Anyone in attendance at the recent AltProteins 22 conference will recall former Agriculture Minister Mary Anne Thomas’ enthusiastic recommendation to “Get out to Horsham!”, after learning that few in the audience have visited western Victoria’s plant protein powerhouse. The Wimmera region around Horsham is known for its excellent growing conditions for pulses, with faba beans, lentils and field peas all grown locally after farmers first began to ‘rest’ their fields with pulses as a rotational crop between cereal plantings around 35 years ago. Last week, the Food Frontier team took the former Minister’s advice and hit the road to visit Horsham and meet a few of the upstream plant protein industry players in the region.

First stop on the agenda was Horsham Grains Innovation Park, to hear from Agriculture Victoria about their ground-breaking research into crop genetics for pulse crops. The facility is home to one of five Smart Farm research locations around the state, and was recently awarded $12 million in state government funding towards new glasshouses and future construction of an innovation and a start-up incubation hub. 

Also located in the Park is the Australian Grains Genebank, the national centre for storing genetic material for plant breeding and research, where seeds are dehydrated and stored in sub-zero temperatures to ensure their availability for future researchers and farmers. Just down the road, Agriculture Victoria field locations are translating crop research into action, with ongoing studies on crop pathology and how the impacts of a changing climate, like extreme heat and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, change pulse crop viability and yields.

Dr Garry Rosewarne, Senior Research Scientist at Agriculture Victoria, explained that with 95% of locally grown lentils currently being exported to the international commodity market, the research team is looking for new opportunities to add value to local crops. “

We are working to produce pulse crops that are optimised for industry requirements and bring greater value to farmers, in the same way that CSIRO’s work produced BARLEYmax,” he said. 

Keen to learn more about where locally grown pulses are processed, the team stopped in at Australian Plant Proteins’ (APP) facility, the only plant protein fractionation facility operating at commercial scale in Australia. Currently producing 1500 tonnes of plant protein isolates each year, APP  is in the process of expanding the capacity of the Horsham facility to produce 6000 tonnes of isolate per year, while the recently announced South Australian project will eventually produce an additional 25,000 tonnes per year. 

APP co-founder Phil McFarlane explained that the Wimmera region has a competitive advantage when it comes to growing raw materials for the emerging global alternative proteins industry, as it produces “high quality pulses, that are sustainably grown with a consistent reliability compared to some other pulse growing markets around the world.” Phil highlighted the benefits of pulse crops, noting their ability to improve nitrogen levels in the soil which benefits soil quality, while “farmers can also benefit from higher yields from cereal crops that are sown after a pulse rotation.”

“Consumers know soy and pea,” explained Phil “but protein isolates produced from faba beans, mung beans, chick peas and lentils are less known especially from Australia, so there is a big opportunity here to create a story around each protein product.”

The opportunity to make new protein products with locally grown ingredients and highlight Australian providence is important too: “People want to feel a connection to a region when they are reaching for a higher value product.”

READ MORE IN ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS NEWS: Food Frontier News