Ancient native grains, or ‘dhunbarbila’, could kick off a new industry in north-west New South Wales after a year-long study by the University of Sydney found them to be commercially viable.
- Indigenous groups from northern NSW have shared knowledge with researchers to test 15 different grains
- Native millet has the most potential with its strong growth, ease of processing and health benefits
- The researchers say the next step is to build a market for the produce
The study, in conjunction with local Indigenous groups and farmers around Narrabri, Moree and Walgett, examined 15 native grain crops, found in grassland and open woodland ecosystems.
The Indigenous Grasslands for Grains project factored in everything from sustainable growing through to harvesting, processing, sales and food production.
“We know these grains are edible — they taste delicious — we know that they grow well, we know environmentally and culturally, they are very significant,” study leader Dr Angela Pattison said.
“[We are] not just looking at nutrition or … at the agronomy. What we have to do is look at it from paddock all the way through to the plate.”
Dr Pattison said native millet was found to have the most potential on Gomeroi country, with its strong growth, ease of processing and the health benefits of the product.
“It seems to have the best of all worlds,” she said.
But, Dr Pattison said, the other species might be more suited to niche use. For example, purslane — commonly referred to as a weed — had potential for export.
“For something like pigweed, or purslane, there’s a lot of interest because it’s not only found in Australia, it’s native to many countries around the world,” she said.
“But in terms of the grains, it is a case of just connecting it through to the bakers and the food producers and seeing who wants to buy it and how much they want to start with and just work our way up from there.”
She said it was also one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
“Any farmer knows that it grows on the barest, harshest soil in the middle of summer with no water,” Dr Pattison said.
Dr Pattison hoped by combining the Indigenous knowledge of history and understanding of native grass management and production they could build a brand and market domestically and internationally.
The next challenges
Researchers said this was the most comprehensive trial of Indigenous paddock-to-plate produce in Australia.
It was done in consultation with Aboriginal foods expert Bruce Pascoe, ecologists, food and social scientists, and marketing and business advisors.
“Even with current pricing regimes and initial low consumer demand, our modelling showed that in some circumstances, native grain cropping was economically viable,” the University’s agricultural economist Dr Shauna Phillips said.
But the next step will be to improve the processing of seeds and build a market for them.
“The threshability is the biggest [challenge],” Dr Pattison said.
Whole community to benefit
As well as bringing cultural and economic benefits for local Gomeroi people, Dr Pattison said the native grains project could benefit farmers in the region.
The research found native grass production may be included in farm plans along with crops and could be useful to fatten cattle.
It also suggests non-arable land could be better utilised and become more profitable by being devoted to native grain production.
“Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay country in north-west NSW is one of the largest Aboriginal language groups in Australia, and they are proudly known as grass people,” Dr Pattison said.
Gomeroi man Callum Craigie has been working alongside Dr Pattison and the Native Grasses for Grains working group and hoped it could lead to a new industry, create jobs and celebrate culture for years to come.
“It’s time somebody did something like this with native grasses,” he said.