Since marrying a vegetable farmer I’ve come to view vegetables in a whole new light. They used to be some colourful things I added to meals because I knew they were good for me.
Now I spend many many hours of my life talking and thinking about veg and how we can market them, make them more appealing and educate consumers to understand and care about them and where they come from.
Recently I interviewed a man who possibly spends just as much time as me thinking about vegetables … well beetroot actually.
His name is Colin Dorber and he represents a group of beetroot growers from the Lockyer Valley. Until last year they grew heaps of beetroot for Golden Circle to can. But Golden Circle – which is now owned by Heinz – decided it was cheaper to do the canning work in New Zealand and gave the growing contract to NZ growers, which left the Aussie growers without a market.
So they’ve been working together to try and identify a future for beetroot. Their investigations have found that beetroot is largely viewed by the marketplace as being an ‘old person’s’ food.
Think about it. When was the last time you bought canned vegetables of any kind. I’m 36 years old and the only canned veg I buy occasionally is tinned pineapple and tinned bamboo shoots (is that even a veg?).
And there in lies the problem. The trend now days is for fresh. But beetroot fresh isn’t the easiest thing to prepare … although I do have a fantastic recipe for a mean beetroot, carrot, apple and lemon salad (just add my miracle machine the Thermomix).
Mr Dorber told me: “The consumer doesn’t want it (canned beetroot). Once you open the can you can’t close it, because of the way beetroot is cooked in the can the can is chock a block full and a lot of juice ends up on the floor or down your apron.
“Our study shows there’s half a dozen potential opportunities, one is the plastic bottling of beetroot. Once you open the screw top lid you have got up to five months lifespan in the fridge.”
Mr Dorber says in the long-term the growers must focus on better marketing their product and reinventing people’s opinion of beetroot.
“We’ve got to find a way of cooking and packaging beetroot so it’s fresh and we have to introduce it to the world,” he says.
This conversation was all spared by entrepreneur and Buy Australian campaigner Dick Smith who last week gave away $100,000 worht of Australian tinned beetroot.
Let’s be clear – it was a publicity stunt, conducted on the busy corso at Manly Beach. But Mr Smith says he wanted to make a statement about Australia’s major supermarket chains.
He bought the beetroot crop from farmer Ed Fagan late last year and had it canned in Australian. But when the time came to sell the canned beetroot to the chain stores Mr Smith says they refused to buy it because they were already selling beetroot well below his cost.
“Well it was a good try but I believe this sounds the death knell for Australian farmers,” Mr Smith wrote to his supporters in an email newsletter promoting his online supermarket site www.dicksmithfoods.com.au
“I have even been told the crop in the adjoining paddock that I did not purchase was ploughed into the ground rather than be left to sit on the surface and rot. Can you imagine? There is something like one billion malnourished people in this world and our farmers are actually ploughing their crops into the ground?”
But Jon Church, Head of Communications for Coles, says Mr Smith isn’t giving the public all the facts and that Coles did not refuse to stock the product.
“Our buyer traded messages with the brand’s sales manager and he never called back,” says Mr Church.
“ However, any decision around carrying this product would be based around our requirements to offer customers a quality product at the right price and available whenever they shop. The existing product range on our shelves is also a key factor in determining which products to sell and Australian tinned beetroot is already well represented on our shelves. Our Coles brand beetroot is Australian grown, as is the Edgell branded product. Golden circle beetroot, made by Heinz, is also currently Australian made.”
So where does this leave us? There is no denying the Australian vegetable industry is under threat from cheaper imports, grown in countries with lower wages, lower interest rates, cheaper fuel prices and less red tape.
But competition does lead to innovation. While I hope each and every one of you reading this makes a stand an commits to only buying Australian-grown produce, I know deep down that isn’t going to happen.
So it’s up to Australian farmers to better communicate and innovate and for governments (local, state and federal) to ensure their policies assist Aussie farmers to remain competitive.
In the meantime if you have a good serving suggestion for fresh beetroot I’d love to hear from you.