New horticulture crops
Commercialising production of minor fruit and vegetable crops
Since its inception, the SA Department of Agriculture/PIRSA has played a key role in fostering the introduction of new horticultural crops and development of their associated industries. During the 1800s and early 1900s, new crop development was focused primarily on food crops that would be of significant value to the health and well being of the South Australian community.
Through the 1910s and 1920s almonds, olives and glasshouse tomatoes were in their infancy and identified as potential new crops or industries. By the 1950s they had grown to become main stream horticulture industries in South Australia.
Immigrants settling in Australia after WW2 and the Vietnam War brought interest in and a host of new fruit and vegetable crops.
The establishment of the Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party by the South Australian government in 1974 was a watershed for new crop development. It created a high level focus for developing and expanding new fruit and vegetable crops by the Department of Agriculture/PISA/PIRSA. It created momentum for new crop research and development programs for the next 20 years.
Establishment of the Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party
During the 1970s, Premier Don Dunstan was keen to see diversification of the restaurant industry and development of a 'café culture' in Adelaide, similar to the one he had experienced during his travels in Europe and Asia. He initiated a program to expand the range of new foods served in Adelaide restaurants, and encourage production of a range of new vegetables, fruits, herbs and nuts required. This Working Party was formed by the Premier in March 1974 and ran for 6 years until 1980.
Under guidance of the Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party, this alternate crops program harnessed staff and resources from the following SA Government agencies:
- Agriculture & Fisheries
- Further Education
- Economic Development
- Correctional Services
- Botanic Gardens
- State Supply Department.
It also linked with national agencies such as CSIRO, and later influenced organisations such as the Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC).
Role of the Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party
The key purpose of the Working Party was to supply various new vegetables, fruits, herbs and nuts to restaurants owned and leased by the Government (Henry Ayers House, Festival Theatre Restaurant and Waterfall Gully Restaurant), and later to private restaurants. It was proposed that these alternate crops would be produced by the Department of Correctional Services and be distributed to restaurants by the State Supply Department.
The Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party focused on a host of fruit and vegetable crops that were popular in Europe and Asia, but were not being commonly grown in Australia. It used the following steps:
- Desktop evaluation of production potential of the crop and processing requirements.
- Planting evaluation trials to assess the practical feasibility of production and expose potential growers to these new crops.
- Small volume commercial production and product/market assessment by commercial growers.
- Evaluation of new products by chefs.
Of particular importance were the visits from international chefs, and development of chef training programs at the new Department of Further Education School of Food and Catering Services facility established at Regency Park (under the management of Mr Graham Latham). Young chefs being trained at this facility were supplied with these new fruit and vegetable products to gain experience in how they could be used in innovative new menus.
Information generated from growing trials was used to produce a series of fact sheets about a range of new vegetable crops. These were aimed predominately at the home garden audience (in part to stimulate consumer interest) and distributed through the Department of Agriculture’s publication system.
Production districts and climates
To provide suitable climatic zones for new crop evaluation, trials were conducted at the Department of Agriculture’s Northfield, Loxton and Lenswood Research Centres. Some commercial assessment trials were also located on grower properties in the Adelaide Hills.
Early semi commercial production trials for these crops also occurred within the Department of Correctional Services at various prison farms, under the supervision of Mr Bruce Farquhar. The most significant area of semi commercial production of fruit and nut crops was established at Cadell Prison farm.
A wide array of Department of Agriculture staff with experience in horticulture crops were involved in assembling information and establishing trials to develop technical information about the new crops.
The Department of Agriculture employed a Technical Officer (Mr Geoff Lomman) who was dedicated to evaluating many of new vegetable and herb crops. Support was provided by a range of other horticultural research officers and advisers.
Mr Dick Henderson and Ms Shirley Sylvia were employed to assist with development of new vegetable crops in the Riverland. In addition, Mr Farnell Hobman was also employed as a Senior Research Officer New Crops at Loxton Research Centre to focus on perennial crops. A range of other research staff assisted with trial plantings and development new industries in the Riverland and other districts.
Presentation of new virus free avocado trees to Mr J. Gordon, President of SA Avocado Improvement Co by Mr Ron Webber. Loxton Research Centre, Nov 1974.
Outcomes from Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party
While Premier Dunstan was keen for the Department of Correctional Services to undertake commercial production of these new crops to supply restaurants, focus was ultimately moved to encouraging the commercial growers to develop production.
