Most farmers will agree starting a business from scratch is a challenge, but what about introducing an entirely new food crop to the competitive health market? Rachel Lovell speaks to John Foss about his decision to abandon wheat in favour of the chia seed.
Australian wheat farmer John Foss has seen his business change massively in the last 15 years.
Surveying his crop in the face of yet another drop in wheat prices and frustrated by the lack of connection between him as a grower and those who consumed the food he grew, he felt a driving need for change.
A fourth generation farmer, he decided to find his new way forward, not through imitation of the success of others, but through research and forging his own niche. To do this, he applied for a Nuffield Scholarship in 2001.
The scholarship, which involved six months of travel experiencing farming in different places, took John to the USA and then the UK, his visit coinciding with the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.
He says: “Because of this, I could not spend a lot of time with farmers and I was forced to fulfil my research elsewhere – with food manufacturers and retailers.
“I ended up really analysing the food policy drivers of these businesses and understanding the supply chain at many levels.”
As such, John spent time with a spectrum of organisations including major retailers Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, and Marks and Spencers; farming and environmental groups such as Leaf, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, plus a number of Government agencies and industry organisations in London and Brussels.
It was this experience which gave John an insight into food trends which would have been impossible to access any other way.
“The great thing was, as I was coming in as a neutral, everyone was so open and accommodating.
“The UK at the time was much further ahead than Australia on food traceability, quality assurance, farmers’ markets and sustainability; food companies were looking to improve the nutrition of their food, and Governments in the UK and further afield were encouraging healthy eating.
“I could see it would be a major trend, so when I headed back home it was the health and wellness market which I wanted to cater for.”
Believing his research was highlighting the need for an entirely new product, John started out by researching ancient grains with health benefits.
His research led him to learn of an extraordinarily nutrient-dense seed called chia, grown by indigenous communities in central and South America and documented to have been eaten by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans as early as 3500 BC.
John was initially sceptical when he heard chia was the richest combined plant source of omega 3, fibre and protein.
Determined to find out for himself, John travelled to the region and started talking to farmers on the ground and had samples of seed tested. Remarkably, the results supported the nutritional claims.
“It was hard to believe at first; if chia is so nutritionally beneficial, then why was it not already in use in the food industry?
“I found it was simply down to connectivity – there was no-one to make the link between traditional growing and the wider commercial market so there was no awareness of the crop in the food industry and no capacity to grow this awareness,” John explains.
Discovering the potential benefits of chia was just the start of the journey. The Latin American crop was of erratic quality with highly variable nutrition levels which fluctuated with the seasons. Believing it was critical for food manufacturers and consumers that every batch should have optimum nutritional content, John set about experimenting in Australia to find the ideal growing conditions to provide a consistent crop.
“I wanted to find out what impacted the crop’s omega-3 levels. I knew there would be a way of getting it to an optimum level and this is what I needed to hit the health and wellness market with an on-pack health claim.”
After numerous research trials where he tested the oils produced under different growing conditions, John found the plant’s photosensitivity dictates the omega-3 level.
“It has to be grown 15-degrees north or south of the equator; day length is critical to the quality,” John explains.
“I also wanted to grow chia in an environment where we could water the crop, so I could guarantee the quality of every batch.”
Armed with this information, John hit his first challenge – his own wheat farm was rain fed, with no irrigation and located in the wrong place; 32-degrees south of the equator.
Undeterred, he studied maps and hit the road again, this time to visit farmers in a valley in his own country.
“I already knew some sugar farmers in the Ord Valley, located 2,000 miles north of my own farm.
“The Ord Valley has the perfect location for chia at 15-degrees south of the equator and it has a distinct dry season to grow the crop and ample water for irrigation.
“It is also home to a group of smart and passionate farmers. They had been feeling the same frustrations around growing sugar as a commodity crop and were receptive to the idea of switching to chia.
“They were excited to get more connected to the consumer and to be doing something which would make a positive difference to people’s health.”
Today, the 14,000 hectares (34,600 acres) of valley is devoted to crops, predominantly chia. It is rotated with legumes such as chickpeas and beans, grass species, such as sorghum, and other ancient grains, including quinoa, for sustainability and soil health.
“It is a heavy clay alkaline soil, where irrigation runs through furrows and is held by the clay. This is pretty important, given it is 45degC in day and 15-20degC at night.”
The irrigation water comes from Lake Argyle, the biggest reservoir in northern Australia.
“The water is run-off from the monsoon season so the lake fills every year. It is gravity-fed irrigation, but only 2.5 per cent of the annual outflow is used for the crop, while hydropower from the dam meets the local town and farms electrical needs.”
The annual crop is drilled in April using European-made equipment as the depth and spacing customisation needs to be more refined for chia.
“It is a tiny seed, so placement is important. We use a lot of the latest technology, with GPS and auto steer on tractors, crop monitoring by satellites and remote soil moisture detection, but we also use a lot of labour too. Weeding is done by hand, often by backpackers.”
It is harvesting which is the most demanding part of the crop cycle. Perfect timing is absolutely critical as John says one of the seed’s redeeming features at point of sale is what makes it a challenge to grow commercially.
“The seeds are hydrophilic, which means when they make contact with water they react to make a gel. This same property makes them ideal for weight management as they give a full feeling.”
John and his team identify when plants are ready for harvest by a simple visual assessment – when rubbed seeds should change from white to black for black chia or to a bright white colour for white chia.
“They also change from having a bitter taste, a natural deterrent to insects, to a mild nutty flavour when the oils have formed and they are ready to harvest.
“The crop is then swathed and left to dry in the sun for 10 days. This is a really important part of ripening the grain and ensuring it is top quality and consistently so. After this it is combined, cleaned and packed,” John explains.
This all means John’s team is highly reliant on an extensive fair weather window; not so much of a challenge in this part of northern Australia with the dry season and a bit of careful planning. An equally significant issue is wind.
“Chia seeds form on an elongated head, so wind really can be an issue. If we get the timing wrong we could end up with all of the seeds shedding onto the ground.”
The Chia Co’s iconic orange packs of seeds are on sale in health food stores all over the world. With more than 10 million packs sold last year, the future of the crop looks positive.
“Consumers buy them to put on cereal and yoghurt, in salads and smoothies. They just know it does them good and they feel better.”
The business has also invested in new product development beyond the straightforward seed packs, releasing ‘oats + chia’ breakfast pouches and ‘Chia Pods’ – both of which follow the health and wellness line, made only from whole foods, with no preservatives or additives.
The business also supplies chia seeds to food companies to add nutrition to their products. Recently the company partnered with Hovis to produce chia bread, now sold by several major UK retailers.
Farmers the world over seek success by imitating others, but for John it was stepping out of this cycle and taking an educated punt on something new, an agricultural leap of faith, which brought him the success he deserves.
John’s research and trials suggest this is unlikely. If a variety could be found or developed which could grow at the UK’s latitude, the next challenge would be ripening of the seed. We simply do not have the fair weather windows enjoyed by Australia and South America.
However, there may be ways around this issue. The only way to really know for certain is to follow John’s lead and experiment.