United team on quest for better beets
Reporter: Pip Courtney
First Published: 13/10/2002
Chefs call beetroot's both "the bossy vegetable" and the "kitchen bully", because its colour is so dominant.
It is a vegetable with a curious history in Australia, for while other countries serve it hot, much like we dish up carrots, here, tins of cold pickled beetroot have been a staple in Australian kitchen cupboards for more than 40 years.
Queensland plant pathologist Heidi Martin says an American scientist who visited the DPI last year was astonished by the taste of the canned variety and Australians ardour for it.
"They don't eat it or pickle it, they don't eat it on hamburgers and that is one of Australian's greatest loves is beetroot on hamburgers," Heidi Martin said.
"Meg was so astounded by how we eat our beetroot that she actually took photos of hamburgers in restaurants because she could not get over it. I think we taught them a thing or two about how they should be eating their beetroot," Heidi Martin said.
Even farmers whose families have grown beetroot since the 1940s are not sure why tinned beetroot is such a fixture in Australian pantries.
"I don't really know, I don't know if it is handed down or what it is. It has just started and just kept going," Peter Lerch, Beetroot grower, said.
"I just think it's the Australian psyche. It's like the meat pie, there is not a salad roll without a piece of beetroot on it. If you haven't got it on there you may as well not have it. It just doesn't taste the same," beetroot grower Peter Voight said.
Golden Circle is the country's main processor of beetroot, canning 20,000 tonnes a year.
The company thinks English migrants brought a love of beets and pickling recipes with them.
"When I thought about it I thought it had to be because of our ancestry, because going to the UK - beetroot is very popular in the UK," Barry Kelly from Golden Circle said.
It does not worry growers too much that no one can explain for sure why Australians like their beetroot cold and pickled, they just concentrate on growing what Golden Circle wants.
All the beetroot that ends up at Golden Circle's Brisbane factory is grown in the Lockyer Valley an hour west of Brisbane.
Just eight families grow what the cannery needs to stock the country's supermarket shelves with beetroot under its own brand, as well as the Edgell's and Home Brand labels.
Doug Lerch is in his 80s and he has grown beetroot since the days they were picked by hand and thrown in sugar sacks.
"We started growing beetroot 45 to 46 years ago, oh when I went to school I grew them. We didn't grow much back then, just put them in as a bit of a cash crop you know but there were no contracts. Now it's really gone ahead," Doug Lerch, beetroot grower, said.
When Doug started out on the family farm near Gatton, he ran a mixed farm, by the time his sons Peter and Gary took over beetroot was the main crop.
Doug's son Peter says there are good reasons nearly all the nation's processing beetroot is grown in the Lockyer Valley
"I think it is the climate and close proximity to the cannery. I suppose the quality of the water is a little bit hard but they seem to like that it has just evolved over the years," Peter Lerch said.
In the last 15 years the number of growers in the Lockyer has dropped from 20 to 8, with those left increasing their tonnage to make up the shortfall.
For Peter the increasing importance and consolidation of the industry has been unexpected.
"I suppose I am surprised. It was a gradual change over 30 years, you don't really take any notice of that," Peter Lerch said.
With eight family farms producing all Golden Circle's beets it's possible for the whole industry to fit into a small room.
"With only a small group of growers we are constantly sharing information and working together. We are a pretty close knit bunch of farmers and families and we think it's working well for us," Peter Voight said.
Peter's farm is a sea of beetroot in various stages of growth.
Like Peter Lerch, Peter Voight's father and grandfather were beetroot growers.
The two Peters are agreed their fathers had it much tougher.
"He's seen a lot of changes over the years and I think he is very glad he was a part of the industry when all those changes were taking place, it was a very exciting time for the beetroot industry. It was very humble beginnings for the beetroot and to see how it has expanded the way it has is just incredible," Peter Voight said.
While the grandfathers and fathers had the challenge of moving from hand harvesting small plantings to getting bigger and finding machines to replace the hundreds of pickers, the next generation's big challenge is to conquer the soil diseases that are markedly cutting their yields.
Growers, Golden Circle and the DPI are working together to do this.
"We rely heavily on Golden Circle to work with us and to help us manage and find better ways of doing things, so we can do it cheaper in actual fact," Peter Voight said.
"I think it has been a long time since there has been research effort into beetroot and I think the growers are at a point now where it is a very major issue. The industry is on the verge of becoming unviable, so they are really looking at this as a last hope I guess without sounding too dramatic, but if we can make some good headway it will be a good achievement and it would be great to do that for the industry," Heidi Martin, DPI, said.
Heidi Martin is leading the team that is trying to solve the growers' problems.
"Basically at the cannery they are finding a lot of off type beetroot. There is a lot of misshapen beetroot coming through the cannery and out in the paddock a lot of the growers are having trouble just simply right from the word go. When the plants are very small they have issues with plants dying off and the plants that do survive give you this misshapen appearance at harvest and that is causing a lot of quality reductions and a lot of deductions at the cannery. So it is really a problem going right through harvest," Heidi said.
The problems have arisen as growers have endeavoured to extend the beetroot season to fit in with the cannery's requirements.
Soil diseases are killing or weakening the beets at the start and finish of the longer season which now runs from February to December, as well, some beetroot paddocks are getting tired.
