Native grasses in jars.

Native Grains: Narrabri researchers meet with Aboriginal community

30 June 2020
Indigenous involvement vital for research project success
Indigenous knowledge and agricultural science are uniting to help support a renaissance in Aboriginal agriculture in western NSW. The winners will include farmers looking for additional income streams.
Bruce Pascoe (centre) with workshop participants Rhonda Ashby from Lightning Ridge (left) and Bernadette Duncan from Boggabilla. Photo: Rebecca Cross

Bruce Pascoe (centre) with workshop participants Rhonda Ashby from Lightning Ridge (left) and Bernadette Duncan from Boggabilla. Photo: Rebecca Cross

In a glorious mess of flour, culture and ideas, a group of 20 Aboriginal people representing six communities in western New South Wales met on Gamilaraay Country at the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute outside Narrabri last week.

Together, they made johnnycakes (flame-grilled bread) with flour made from six species of native grass grain. The group discussed how to make possible the emergence of a native grain industry and support the revival of culturally significant food sources in the region.

Dr Angela Pattison is leading a research group at the University that is assessing how best to support such an industry. She says that Indigenous involvement in the project is vital for its success.

“We are honoured to be working alongside and under the guidance of such a knowledgeable group of Aboriginal people,” she said.

“The group includes trained linguists, school teachers, medicinal plant experts, and CEOs and chairpersons of Aboriginal land councils. They all have amazing insights into not only the past but what they would like to see for the future.”

People from Mungindi, Wee Waa, Moree, Narrabri, Boggabilla and Lightning Ridge attended the daylong workshop.

The event was also attended by Bruce and Lyn Pascoe and Noel and Trish Butler from Mallacoota in northeast Victoria. They shared their cultural and practical knowledge on the role grains are playing in their community and the journey of their company, Black Duck Foods, to bring back the ancient culture and practice of producing native bread to provide employment for local people and rejuvenate the country.

Bruce Pascoe is author of Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, which is a historical account of European encounters with Indigenous agriculture during colonisation.

Hosted by Director of Northern Agriculture, Associate Professor Guy Roth, and native grains research group leader, Dr Pattison, the group was given a tour of the University’s grains research equipment, which is used in food security research for globally significant crops such as wheat. The plan is to adapt this equipment for use on the smaller, drought- and fire-adapted native grain species.

Gamilaraay man and University of Sydney Narrabri agriculture trainee, Callum Craigie, said he really enjoyed making johnnycakes for the first time. 

He said: "It was good to meet all the people getting involved with this project - there were some deep conversations in the meeting. I think this project will let people know about what my people did and how they used native food."

Callum Craigie in one of the Narrabri greenhouses.

Callum Craigie in one of the Narrabri greenhouses. 

Dr Pattison said: “We hope this research can play a part in supporting a renaissance of Indigenous agriculture. Ensuring that native grain production is commercially viable will not only assist Aboriginal communities but help change the way farmers of any cultural background value what would otherwise be considered unproductive land.

“This will have environmental, cultural and economic benefits for all Australians.”

Angela Pattison

Research Scientist

Marcus Strom

Science Media Adviser

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