By 1980, the new horticulture crops program demonstrated that many of the new vegetable crops could be successfully grown in various districts of South Australia. It successfully fostered interest from a number of smaller growers and provided technical support to develop commercial production. The project forged marketing links between growers, restaurants and consumers interested in these new horticulture products.
With increasing demand coming from the restaurant and catering industry, production of many of these crops began to expand. Today many of the fruit and vegetable crops evaluated in the new horticulture crops program of the 1970s are commonly available in supermarkets and retailers (eg snow peas, peppers, cherry tomatoes, new lettuces, seed sprouts, zucchini).
Key crops assessed
A key part of this visionary strategy was proving the viability of a wide range of new fruit, vegetable and food crops not commonly grown in Australia at that time, and fostering their commercial and economic production.
Initially crops were grouped according to their suitability under SA’s climatic zones. Crops requiring a tropical climate were deemed unsuitable and were discounted (eg paw paw and lychees) because of frost. Some with marginal suitability to SA’s climate could be grown with careful selection of production sites (eg West Indian limes, feijoas). Some new crops were already under evaluation by the Department of Agriculture at this time (eg pistachio, avocado).
After some initial screening, more than 40 different fruit, vegetable, herb and nut crops not in common production at that time were assessed. Some were specialty new varieties, while others were for specific frozen, oil, dehydrated or processed food products. This included:
- cucurbits: melons, squash, pumpkin, cucurbit flowers
- capsicums and peppers, a wide range
- carrots: baby and other types
- celery, celeriac
- Chinese cabbage and Chinese spinach
- dry edible beans
- kohl rabi
- lettuce: cos, romaine and other types
- mini beetroot, for pickling
- mung bean, alfalfa and other seed sprouts
- okra and rosella
- sugar beets
- sugar/snow peas
- sunflower, safflower
- sweetcorn and popcorn, mini sweetcorn
- sweet potato
- tomato, cherry and other special types
- blueberry, blackberry: range of bramble berries
- chinese gooseberry/kiwi fruit
- custard apple
- limes, West Indian & Tahitian types
- pomegranate, for juice
- sour cherry, part of sweet cherry program
- table grapes, special varieties for juice production
- tamarillo, New Zealand tree tomato.
Regional New Crop Working Parties
The Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party activities fostered establishment of multi agency crop regional networked assessment projects (mainly by the SA Department of Agriculture & Fisheries and Department of Correctional Services) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These projects assessed potential new perennial crops suited to regional environments and operated at:
- Lenswood Research Centre
- Loxton Research Centre
- Struan Research Centre
- Cadell Training Centre.
The most significant of these was the Murray Lands Alternative Perennial Crops Working Party which was established in 1978 and operated until the mid 1980s. Its objective was to “provide a forum to examine the potential for alternative perennial crops in the Murray Lands Region”. Terms of reference for this working party were:
- Provide an ongoing monitoring of the potential for new perennial horticultural crops for the Murray Lands region.
- Report to regional management on the priorities for research, development, and extension of potential new crops.
- Provide oversight of projects in Murray Lands relating to the development of new perennial crops.
- Liaise with other regions/divisions in the development of new perennial crops.
The Murray Lands Alternative Perennial Crops Working Party undertook the following functions:
- Facilitated sourcing of planting material for some new crops/varieties.
- Assessed and developed propagation techniques.
- Identified nursery sources and established source areas for bud wood.
- Evaluated marketing opportunities and potential for commercial plantings and profitability.
- Prepared bulletins, fact sheets and other publications.
- Evaluated impact of climate (e.g. severe frost).
Initial members of the Murray Lands Alternative Perennial Crops Working Party were Ian Bond (Chairman), Dick Henderson, Tom Simes, Lew Mc Master (Lenswood) and Tony Bass (secretary).
Under guidance of this Working Party, New Crop Development Officer, Mr Farnell Hobman conducted a series of feasibility studies on pistachio, walnut, olives, carob, persimmons production in the Riverland and other districts. Information from these feasibility studies were extended to a range of growers interested in these new crops.
