ABOUT a year ago, Lesley Bland’s mother was in a nursing home. As her health and appetite declined, she was fed a nutritional supplement. “It tasted so disgusting, it was a joke,” Lesley recalls.
In future she hopes people like her mother – and others struggling for decent nutritional intake – will benefit from the business investment she has made with husband Quentin.
The couple have long enjoyed a reputation for their premium brand, Kurrawong Organics
– vegetables and herbs, grown on nutrient rich, basalt soil at Kirkconnell, about 30km east of Bathurst in the NSW Central Tablelands. However, they have now positioned themselves at the front of a new superfood revolution, dehydrating organic vegetables into a nutritionally dense vegetable powder in a purpose-built plant right on their farm.
While nutritionists are still crying “fresh is best” – and in an ideal world it is – pragmatists have pointed out this kind of innovation can reduce waste, improve food security and boost the health of the millions of people who don’t eat their recommended quota of veg.
Lesley believes they are the only growers in the world dehydrating their own certified organic produce. The question is how did this relatively small family business – Quentin and Lesley farm 60 hectares in Kirkconnell and a further 100ha in Canowindra – come to be making big strides in global food production?
Harvesting the broccoli at the Bland’s Kirkconnell farm.
Like most innovations, she explains, the move was borne of necessity. “We had to find a way of diversifying,” she says. “The viability of fresh vegetables was diminishing because of how and what people eat and what’s imported.”
Even offering premium organic produce was no longer giving them an edge. Supermarkets are realising the value of having organic veg on their shelves and encouraging large corporate farms with much smaller margins to convert to organic techniques.
RELATED ARTICLES ON FOOD GROWERS:
- "Fruit growers should focus on quality"
- Blueberry farmers targeting smoother supply chain
- Cherry farmers see premium brand bear fruit
Lesley and Quentin’s farm had always been hard work and now that it was also seeing reduced returns, the future was becoming a concern. Dehydration seemed a good solution. The Blands had seen vegetable powders on sale in health food shops and felt confident they could produce something that tasted better and was higher quality.
Changing emphasis from fresh vegetables to powders
After investigating the development of dehydration technology and discussing the idea with their sons Alexander, Tobias and Harry, who are all involved with the farm, they found someone who was building dehydrators in Australia.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” says Alexander.
In September 2017, work began on building a purpose-built unit right next to the fields in which the vegetables are grown. The Blands put up the shed themselves with industrial designer Alexander planning the basic layout. In February last year, it went into production. That means the farm’s broccoli, kale, cauliflower, sprouts, beetroot and pumpkin can be picked and dehydrated within 24 hours.
Broccoli on ice, ready to be dehydrated within 24 hours.
“It has so many obvious advantages, it’s amazing,” says Lesley of the benefits of dehydrating vegetables. Since the powders have a two-year shelf life, it extends their season and availability. It also reduces the amount of vegetables that have to be ploughed back into the soil. Imperfect vegetables go into the dehydrator and, in the case of broccoli, for instance, leaves and stalks are also dried where normally they might be thrown away. “They contain more nutrition than the florets,” says Lesley.
However, in their enthusiasm, there was one conundrum the Blands didn’t anticipate. Because the powders are relatively new products, Lesley admits: “I think we missed the fact people wouldn’t realise what to do with them. We made the mistake of borrowing money and not having a secure market,” she says. “We’re working on that and realise we need to do more marketing and do it quite quickly.”
What are the nutritional benefits of vegetable powders?
With two tablespoons providing the equivalent of one serve of vegetables, Lesley points out it has potential for feeding armed forces on the move or hikers in the bush. Recalling her mother’s experience, she has been promoting it for use in hospitals, nursing homes and as a nutritional booster for baby and children’s foods.
Lesley and Quentin Bland with a new batch of their dehydrated vegetable powder.
She has also been working with the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Austrade to identify overseas markets and, on top of her normal workload on the farm and at local markets, has been devising a range of recipes, baking the powders into cakes, breads and muffins and incorporating them into everything from ice creams to dips. “We’re realising we have to work on the recipe ideas more,” she says.
Encouragingly, her many market customers who have started buying the powders are already responding enthusiastically. One mother told Lesley her son refused to eat any vegetables but was quite happy to have the Kirkconnell Super Greens Powder Blend – a mix of broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – stirred into his potato to make an irresistible “Hulk mash”.
Other customers have put it into their pasta dough to add colour, taste and nutrition and of course the powders are popular amongst the green smoothie brigade who have neither the time nor room to keep a fridge stocked with fresh vegetables.
Alexander uses the powder in tomato-based pasta sauces or even a pesto. “I think it will take time for the Australian public to realise the potential,” he says. “It has huge potential for many markets but it’s a costly product to produce so it’s a matter of finding the market that is able to support that premium product.
Brothers Tobias and Alexander with the broccoli pickers.
Those costs, of course, include building the dehydration plant itself. Lesley won’t reveal the total other than to say: “Too much. A lot. We have taken a big risk and we’ve done it all ourselves.” There is further investment to come as well in the form of installing solar to offset running costs.
