When wheat prices plummeted to $145 a tonne in the late nineties, everyone in the grains industry faced a difficult period - and hard decisions on whether to look for change or for a way out.
Some growers sold up. Others bought more land. And some, like Steven and Suzanne Woods of Calingiri, WA, turned to value-adding. In 1998, they began producing Emdavale Farm Flour from soft wheat grown on their 1080-hectare property, "Emdavale Farm".
"There was such a focus on hard and noodle wheat, and we thought the potential for soft wheat wasn"t being realised," recalls Suzanne. "Value-adding by milling flour was a strategy to decrease our reliance on traditional agricultural output, while diversifying our economic base without increasing land holdings."
No soft wheat was being milled in WA, and the couple used that market gap to complement, rather than compete against, existing businesses. Their vision for themselves and others was to offer an option for growers by marketing value-added speciality grain products into niche markets. Although they were outside the traditional growing boundaries for soft wheat, they chose to grow Datatine, which had a good rust rating and was the highest yielding soft variety available.
The strategy paid off and at the end of 2004 the Woods harvested 160ha of Datatine and milled another 140ha of Datatine grown for their Emdavale label by Yerecoin growers Troy and Shona McDonald.
"We identified a cost-effective supply chain to get our product from "paddock" as wheat to "plate" as flour," says Suzanne. "Having found an appropriate pathway for milling soft wheat and a subsequent distribution channel to market, we established a product under our farm name."
Photo: Steven Woods inspects his spelt crop, expected to yield about half of the wheat average.
The first batch of Datatine flour was sold to biscuit-maker Mills & Wares in April 2000, and later the same year the Action supermarket chain started carrying the flour as well. The flour is now sold in 70 retail outlets in Perth, including Coles supermarkets and independent retailers. Emdavale Farm Flour has been established as a variety-specific flour, characterised by low protein, low ash content and very fine particles. It is additive-free and unbleached.
"Wheat is produced locally on our Emdavale property, giving the product a traceable identity," says Suzanne. Maintaining these qualities is crucial to the brand"s market integrity.
"If we ever needed to acquire more grain, it would be supplied by contract growers in our region, to keep the qualities specific to Emdavale Farm Flour," she says. "When selling the flour, we"re selling something of ourselves and long-term we"ll work towards an environmental management system so we can reinforce our growing practices at a commercial level."
With domestic supply and demand steady, the Woods are now looking to expand overseas. A collaboration with final-year Muresk Institute of Agriculture students has provided a valuable market feasibility study as the Woods seek to make the business global.
Luke Dawson of Warralakin, Robert Dempster of Northam, Jeremy Roberts of Dandaragan, Alastair Solomon of Bakers Hill and Andrew Zadow of Kojonup moved from classroom to paddock to explore expansion opportunities for the Emdavale Farm business as part of their Bachelor of Agribusiness degrees.
The course provides graduates with agribusiness marketing and management skills, including an understanding of linkages between consumers and the development of food and fibre products, processing and distribution systems.
Their project assessed domestic and international export opportunities for Emdavale Farm Flour and opportunities for another new crop, spelt. A primitive wheat grown since the Bronze Age, some 5000 years BC, spelt lacks gliadin, the protein that causes gluten intolerance. Spelt therefore can be consumed by people with levels of intolerance that otherwise prevent them from eating wheat products.
Suzanne says spelt represents a niche health food market that already has high consumer awareness. "It has about 16 percent protein, is less bland than regular flour, appears more tolerant of waterlogging and salt, and was unaffected by rust in 2004 when the disease was widespread. The 2003 crop was milled and sold to the eastern states to fill a gap in the market left by the drought and we harvested another 70ha in 2004.
"Spelt flour retails for considerably more than regular flour, but lower yields and the need to have the grain mechanically dehulled make higher pricing necessary."
Another export opportunity is the Emdavale Farm Flour"s suitability for producing steamed buns: "Favourable terms of trade and close proximity make South-East Asia, particularly Singapore, a target market, although currency, culture and language all have to be considered."
Steven and Suzanne admit producing and marketing Emdavale Farm Flour would be easier if not for other commitments. As well as the soft wheat, they grow noodle wheat and 500ha of hay for export, and have a one-third share in a hay compaction company. Steven is involved with the shire council, regional development commission and local Landcare group and Suzanne with the Heartlands Country Regional Branding Group.
"It"s been a huge learning curve for us since 1997 - far from forgetting what happens to your product once it"s delivered. You have to understand your product and consider your consumers," says Suzanne. "Most growers don"t think of what happens to their grain once it"s delivered, but we have to think a lot about processing, packaging and marketing."
Photo: Emdavale Farm Flour: "When selling the flour, we"re selling something of ourselves."
The GRDC-supported Grains Industry Strategic Plan suggested that to successfully plan for the economic prosperity of the grains industry, growers must look beyond "grain" and at ways to ensure the survival and growth of other industries to halt or reverse the decline in rural population.
This is precisely what the Woods are striving to achieve. "By maintaining ownership beyond the farm gate, we"re adding value to the land and produce we already have," says Suzanne.
The strategic plan stresses the importance of the rural community and, according to Suzanne, it encapsulates many of the wider aims she has for Emdavale Farm. "It"s hard to calculate in dollar terms the contribution to the community, but we"ve hired people who shop in town, drink at the pub, play sport in the town and work for other growers and businesses," she says. "The social impact of that is probably worth as much as any dollar amount, if not more."
For more information:
Suzanne Woods, 08 9628 7056, email@example.com