It wasn’t just toilet paper and pasta stripped from supermarket shelves when COVID-19 took hold.
- Australian organic grain growers were forced to adapt to meet the needs of consumers when COVID-19 struck
- Organic products have been particularly popular among consumers
- Producers say the pandemic has made consumers think more about where they source their food
Farmers also became caught in the frenzy of panic buying, among them biodynamic grain grower Tania Walter.
Lockdown meant they could no longer sell their range of packaged grains at farmers’ markets.
Panicky consumers, fearful of food shortages, swamped them with calls, demanding bulk bags of wheat, lentils and flour.
Then cars started lining up outside their farm gate in north-west Victoria.
“Initially, we thought our wheat would go into the organic animal food market, probably leaving the farm by a truck,” Ms Walter said.
Instead, they met the demands of established customers and then tried to satisfy new ones by selling consumer-sized parcels of grain.
Consumers wanted to know more
As home-baked sourdough breadmaking surged in popularity during lockdown, the family seized the opportunity to begin milling their wheat, oats, spelt and buckwheat into flour.
They worked around the clock for months.
Ms Walter said the upside of fear of shortages during the pandemic caused people to think more about where their food came from.
“I think it’s opened up a lot of people’s eyes, and they’ve got an appreciation for locally grown product and how it’s grown, and it has been fantastic,” she said.
They have a new array of customers with artisan home and commercial bakers.
There’s also been a surge in sales and interest at John Farnan’s family business Zeally Bay Sourdough at Torquay on Victoria’s surf coast.
The Farnan family began baking sourdough bread in Geelong in the 1980s, years before it was fashionable.
Instead of yeast to make the bread rise, they use leaven, a combination of fermented grain and water that dates back to ancient times.
They opened a commercial bakery in 2007, baking bread from only certified organic or biodynamic grains and ingredients.
The bakery also sources unconventional and old varieties of grain produced by organic and biodynamic growers like the Walter family.
Their spelt goes into low gluten and gluten-free breads as well as a range of wholemeal loaves.
‘Knowing it’s your grain’
Biodynamic grain growers from Victoria’s Mallee region, the Edwards family, is a major supplier to Zeally Bay.
No chemicals or artificial fertilisers are used to grow their crops. While yields are slightly less than those grown conventionally, their grains fetch around double the price.
Their ‘gourmet grain’ goes into Zeally Bay’s ‘Mallee loaf’, a golden square-topped loaf made entirely from wheat grown on the Edwards’ farm.
Barry Edwards, a biodynamic farmer since 1986, is proud of the end result.
“To know that it’s only your grain. It’s not a mixture of 500 farmers,” Mr Edwards said.
Baker John Farnan is full of praise.
“It’s so pure in its provenance, and the flavour is really something. When you taste it, you’ll know what I mean,'” he said.
Japanese noodles made in Ballarat
Japanese-owned noodle maker Hakubaku in Ballarat is experiencing double-digit growth for organic products.
“We make authentic Japanese noodles. Udon, soba, ramen and soma recently as a new product,” general manager Ryuji Nakamura said.
Organic or biodynamic flour is fed into a hopper at the head of the factory’s 50-metre-long production line. It’s mixed into dough, flattened into sheets and split into noodles, which are then extruded and dried and for packaging.
The company set up in Australia in 1998, after a global search for the world’s highest quality organic wheat and varieties best suited to make Japanese-style noodles.
Until now, a lack of volume has constrained production but growing consumer demand has some of Australia’s biggest grain growers switching to organic production.
Forty per cent of Hakubaku’s sales are to the United States and demand from Europe is also increasing.
The company will soon build a new factory to double current production.
Back among the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread at Zeally Bay, John Farnan reminisces about his youth and how he embraced ‘surf culture’ principles of going back to nature and producing and eating natural foods.
He admires farmers like the Walter and Edwards families.
“We see them as ethical agriculturalists. They’re people like us that have this commitment, it’s a kind of blind faith, but it’s profound commonsense that chemicals don’t mix with food.”