4 November, 2020

WAIRARAPA MIDWEEK

Alternative crops investigated

Quinoa muffins, chickpea cupcakes, buckwheat cookies, amaranth pancakes - morning teas aren’t what they used to be.

Now a mainstay on menu boards in the Wairarapa, alternative grains and proteins are becoming increasingly popular - but these trendy base ingredients are mainly imported. Efforts are underway to change this, and in the process, diversify and strengthen the region’s primary sector capability and create new supply chains with provenance to our back door.

With a strong swing to non-animal and healthy natural diets, Wairarapa Water and Christchurch-based social enterprise, Leftfield Innovation, have partnered to investigate the viability of successfully growing these food groups locally.

Wairarapa has the right soils, and the extended summer and autumn growing period is ideal, according Susan Goodfellow, Leftfield director and co-founder.

“While they are pretty resilient to the dry, like all plants, these crops still need water, so ensuring this can be accessed reliably, even in small amounts, is important,” Ms Goodfellow says.

Some pulses and grains have sustainable cropping qualities with their ability to fix nitrogen and foster biodiversity. They also provide a ‘break’ from the normal crop rotations helping with weed, pest and disease management, Ms Goodfellow says.

In assessing the market, Leftfield have been in detailed discussions with a range of local food stores, restaurants, caterers, food manufacturers and suppliers, and hospitality groups to get some solid market insights.

“Supplying the domestic market is the first step, the ultimate ambition is to include New Zealand grown grains and pulses in our export food products, which will really unlock the opportunity for New Zealand growers,” says Ms Goodfellow.

Masterton-based commercial bakery Breadcraft Wairarapa has a range of innovative and nutritious products including hemp seed wraps. Access to reliable water will unlock opportunities for local farmers to grow more sustainable, high value crops.

Through the interviewing process as part of assessing the market for the food groups, Ms Goodfellow says it has been fascinating to learn how COVID has impacted trends.

“It seems that as budgets shrink, grains and pulses, which are affordable, nutritious and well regarded, are seen as a popular way to stretch out, or replace, protein.”

There is also a growing appetite globally for plant based foods, which means wholefoods such as grains and pulses, are becoming increasingly important to the end purchasers, she says.

“For many people, provenance is key - knowing that their food is grown in New Zealand is really important, but in the context of COVID, cost seems to trump this.

“From our research, it would seem in the Wairarapa we could do both - plug the demand gap for healthy wonder foods, which do not cost the world, as well as reassure consumers their health foods were grown right here on their doorstep with minimal environmental impacts.

Ms Goodfellow says it is exciting to be working on these food alternatives which could bring so much to the region, but that more work is needed.

“Access to reliable water unlocks heaps of sustainable cropping options and can create job opportunities through the supply chain, so further investigation into how we can sustainably produce these popular food groups seems a no brainer!”

The grains and pulses research is, in addition to other work that Leftfield has been doing, to look at potential changes in land-use that the Wakamoekau Community Water Storage Scheme (WCWSS) could unlock for the region.

This is important because farmers and growers are looking for ways to diversify, secure more consistent returns, use their soil and water better, move away from intensive practices, and reduce their environmental footprints. High value land uses can also provide opportunities for employment further on in the supply chain.

“There has been a great response from the growers in the region, who are really open to innovative ways to better use their resources for the best outcomes for them, and the community,” says Ms Goodfellow.

Wairarapa Water is managing the development of the Wakamoekau, which has the potential to address environmental, town, industrial and food and fibre production security of water supply.

“The Wakamoekau is about doing water storage differently,” says Robyn Wells, chief executive.

“By different, we mean sustainable water storage that delivers positive outcomes to the whole community, carefully balancing the cultural, social, environmental and economic needs of our region - where all parts are equally important as the others. We hope that by providing water security for the region in a way that the community wants it, we will unlock opportunities for a thriving and inclusive region.”

Full report available here

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