Growing lentils in Australia is still a young industry and does not come without its challenges.
- Australian farmers produce 400,000 to 500,000 tons of lentils per year
- Almost all lentils grown in Australia are exported to overseas markets
- Farmers Phillipa and Skeet Lawson hope to create an alternative market for weather-damaged lentils
Most premium lentils grown in Australia are exported, but lentils that are cracked, chipped or discoloured often end up as cattle feed.
Pinnaroo-based farmers Phillipa and Skeet Lawson in South Australia’s Mallee region are trying to change that and have started to turn their weather-damaged lentils into a gluten-free flour.
While they also grow wheat and barley, lentils make up a third of their cropping rotation.
Frustrated by international tariffs and challenging weather conditions, they knew they had to find an alternative market.
“When you take your lentils to the silo, if they don’t reach a specific visual specification, then they are downgraded quite substantially, even though they are extremely high in protein and fibre,” Ms Lawson said.
But it wasn’t until a nutritionist suggested adding more protein to their youngest daughter’s diet that pushed the farming family to think outside the box.
“I got a cup of lentils and started adding it into our meals, and then she just would pick them out,” Ms Lawson said.
Young Annabelle’s “fussy eating” habits forced her parents to come up with new ideas.
They decided to try milling their lentils into flour, adding it to gravies, pizza bases and baked goods.
Commercialising the idea
While many businesses suffered severe losses throughout the pandemic, the Lawson family took the risk to commercialise the idea last year.
When they did their customer research, they soon discovered lentils were not a very popular staple in Australian households and worried about the viability of their alternative flour.
But they were pleasantly surprised at the response.
So far, they have sold 560 kilograms of the lentil flour.
One to first jump on board trying to use the locally made flour was Pinnaroo baker Dennis Gniel.
He has been baking breads, pastries, and cookies with the new ingredient, but finding the right recipes wasn’t easy.
“It was very hard for a start because we put too much water in the mixture … and there wasn’t much information from other people using it,” Mr Gniel said.
Since he worked out the right mixture, he has seen great response from the tight-knit farming communities for his distinctive-flavoured baked goods.
“It has got more of a nutty flavour that gets stronger when it cools off, and it’s got a darker-red looking colour.”
Nutritional value retained
Most lentils grown in Australia are cultivated in South Australia and Victoria, producing about 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes a year.
Australia’s young lentil industry started in the early 1990s and since has become a significant rotational crop for farmers.
“They are great for the paddocks’ soil health … they put nitrogen back into the soil, and that’s one of the main reasons we grow them,” Mr Lawson said.
Scientist Drew Portman has studied the nutritional benefits of pulse crops, particularly how to make better use of downgraded lentils as part of his completed PhD research at the Charles Sturt University.
He looked at how protein, carbohydrates, fibre and phenolic compounds changed when lentil flour was processed — his findings were promising.
“Lentils that have been affected by frost or heat still retain large quantities of protein.
“There is no significant difference when it comes to protein and fibre levels between extremely damaged lentils compared to premium export lentil.”
Frost and heat damage are some of the main reasons many lentils end up on the stock feed market.
Dr Portman believed there was a “massive opportunity for farmers to capitalise on their downgraded lentils.”
Shifting consumer behaviour
Since interest in the flour started to ramp up, the farming family has seen demand from consumers, health food stores and chefs across the country.
Adelaide-based food store owner Brian Kleemann said he had seen a real consumer shift, especially since the pandemic, with many of his customers seeking out local produce.
“We have a lot of younger consumers that are right into the simple fact that it comes straight from the farm, and they are interested in trying alternative flours and new ingredients,” Mr Kleemann said.
However, the biggest growth he has observed in the past years is the demand for gluten-free products.
The Lawson family have implemented strict hygiene practises for their equipment and grain storage. They get their flour tested for traces of gluten in a lab in Adelaide to ensure their flour is gluten-free.
The young farming family hopes its venture will create more opportunities for other growers.