One man moves mountain of lentils

Peter Blair holds a handful of his quality lentils above a gravity table.

"Don't compromise on quality" is the advice of a highly successful innovator whose company has developed Australian lentil exports from nothing to a quality product marketed in 25 different countries.

The man who achieved this success is Peter Blair, a farmer who recently received the Hugh Mackay Innovators Award from Victorian Minister for Agriculture and Resources, Patrick McNamara. The Award recognised outstanding innovation in developing and promoting the adoption of a fully integrated system for growing lentils in southern Australia.

Mr Blair said he found it hard to accept the personal award because so many others had been involved in the development of the project. It had been a series of partnerships — with parents and family, then with business partner Wayne Beddison, and now with staff and growers.

Mr Blair began growing imported lentil varieties on the family farm in the Wimmera in 1989. He then successfully tendered for the commercialisation of the new lentil cultivars Digger, Cobber and Matilda bred at the Victorian Institute for Dryland Agriculture. In 1994 he conducted a GRDC-sponsored study tour of lentil production systems in the USA, Canada and New Zealand.

Markets key

The focus quickly broadened to include marketing. "As Australia has a very limited domestic market, acceptance of Australian lentils was crucial to the success of the fledgling industry," Mr Blair said.

The firm took on its own export consultant, set its sights on the long term and focused on professional marketing and quality assurance in production and storage.

"We were determined to market our lentils and not see them suffer like many other pulses through being traded as just another commodity," Mr Blair said.

This year Mr Blair and growers who contract for his firm, The Lentil Company, expect to produce between 50,000 and 80,000 tonnes of lentils from about 40,000 hectares — a far cry from the 1993 situation when nine growers cropped only 200 hectares. And thanks to the high level of acceptance which has resulted from Mr Blair's insistence on quality, most of it will be exported.

"Part of our marketing strategy is to have our product well known and received in as many areas as possible," Mr Blair said. "We have had excellent reports on our quality and we are now getting ready acceptance of our products from overseas buyers. Customer feedback goes back to the growers through our full-time agronomist.

"Quality will ensure that we are in there for the long haul and receive good premiums. A major marketing task was to restore the confidence of overseas buyers after the lentil substitution by vetch incident from the early 1990s. The message is for growers not to compromise on quality."

Tailored storage

Mr Blair was early to see the value of aeration and control in storage. To harvest at the optimum time meant being able to handle some moisture and green material, and The Lentil Company now has aeration storage available in most of its grain receival locations. A Vicgrain facility used for the first time this year is equipped with a thermal couple and aeration fan.

"Storage is pretty important, especially with lentils," said Mr Blair. "There is less air available because of the shape of the grain. And because the grain is of higher value we don't want anything going wrong with it in storage."

"You need to keep the quality product segregated. This has been a problem with pulse crops in the past. We could grow a good quality pulse and it would just go in with the others.

"We have found we need to be very tight with specifications on delivery. Growers need to get this right from the start. We eliminate the problems before they have a chance to come forward."

Contact: Mr Peter Blair telephone: 03 53821277 fax: 03 5l3820053