Ethiopia that can also get really hot, but it does need some water and we don’t have reliable summer rainfall.
“Maybe somewhere further north with more summer rain you could have a go at it dryland, but here it will be an irrigated crop – we treat it similarly to corn in terms of its water requirements.”
In terms of grain yields, teff is relatively low yielding, producing only between 0.5-1 tonnes to the hectare.
The seed is the smallest of all the true grains, meaning in terms of seed collection at harvest it is treated similar to a canola crop rather than a cereal crop in terms of header set-up. This includes windrowing the crop prior to harvest.
Mr McNaul said teff was a versatile crop that also produced a valuable fodder product.
“There’s quite a bit of interest in growing teff for hay, the horse industry in particular really values teff hay as it is low in sugar.”
Agronomically, it has been a learning curve for the McNauls.
“There is not that much data into how it performs in Australia and previous crops had mainly been grown in Tasmania with a markedly different climate.
“We’ve found some research out of the US and have been learning as we go,” Mr McNaul said.
“In terms of sowing, we’ve found that with the small seed you don’t want to put it too deep as it will struggle to emerge, other than that it has not been too difficult to grow- we’ve basically treated it similarly to other summer fodder crops we’ve grown in the past.”
The Outback Harvest business is now in its third year.
Mr McNaul said it had been a long slog in improving customer recognition.
“It’s taken a long time to build up, but we are really noticing the interest now,” he said.
At present he said the teff component was still a small part of the overall family farming business, but he added it was hoped it would become more important.
“We’re pretty excited about it, it is sustainable and it’s healthy so we see no reason it won’t grow further.”
The product is taken from the Wakool farm to Melbourne for processing before being distributed to the Outback Harvest retail network.
Mr McNaul said CSIRO had played a role in helping developing the business.
“CSIRO has helped produce prototype muffins, bread and dry cake mixes along with healthy extruded teff snacks as part of a push to get teff into more western-style products,” he said.