An interest in health foods has led to one farmer introducing a so-called super seed, the ‘chia’ in the Kimberley.
It’s taken to the conditions so well that John Foss says his company is now the largest producer of chia seeds in the world.
The use of the seed salvia hispanica, commonly known as ‘chia’, dates back to the 12th century when the Aztecs cultivated it as a staple food source in central America until the arrival of the Conquistadores.
John Foss says the chia is well named as a super seed.
“The omega 3 is the most important element of chia. It’s an essential fatty-acid that the body can’t produce. Chia is rich in dietary fibre, protein and anti-oxidants.
“As a combined source, it’s one of the most nutritious seeds or grains available.”
That didn’t register with the Conquistadores and the super seed had a fairly quiet thousand years or so.
It was thrust back into public awareness in the eighties, but not for its nutritional properties; as a children’s toy.
In 1982, a Californian company released the chia pet; an animal-shaped terracotta figurine. Chia seeds were planted inside the animal and then sprouted, creating a soft green fur.
John Foss’s interest in it was sparked by a research scholarship, looking at global trends that would define the future of agriculture.
“The most important one that I saw was the growing trend towards health and wellbeing in the food industry.”
Mr Foss says knowledge of chia is pretty low in Australia but the company exports to the US and Canada where people are more aware about its benefits.
“That’s been generated by Oprah Winfrey having various segments on her show talking about the benefit of chia in a diet.
“Now, (in Australia) major food companies are starting to launch products with chia in it. They’ve recognised that it’s valuable to call chia their ‘hero’ ingredient.”
The company sells bags of the seeds to customers who mix it in with breakfast cereal, sprinkle it on salads and use it in home cooking. It also sells wholesale to food manufacturers.
Fritz Bolten owns 2,000 hectares of farmland in the Ord Valley.
About a decade ago he became disillusioned by farming commodity crops like sugar.
“It’s really disappointing when you have a really good year, growing a good crop, and you don’t get any returns because of where the Australian dollar is or what the world market is doing.”
When he was approached by John Foss’s Chia Company he jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s really exiting. We really thrive on that sort of excitement and opportunity in the Ord. The sort of people that are up here want to do something out of the ordinary and are quite willing to take large risks.”
Mr Bolten says it is a boost for the Kimberley.
“We’re really pioneering a really fantastic crop. It’s not always easy but we are very lucky that we get that once in a lifetime opportunity where we can do something new like that.”
Mr Foss says his operation has been doubling in size to keep pace with demand.
“The release of stage two of the Ord is very timely for us because it means there’s another 8,000 hectares of irrigated land available in the next few years. We’ll be looking to plant chia on that new land.”
He says the Kimberley is the perfect location.
“It’s a photo-sensitive crop; it needs to be grown at a latitude 15 degrees from the Equator because the day-length and temperature affects the omega-3 profile in the oil.”
The expansion is being fueled in part by demand from overseas markets.
John Foss says they’ve just had regulatory approval to export to the European Union.
“That opens up a big, lucrative market for us, particularly because part of the European culture is the consumption of grainy and seedy bread. We believe it will be a $20 million industry in the next 5 years.”
He says it’ll be good news for the Kimberley as he looks at building processing plants and creating jobs in the region.
“We’re looking for how we can invest further in the Ord so we can capture more of the value in the valley rather than exporting it.”
Mr Bolton also has high hopes for the future of the industry.
“I’m feeling more and more confident that we’re onto a really exciting new thing that’s going to get a lot more exciting in the future.
“It’s pretty special.”
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