April 7, 2016

A business idea so fresh it grabbed top chefs by the tastebuds

Richard Mohan and his family run a micro agribusiness called Midyim Eco Produce, which specialises in rare and specialty peppers such as pimientos de padrón – small green peppers unique to the Spanish region of Padrón.

It seems like a series of serendipitous connections conspired to bring Richard Mohan and his family to the lush hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where he runs a tiny agribusiness called Midyim Eco Produce which grows and sells specialty peppers.

When Richard and his partner, contemporary poet M.T.C. (Margie) Cronin, first moved to the town of Maleny, keen to leave Sydney after 20 years there, the plan was to rent a house for a year or so, then move to Spain with their three daughters. Why Spain? Because Margie’s favourite poetry hails from Spain and South America, and they thought it would be great to live there and have their daughters grow up bilingual.

“In the meantime, we decided to come up and rent a house in Maleny,” says Mohan. “Six weeks in we saw this block of land — 32-acres, dam, views — and we ended up buying it. It’s mostly bush with some remnant rainforest. Some areas are protected because there’s threatened plant species. There’s about two-acres we farm on.”

They sold their Sydney house to pay for their new acreage and then had to think about what they were going to do there. They had grown food and crops in their Sydney backyard, so Mohan thought perhaps he could become a farmer. Looking for a viable crop to grow, he considered coffee and strawberries and avocados, but dismissed them all as ‘pretty boring’.

Some like it hot

And then he remembered a trip to Spain (yes, Spain again) in 1999, where he and Margie ate pimientos de padrón. The small green peppers, which are 5-7 centimetres long, have been grown in Padrón, a region in North West Spain since the 16th Century when local monks brought them back from the Spanish Colonies in South America.

Sauteed in olive oil and served with sea salt, they are popular in tapas bars across the country. These particular peppers are not only delicious but have a special characteristic — about one in 10 is hot, making them a tasty Pepper Russian Roulette.

“The first time we had them it was a revelation — so we kept on going back to the bar every night,” says Mohan. “When we got back to Sydney, we couldn’t find them, and we forgot about it.

But once he’d remembered, the idea stuck. He did some research online, and apparently no-one in Australia was growing the peppers commercially, so he bought some seeds from overseas. This happened back in 2004, starting with about 400 plants. They begin to fruit around mid-November, and by January/February of their first season, Mohan decided they were growing well.

“I made a few phone calls to the best five restaurants in Noosa, which is about an hour from here because I knew they’d be interested in a product like this,” he says. It didn’t hurt that he used to work in 5-star hotel restaurants so had some contacts in the business. He spoke to chefs, and then visited them with his peppers and his frying pan and some oil and cooked them up for them on the spot.

His first customer was Matt Golinski, then executive chef at Ricky Ricardo’s in Noosa Heads. “He said straightaway, ‘Can I have 10 kilos?’,” says Mohan. “I offered him the two kilos I had.”

Peppers, poetry and pop music

And it went from there. Since then, little has changed regarding their approach to business. There’s no formal marketing and no middleman. Guaranteeing next day delivery, they pick the peppers in the morning, dispatching them by courier in the afternoon, making the produce about as fresh as it gets.

With a certified organic farm, the margins are small at best. And running a seasonal business is in itself a financial challenge. From November through May, it’s a seven-day working week. But they decided against trying to set up another industry to take them through winter. As Mohan says: “Really, do you want to be working seven days a week, 52 weeks a year?”

For their best standing-order customers they do grow through the winter, in poly tunnels, but as the yield is about 10 per cent of the summer crop, that’s more about maintaining relationships than making money.

What are Mohan’s plans for the future? They couldn’t be further from growing peppers.

“It’s a little bit tangential,” he says. “My two oldest daughters are in the pop band L.U.V They’ve got a new single coming out, “ You’ll Never Let Me Go”, mixed by Andy Stewart, who did Gotye’s ‘Somebody that I used to know’. We’re excited and hoping that’s our superannuation.”

Stranger things have happened.

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