Andrew Bulmer is a spinach enthusiast, promoting the health benefits of this versatile vegetable.
He is a vegetable entrepreneur, having developed the family business into one of the biggest growers of leafy greens in Australia, and he was named 2017 Australian Farmer of the Year.
Consumers are driving up demand for fresh spinach, in part for its high iron levels.
A difficult crop to grow
The total volume of the Australian crop was 37,000 tonnes in 2018, which is up about 20 per cent in a year.
But Australian production is falling short of demand because it is a tricky vegetable to harvest.
It can grow year-round in Gippsland’s Mitchell Valley, but it has to be picked at night or the leaf size gets too big to meet supermarket specifications.
Harvesters work in all conditions and have to cut the spinach very close to the ground.
“We basically use a bandsaw blade — like you’d find in a butcher’s shop — attached to harvest machinery and you mow it off,” he said.
“You’ve only got a few millimetres that you’re playing with, between contacting the soil and picking the product at the right length.”
The Bulmer farm has struggled with labour shortages, and now sources 60 per cent of its staff from all over the Pacific and South-East Asia.
Despite the shortfall in local workers and the increase in the award wages for casual staff, Mr Bulmer is optimistic about the future.
“The growth’s been really good over the years, but we still lag behind other parts of the world when you look at household penetration,” he said.
An average household in the United Kingdom makes 15–16 purchases of spinach a year, compared to Australia’s 8–10 bags a year.
Global financial advice firm KPMG has looked at the opportunities for spinach globally.
Head of markets and agri-food tech sector Ben van Delden said the development of export hubs at regional airports in Toowoomba in Queensland and western Sydney could drive big growth into markets in South-East Asia.
“We’re seeing a lot of investment in Australia to create ‘agri-ports’, very similar to the Netherlands model, where you’ve got infrastructure for food processing, packaging and customs logistics in the one place,” Mr van Delden said.
A joint KPMG-CSIRO study identified an opportunity for fresh food exports into Asia on the back of massive growth in the per-capita income.
Exporting baby spinach has its challenges, because 90 per cent is water and it does not stay fresh for long.
Turning spinach into powder could be one solution and Mr van Delden believes it might also solve the problem of food waste on farms.
Spinach is often damaged by equipment moving through the fields, or bad weather, and spinach leaves can fail supermarket specifications by being too big or too small.
While some of that ‘imperfect’ produce ends up in animal feed now, Mr van Delden believes it could be processed into powder instead.
While turning spinach into powder could be the next thing driving growth in Mr Bulmer’s district of Lindenow, the industry may need to focus on its environmental credentials before long.
Growers are closely watching the European Union’s demands on farmers.
In the EU, countries are already putting sustainability information on their labels indicating how much water, fertiliser and chemicals they are using on the crop, how the product is packaged, and how waste is minimised.