Major desktop studies
As part of assessing new crop opportunities, a series of desktop evaluations (of production and market feasibility) were commenced. Following are some examples of the desktop studies undertaken during and shortly after the life of the Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party. :
- The Potential for Expanding Dessert Melon Production in SA (Ellis M.; SA Department of Agriculture)
- The Essential Oil Industry - Proposal for Establishment in SA (Anon; Department of Economic Development; Nov 1978)
- Dehydrated Vegetable production in SA – a feasibility study to determine prospects for (Ellis M.; SA Department of Agriculture; Mar 1979)
- Canned Artichoke Imports to Australia (Ragless D.C.; SA Department of Agriculture; Aug 1979)
- Frozen Fruit and Vegetable Production in SA – a preliminary feasibility study (Anon; SA Department of Agriculture, Department of Economic Development; Aug 1979)
- Vegetable Crops with Potential for Increased Production in SA (Ellis M.; SA Department of Agriculture; Dec 1979)
- A Study Tour to South West USA to Investigate Vegetable Dehydration (Henderson R.D.; SA Department of Agriculture; July 1980)
- Herbs and Spices – Production and Markets (Ragless D.C.; SA Department of Agriculture; 1981)
- Potential Viability of a Peppermint and Spearmint Industry in SA (Australian Agricultural Consulting and Management Co; Aug 1983)
- An Asparagus Industry for SA (Hobman R.F.; SA Department of Agriculture; Oct 1988)
New crop development into the 1990s
After cessation of the Government Fruit and Vegetable Garden Working Party, work continued on a series of new horticultural crop initiatives, and these projects generated their own momentum. A number of these were supported with federal funding from Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC specialises in fostering new crop development).
Following is a brief description of the most significant new horticultural crop development projects that emerged in the 1990s.
Development of garlic production was seen as an important priority, and a program to facilitate development of a garlic industry in the Riverland was established at Loxton Research Centre. Lead by Vegetable Adviser Mr Dick Henderson (previously a County Farm Vegetable Adviser from California) with support from Ms Shirley Sylvia, this project evaluated garlic varieties and selected (and multiplied) virus free clones for use by the industry.
In conjunction with a number of commercial growers (led by Mr Roger Schmitke, President of Australian Garlic Industry Association), the project assisted the development of mechanical aids for a number of garlic production phases. Cool storage and vernalisation techniques for stored garlic seed cloves were also developed by Technical Officer Mr Jim Hill at Loxton Research Centre.
These initiatives to improve the quality of planting material and assisted mechanization and fostered significant expansion of the Australian garlic industry across the Murray Darling Basin through the 1990’s. However expansion of cheap garlic imports from China resulted in reduction of Australian garlic production during the early 2000’s. In recent years there has been some recovery of the industry as consumers recognise the superior quality of Australian garlic.
Further information about the Australian garlic industry can be obtained from Australian Garlic Industry Association.
Watercress is a long established traditional salad crop in the UK, Europe and other parts of the world, but is not well known in Australia. Consumers who have experienced it overseas enjoy it peppery flavor in salads, sandwiches and a variety of cooked dishes.
A joint project between PIRSA, RIRDC and Holla-Fresh Pty Ltd (Millicent) in 2006 (coordinated by John Fennell) assembled a wide array of information about watercress production, its potential health benefits, and opportunities for greater use in the Australian diet. Read the 73 page report Potential for Watercress Production in Australia, written by John Fennell.
Holla-Fresh is now a major commercial producer of watercress.
South East new cool crop development
During the 1990s commercial production of several traditional horticulture crops was developed in the South East with a view of utilising the irrigation potential in this district (this included cherries, lemons and walnuts). Over the past 20 years, trials have also been conducted with essential oils (peppermint, spearmint), pyrethrum and dried culinary beans. District Horticultural Adviser, Mr Mark Bartetzko has played a key role in fostering and coordinating these trials.
While commercial production of these crops is technically feasible in the South East, large scale commercial production has failed to materialise for a range of marketing, competitiveness and business issues.
During a period of increasing world pyrethrum consumption and prices, Tasmania based Botanical Resources of Australia (BRA produce 60% of the world’s pyrethrum) began searching for suitable cool climate districts in which to expand production. In 1998, Botanical Resources Australia and Primary Industries & Resources SA (PIRSA), with Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC) funding began a 3 year production development program in the Lower South East.
This program demonstrated that climate, soils, irrigation water and grower skills were suitable for development of a pyrethrum industry in the South East.
However by 2001 when the program was nearing completion, world pyrethrum demand declined. Significant investment was needed for a preliminary processing facility near Mt Gambier, and transport costs to move raw product to Ulverstone, Tasmania via Portland were high. Ultimately BRA decided not to proceed with development of a pyrethrum industry in the South East.