RELATED ARTICLES ON SOLAR POWER:
- Renewable energy to combat electricity costs
- Why solar stacks up for farmers
- Solar power: the sky’s the limit
The dehydration process itself involves the vegetables being picked, washed, chopped then placed in the low-temperature dehydrator for up to 14 hours. With most vegetables consisting of up to 90% water, this leaves a nutritious residue that is then milled into a powder.
Keeping the temperature low preserves the maximum nutrition. Only water is removed and some vitamin C lost. Laboratory testing shows impressive amounts of protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and health-promoting bioactive phytochemicals remain.
The Blands can produce 20 to 25 tonnes of powder a year and also package it onsite. A 150g bag, equivalent to 1,500g of raw vegetable, sells for $16.50.
The cauliflower, beetroot, broccoli and pumpkin powders under the Kirkconnell Farm brand.
Coincidentally, just four months after the Blands put their dehydrator to work, the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, released news of its own broccoli powder, handing out samples of a ‘Twisties-style’ broccoli snack food to demonstrate its potential in getting picky kids to eat their greens.
Australia’s media jumped on the story, promoting the health benefits and the Blands saw their products suddenly on prime time television. They were less impressed when the main focus for using the amazing green powder was adding a spoonful to your morning coffee to produce a green broccoli latte.
“It’s just a gimmick,” sighs Lesley. “You look at things like that Four Corners report [last September] into aged care homes and the need for better nutrition and it seems a no-brainer. These products are an obvious way of giving them the nutrition they need.”
Kirkconnell Farm has a history of innovation. It was started in 1931 by Quentin’s grandfather, Charles, who took advantage of the cooler conditions, due to the property being 1,100m above sea level, to grow the first Brussels sprouts in the area, along with other brassicas and peas.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Quentin’s father John planted orchards as well as the vegetables. “It produced beautiful apples but we weren’t big enough to compete in the main market and also waxing became expected,” says Lesley. “To invest in a waxing plant would’ve cost $100,000 so they were all bulldozed out and we focused on the broccoli instead.”
Organic certification, a long journey
The organic certification was approved about 20 years ago and as broccoli developed its reputation as a superfood, demand grew. “We became one of the biggest organic broccoli growers in NSW. Having children was very much part of the decision to grow produce as naturally as possible,” adds Lesley. “I was totally unaware until I married Quentin [in 1984] what chemicals, pesticides and herbicides can do to the environment and to people.”
Organic beetroot, tomato, broccoli and cauliflower growing in the greenhouse tunnel.
Because most of the surrounding area is covered in pine forest, they are quite isolated from neighbouring farms, which helped make it an easy transition. “We already had a lot of the practices in place – putting in mixed crops, growing nitrogen-based crops and green manure crops, slashing the green cover crops and ploughing them in,” says Lesley.
“It’s just looking after the soil, basically, and not over-farming. The use of chemicals is reduced greatly by simply not flogging the land.”
The Blands now grow 20 different lines on the farm including rainbow chard, fennel, peas, beans, herbs, radishes, zucchini, eggplants and tomatoes. “It’s all seasonal and whatever we’re able to grow, we’ll have a go, although brassicas and beetroot are our prime vegetable.
Tomatoes growing in the tunnel.
At present the Blands are still selling the majority of their produce fresh and many of their lines aren’t suitable for dehydration. But they hope eventually most vegetables will go into the dehydrator with only loyal regulars having access to the fresh option. “This year will see some big changes,” Lesley predicts. “We don’t want to leave the fresh market completely. We just need a bit more security with the farm’s viability.”
Alexander is confident that once they have their target market educated, the product will prove profitable and that day won’t be too far off. He certainly hopes so. He and his brothers want to keep the farm in the family and for its unique story to continue. “The older I get, the more I realise what a special place it is,” he says.
“We had to find a way of diversifying. The viability of fresh vegetables was diminishing. Dehydrated vegetables have so many obvious advantages, it’s amazing.”
Fruit and vegetable facts
Organic eggplants grown at Kirkconnell.
Sources: Mintel, Fine Food Australia, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; CSIRO, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
10 easy ways to eat vegetable powders
- 5% of global food and drink launches that featured the term ‘superfood’ in 2016-17 were Australian, the sixth highest amount of ‘superfood’ launches in the world.
- $919 million- the value of Australia’s organics industry, predicted to increase to $1.2 billion by 2022.
- 70% estimated increase in global food production needed to feed a population of nine billion predicted by 2050.
- $1.8 billion- the value of fruit and vegetables wasted annually in Australia.
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable powder is equivalent to 1 serve of fresh vegetables.
- 7% of Australian adults eat the recommended five-to-seven serves of vegetables a day.
You can include broccoli powder in muffins, banana cake, break, soup, dips and lattes- amongst many other things. Source: Kirkconnell Farm
- Bake them into muffins, cakes and breads.
- Stir them into soups – or make an instant “nutrition bomb” by adding them to a miso soup.
- Stir them into yoghurts and dips.
- Mix with crushed nuts, seeds, spices and herbs to make a dukkah.
- Add to smoothies.
- Add to homemade ice cream – pumpkin and ginger is especially delicious says Lesley.
- Add to pasta sauces.
- Substitute for flour in pasta, pastry or pizza dough – replace flour with equal weight of powder.
- Mix with mashed potato.
- Add to pancake batter.