"A lot of the growers are landlocked here. They don't have enough room to move and some of them have been growing beetroots for up to 40 years on the same ground with only minimal rotation and that obviously is placing enormous pressure on the land. Just a degradation of the system over time," Heidi said.
"There are not a lot of other crops beetroot is compatible with in a rotation system and the area of land you need for a full rotation makes it cost prohibitive but you do need to break the beetroot cycle with a crop every now and again it is in your best interests to look after your farming land by doing that but sometimes it is very difficult," Peter Voight said.
"So we are in a vicious circle at the moment because the number of growers is quite small and so that means those guys that are there really have to plant beetroot all through the year and they are planting into a window where beetroot should not be grown, but because there are so few of them and Australians love there beetroot, farmers have no choice really,' Heidi said.
Heidi's team is searching out all the soil pathogens it can find.
They now have a disease bank in their lab at Gatton.
Heidi takes each fungi, makes a liquid form of it and infects young beetroot plants to see if the pathogen they have is benign or disease causing... If it's a baddy the next step is to find something that will stop the bug in its tracks.
"I am confident we can turn that around but you don't turn that around overnight, that's the unfortunate part. It will take a few years but with the pathogen problems in the soil there has been some successes with that and we are looking at getting those chemicals registered in Australia and that doesn't come in five minutes either. It takes time but we are positive that in two years we will have the returns the yields per acre up so growers are doing much better than they are today," Barry Kelly, Golden Circle, said.
The industry's other main problem is seed quality.
The only beetroot breeding program in the world is in the US.
The quality of the seed sent to Australia is poor, suited to very cold not very hot weather and the genetic variety is limited.
"A lot of the trouble with disease is that we are having trouble with germination and establishment because of the quality of the seed. So you irrigate more than you should to get the beetroot up and that starts the whole process. You can have beetroot grown in one paddock would have some sort of disease and the next year none. It is very hard, you think you have the answer and the next year you do something different to alleviate that and it happens again. It is a long term thing we have to look at to see what we can do with it," Peter Lerch said.
"Even to source those variety's of seed has been very difficult in the last few seasons and again the seed we have got has been substandard and that is very frustrating. You can not keep your costs contained unless you have got the very best quality of ingredients," Peter Voight said.
"The overseas varieties are suited to their climate and what they do with them after they are grown. So we have to find a variety that suits our conditions and if no one else in the world is doing that sort of thing it's a bit hard," Peter Lerch said.
Relying on just three varieties puts growers in a precarious situation, so Heidi asked Australian seed companies to use their overseas contacts to find as many types of beetroot seed as possible... Anything they could lay their hands on.
23 new varieties were tracked down, but with most of them emanating from the U.S. only nine were considered worth trailing.
They are being grown in commercial plots on farms around Gatton.
They are being picked, assessed and sent to Golden Circle for canning and then further assessment.
If they are the wrong shape, have white circles or they do not taste right they are out.
Growers are hoping just one will be better than the three they rely on.
The DPI together with an Australian seed company is also doing some plant breeding of its own, in case the overseas varieties don't pan out.
"I think with this selection program only started in the last few months and the first seed will come out of the program next year, it is quite a quick turn around and from there it is incremental steps to improve the line even further. So within a few years we may see an improvement on what is currently grown which is quite an achievement," Heidi said.
With the scientists working closely with growers to solve the problem of poor seed and yield crippling soil diseases, Golden Circle is looking to do more things with the purple veg.
The Australian market is mature, meaning we are buying as much beetroot as we ever will.
But to entice us to eat even more the cannery brought out tinned beetroot in herbs and garlic, baby beets, beetroot wedges and beets that can be heated packed in glass jars.
"The normal beetroot far outsells anything else we put up, so it's fundamentally the old favourite. The old formula is working very well for us. Yes, secret herbs and spices and when we do pack for other people like home brands we don't put our formula syrup in there, we put in the plain that is what gives us the advantage," Barry Kelly, Golden Circle, said.
While the company tries to get our consumption up it is also trying to increase overseas sales.
"Well it goes into a lot of the Asian countries where the exports all go to Hong Kong and New Zealand but we have a nice market in NZ and the South Pacific Island. Funnily enough we are market leader in beetroot in Singapore and that come about because of an article that the government put in the paper about the virtues of eating beetroot and Singaporeans have taken to beetroot. Now we are looking to do a beetroot juice for that market and even develop one for the local market because more and more people are looking at health connotations and so forth. We've got to think all the time what else can we do with beetroot. Now we have Food Science Australia looking at our waste streams and when you process the volumes of product we process, there's an enormous amount of waste that comes away from that and we are looking at what we can do with this waste. Can we manufacture other foods? What can we extract from the beetroot to add value for the growers and their company. So we are having all these things looked at now and hopefully something will come of that," Barry said.
For most of the eight remaining family farms in the Lockyer Valley that grow all the beetroot Golden Circle needs - beetroot is, their bread and butter.
With beetroot the main source of income and that income diminishing because of dud seed and soil diseases it is all the more important DPI staff can come up with a better beet.
Heidi Martin says the problems are more complex than first thought, but that by the end of the four-year project her team should have some answers.