July 8, 2015

Salty succulents deliver booming bounty

Andrew French is a Gippsland farmer who’s exceeded his own expectations by turning what could have been a disastrous event into a booming business with the help of some indigenous plant species that grew and thrived in the salty estuaries of his Snowy River property.

What do you do when your pristine farm country becomes severely salt damaged? If you’re like Victorian farmer Andrew French, you take a good look at the land’s ecosystem and then diversify into producing indigenous coastal plants that flourish in the harsh environment.

Over the past eight years, French, and his wife Gabrielle, have developed what’s now a booming business growing a range of native seaweeds and sea vegetables that are much sought after by chefs, tapping into a global trend towards making better use of the plants of the sea.

At their Snowy River Station property at the mouth of the Snowy River near Orbost, on paddocks where back up saltwater flooding damaged 200 acres making it too saline for crops or grass, they’re producing eight different species. These include samphire, sea parsley and their intriguingly named and trademarked Sea Spray and Beach Bananas, which explode like grapes in the mouth with a salty, sweet juice.

“It’s funny how things happen,” says Andrew French, speaking from Noosa Heads where he and his award-winning products had been wowing chefs and consumers alike at the annual high profile Noosa International Food Festival. “It’d been devastating to see how much damage to pristine farmland country was done at the time. It was caused when the Snowy River blocked at the beach and water started backing up onto all the farms.”

“Then while we were trying to rehabilitate it and grow grass for our cattle we identified these plants that were suitable for human consumption, so we turned our focus to that. We tried to replicate what needed to be done to keep that ecosystem working and discovered we could grow them better than they grow wild. It’s farming the estuaries in a natural way, working with the ecosystem that’s your piece of land.”

Exporting to Europe

Demand for the products continues to grow both in Australia and overseas. French expects to sell five tonnes of his seawater bounty this year, with more than half heading to Europe where knowledge about and appreciation of the plants is higher than in Australia. The Frenches have a distributor in Holland who takes delivery of 100 kilograms of product every fortnight and distributes to chefs and providores.

In Australia, the biggest customers are top restaurants whose chefs are enamoured of the unique salty flavours and textures of the plants. The Frenches are also ramping up their retail presence to promote the products to consumers through upmarket food stores and even fishmongers because of their affinity with seafood dishes. The range is already available to consumers online at producer marketplace website Farmhouse Direct.

Along with the versatility of the plants as a culinary ingredient, the high levels of trace elements and minerals they contain adds to their appeal because of the health benefits they deliver.

Innovative farming techniques

As pioneers in the commercial farming of these native plants and amongst only a handful of growers in the world doing it, the Frenches have faced many challenges as they developed innovative growing techniques and seawater irrigation systems aimed at achieving more consistency and better quality product than can be foraged from the wild, and the ability to produce on a larger scale.

“There challenges have been extreme,” says French. “The biggest one is just the growing environment; it’s very harsh. It’s been a steep learning curve over seven years, and we’re still learning all the time.”

A bonus French discovered is the benefits of the species for his herd of Poll Hereford cattle. They’ve been grazed on samphire as part of a three-year trial, which has benefitted both their health and the quality of the meat, which has earned praise from food writers. French says he’ll soon begin using the fact that the animals are raised on these plants in the marketing of the beef.

“It’s been interesting,” he says. “We haven’t had to drench one mob for three years; they’ve just done very well on the stuff. And the quality of the meat is excellent, very tender and a soft, sweet flavour.”

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