Left to right: bread made with warrego grass; native millet johnnycake; Callum Craigie and Dr Angela Pattison at Narrabri.

University study finds economic window for native grains production

9 November 2020
Most extensive paddock-to-plate native grains study to date
At the start of NAIDOC Week 2020, Dr Angela Pattison and colleagues have launched the first report from a feasibility study into using native grass grains as a modern food product. Initial findings look promising.
Bruce Pascoe (right) talks with project leader Dr Angela Pattison.

Bruce Pascoe (right) talks with project leader Dr Angela Pattison.

Native millet on Gamilaraay country in western New South Wales is the most economically viable native grain for future farm enterprises, a University of Sydney study has found. The University of Sydney Institute of Agriculture study is the most comprehensive trial of Indigenous paddock-to-plate produce in Australia, was done in consultation with local communities and Black Duck Foods, owned by Aboriginal foods expert Bruce Pascoe.

The one-year research project into the environmental, economic and cultural viability of growing native grains for bread on Gamilaraay country near Moree and Narrabri will be released on 9 November in celebration of NAIDOC week 2020.

“Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay country in north-west NSW is one of the largest Aboriginal language groups in Australia, and they are proudly known as grass people,” said Dr Angela Pattison, study leader from the University of Sydney Institute of Agriculture and Plant Breeding Institute at Narrabri.

“This region is today home to some of Australia’s best-quality agricultural land and farmers from north-west NSW are major exporter of natural fibres like cotton, prime hard wheat and pulse protein grains, such as chickpea,” she said.

“However, the region historically produced native grains (dhunbarr*), such as Mitchell grass and native millet, which were ground up and made into fire-roasted bread (dhuwarr*) by traditional owners for thousands of years.”

The project team has collaborated with Black Duck Foods, the company founded and directed by Bruce Pascoe based on Yuin country near Mallacoota in Victoria. It has also brought together experts in ecology, food science, social science, marketing and business to work on different parts of the paddock-to-plate system as it might work on Gamilaraay country.

Native grain and flour samples made by the team at Narrabri.

Native grain and flour samples made by the team at Narrabri.

The findings, released as a public report and set of public webinars in November, cover the first paddock-to-plate trial of dhunbarbila* (native grain crops) in north-west NSW and the most comprehensive trial of native grain production in Australia.

“Forging a path forward for our food production systems, which is environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable, is one of the biggest challenges of our time,” Dr Pattison said.

“This paddock-to-plate trial, done in collaboration with both local Aboriginal community members and local farmers, seeks to find a way forward for the good of people and the good of the planet. One year is never long enough to solve problems hundreds of years in the making. But this report, and set of webinars, will hopefully bring holders of knowledge together to make a start.”

The report found that more research and development is needed to improve threshing and seed processing, and to improve costs. Out of 15 different native grain species investigated, native millet was found to be best in terms of its ability to grow well, ease of processing and producing a healthy product.

Other species are likely to have niche uses, such as purslane (dhamu*), which is one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

“Even with current pricing regimes and initial low consumer demand, our modelling showed that in some circumstances, native grain cropping was economically viable,” said agricultural economist and study participant Dr Shauna Phillips from the University of Sydney.

Cooking johnnycakes with native grain.

Cooking johnnycakes with native grain.

As well as bringing cultural and economic benefits for local Gamilaraay people, Dr Angela Pattison said that the native grains project could benefit non-Aboriginal farmers. “This is a cross-cultural project that will benefit the whole community, culturally and economically,” she said.

Aunty Bernadette, coordinator of the Garragal Women’s Language and Culture Network at Toomelah, said: “If we start producing our own grains and flour it’s going to help, especially our old people who've been living for decades on all the white flour, salt and fat. When they go back and eat traditional food and drink traditional herbal teas they get better."

Aunty Beryl is a professional chef and trainer at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern. She grew up on Gamilaraay country at Walgett in north-west NSW. She made a selection of johnnycakes, muffins, scones and damper with mixes of organic self-raising flour and native flour.

She said: "I found it easy to work with. It’s a little bit fine but it looks great and tastes great. You can also make bread out of it. I was honoured to be a part of the project."

Aunty Beryl also experimented with purslane seed.

"To me they were very similar to poppy seed, but they do have a flavour of their own,” she said. “It tasted a little bit salty to me, but its crunchy, much crunchier than the poppy seed. So, I reckon that'll be a seller. "

This study was funded by the Sydney Institute of Agriculture.

* NB: Gamilaraay language words for products and species are given in brackets. These will be different in other Aboriginal languages.

Download the report here.

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