Subsequently during another period of high world pyrethrum demand, BRA established production into the Ballarat district in 2008. By 2010, the area of pyrethrum production around Ballarat had expanded to over 500 ha, and BRA had commenced development of a first stage post harvest processing facility.
Further information is available at Botanical Resources Australia.
Dried culinary beans
During the late 1980s, there was strong interest in establishing a dried culinary bean industry in the South East of SA. This involved production of a range of bean types such as Red Kidney, Black Eye, Adzuki, Navy and Borlotti. PIRSA established a series of demonstration trials on grower properties for 3 years. These proved the suitability of the district for irrigated summer production of these beans.
However, it was difficult for high cost irrigated production of culinary beans to compete with lower cost broadacre summer rainfall production in south east Queensland. A lack of strong commercial market support resulted in declining interest, and the South East culinary bean industry failed to develop.
Essential oil crops: peppermint and spearmint
During the 1920s, experimental plots of peppermint and spearmint demonstrated the suitability of the South East district for irrigated production of these crops for oil extraction. These trials demonstrated that high quality peppermint and spearmint oil crops could be grown in the South East. However producing these crops profitably has always been an issue.
A spike in world prices for essential oil crops during the late 1980s reignited interest in these crops. Despite a series of minor trials that confirmed suitability of the district’s climate, soils and irrigation systems, the industry did not develop. The high cost of oil distillation, price competitiveness with natural rainfall production in regions like northern USA (e.g. Wisconsin), and long term storage of oil by overseas producers made it difficult for South East growers to be cost competitive.
Australian native food crops
During the late 1990s there was considerable interest in developing a range of Australian native food crops. Commercial companies were beginning to use these crops in a range of simmer sauces, jams, chutneys and other processed foods. However there was a lack of commercial growers and technical information.
Key native food crops identified for commercial development included several native citrus species, quandong, wattle seed, muntries, bush tomato, mountain pepper, lemon myrtle, lemon aspen and muntries.
PIRSA in conjunction with Paringa based Australian Native Produce Industries Pty. Ltd. contracted an Industry Development Consultant, Mr Anthony Hele, to assemble technical information, produce a series of fact sheets, and run a number of workshops for native food crops producers. This program ran until 2002.
Australian new crops newsletter
The Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC) funded a national project that produced a 6 monthly Australian New Crops Newsletter. The first edition of this newsletter was published in January 1994.
Edited by Ian Wood (I.M. Wood & Associates, Kenmore Hills, Qld) and Dr Rob Fletcher (University of Qld, Gatton), this newsletter gathered and distributed information about new crops to individuals and organizations involved in new crops research across Australia.
Further information about development of new crops in Australia is available at AgriFutures Australia.
- Bond I.P. (1984); A Look at the Californian Pistachio Industry; SA Department of Agriculture Technical Report No 48.
- Ellis M. (1980); Herbs and Spices, SA Department of Agriculture Market Development Paper No 2.
- Hele A. (2001); The Native Food Industry in SA, Primary Industries & Resources SA, Fact Sheet
- Hobman F.R. (1991); Report on a Tour to Study Horticultural Crop Production and Research and Extension Services in South America, the United states, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and England; SA Department of Agriculture Technical Report No 148.
- Hobman F.R. (1995): An Economic Study into Irrigated Olive Growing and Oil Processing in Southern Australia, RIRDC Report No 95/5.
- Hobman F.R. (1995): An Economic Study into Dryland Olive Growing and Oil Processing in Southern Australia, RIRDC Report No 95/17.
- Hobman F.R. (1994); The Olive Industry in Central Italy and Southern Spain – a study tour report. RIRDC Report No 94/7.
- Lomman G.J. (1987); Broccoli Cultivar Trials 1983-84, SA Department of Agriculture Technical Report No 114.
- Lomman G.J., Rogers I.S., Philp B.W. (1987); Testing of Chinese Cabbage, Summer Cauliflowers and Brussels Sprouts Cultivars, SA Department of Agriculture Technical Report No 116.
- Lomman G.J. (1988): Commercial Brassica Production in SA, SA Department of Agriculture Market Development Paper No 6.
- Lomman G.J. (1991); Onions and Allied Crops in SA, SA Department of Agriculture Market Development Paper No 13. (includes information about shallot, garlic, leeks and chives.)
This article was prepared by Barry Philp with support from Don Plowman. June 2014.