A little TLC does the trick By Robin Taylor

Peter Blair: giving the Australian lentil industry some integrity.

WHEN WIMMERA WHEAT GROW-ers Peter Blair and Wayne Beddison started growing lentils in the late 1980s they decided they also needed to be involved in marketing their product. So 10 years ago they formed The Lentil Company (TLC) to supply premium lentils and other specialty crops to niche local and international markets.

"We wanted to make sure that the lentil industry was given every opportunity to get up and running successfully, from its agronomy through to the marketing, " explains Peter.

"We provide added stability to growers who know there is someone specifically handling lentils. We have created awareness on the international market, and given the Australian lentil industry some integrity. "

By contracting growers and paying them a pool price, TLC removes some of the fluctuations from the volatile market, and by paying a price based on quality, growers receive direct signals about their customers' preferences for size, colour and other qualities.

"With lentils it's possible to get good prices for small quantities but the price drops away for large volumes, " Peter says. "But by having a pool system we can average out the price so everybody can share in the better markets. "

TLC prepares the product for delivery according to customer requirements for packing, colour, variety and quality. While most of its trade is large volumes, the company has recently started supplying lentils in 500gm retail packs and 5kg bags, which they hope to sell to overseas supermarkets.

From a base of nine growers and 400 tonnes of lentils in 1993, TLC has been instrumental in the rapid development of the industry to an estimated 100, 000 tonnes in the 2000-2001 harvest, with a base of 900 growers.

The company employs its own agronomists who carry out trial work and advise growers on spray rotations and varietal recommendations. They also hold two field days each year to disseminate information to growers.

TLC is looking at expanding further by establishing a presence in South Australia, and is also investigating New South Wales.