Broadcast: 13/05/2012 3:09:18 PM | Reporter: Kerry Staight
PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: For years the humble spud has been viewed as a simple, even boring, side dish. But that may soon change, with many in the industry attempting to give mash a makeover. A host of new varieties is hitting the supermarket shelves and the quest to find a more alluring spud is not only extremely competitive, but costly as well.
KERRY STAIGHT, REPORTER: This may not look like a growers’ paradise, but these sandy soils in South Australia’s Murray Mallee have helped turn the state into the leading producer of fresh potatoes and a home to some of the kings of spuds.
FRANK MITOLO, THE MITOLO GROUP: Potatoes have been very good to us. We’ve grown a significant business because of potatoes. They are a – I guess a labour of love. I mean, they’re quite temperamental and can sort of wear you out a bit sometimes, but there’s something about them that keeps bringing you back.
KERRY STAIGHT: After starting out in the industry as packers, the Mitolos now have their hands in every part of the potato process, from seeding right through to selling. It’s an integrated approach adopted by many of the top tuba producers.
FRANK MITOLO: Very competitive. Because it’s – I guess there’s maybe half a dozen major packers in South Australia that – all battling for the same sort of marketplace, so it is quite a different sort of playing field than other crops ’cause you’ve got, you know, such big players in the game.
KERRY STAIGHT: Just down the road from the Mitolos’ Pinnaroo farm at Pirella is friend and competitor Mark Pye. He comes from good spud stock. His father and brothers are big potato producers in New Zealand. And when Mark made the move across the Tasman at the age of 21, he was confident of success.
MARK PYE, ZERELLA FRESH: The land was relatively cheap, sandy, very suitable for washed potatoes. A good underground aquifer with good quality water and there was licences to be had out here at good prices.
KERRY STAIGHT: The ingredients might’ve been right, but things got off to a rocky start.
MARK PYE: The accountant, after year one, sort of mentioned that we should pack up and come home ’cause our first year we didn’t make any money. It was a bit of a disaster. But I knew that it would work. I could see how we could make it work, so we persisted, and yeah, it’s paid off.
KERRY STAIGHT: 20 years on and his company now produces six times as many spuds. He’s also one of the country’s biggest growers of carrots and onions.
MARK PYE: We’ve got a philosophy, it’s like, “Think big and keep it simple,” so, it’s like – “yeah, we can move volume and not just a box here and a box there.”
KERRY STAIGHT: But being in the potato business isn’t so simple anymore, nor is it all about volume. It’s about varieties too. After growing the same types of ‘taters for years, growers are now trying to outdo each other with their own signature spuds.
Mark Pye is putting a fair portion of his money into this variety, Maranca, which he’s imported from the Netherlands.
MARK PYE: There’s other varieties I’ve brought in and trialled and they haven’t worked for various reasons, whether they didn’t yield or didn’t wash, they weren’t bright, didn’t travel, didn’t eat well. You won’t get one variety that’ll do everything, so you – Maranca’s as close as we’ve found.
KERRY STAIGHT: The first significant exclusive potato to hit the Australian market was Nadine and it was agricultural giant Elders that bought the rights to the Scottish spud.
RENE DE JONG, ELDERS: The variety had good quality characteristics. It had a good skin finish, it was white, it was probably what the industry needed at the time.
FRANK MITOLO: Plant breeders’ rights in potatoes didn’t exist 20 years ago. The first taste of it was about eight or 10 years ago with Nadine, which has changed the industry quite considerably and now PBR varieties are commonplace and really necessary for businesses to survive.
KERRY STAIGHT: Frank Mitolo’s company is sublicensed to grow Nadine and it remains their major variety.
But the other private potato he’s promoting is this one, which has been sourced directly from breeders in the Netherlands. Branded Charisma, it’s a yellow-fleshed variety with a lower-than-average glycemic index, so Mr Mitolo says it’s suitable for diabetics.
FRANK MITOLO: We were trialling this variety for several years because we liked its agronomic qualities. It handled the slightly saline water up here in Pinnaroo, it was an attractive looking potato, tasted good. But it was only by chance several years in we found out it was low GI, and, you know, it’s a key point of difference. I mean, it’s huge.
KERRY STAIGHT: At the Adelaide wholesale produce market, another potato with a clear point of difference is gaining ground. This is Kestrel, another Scottish variety Elders bought the rights to and sublicensed to a couple of growers, including Mark Pye.
How much has the demand for Kestrel changed?
RENE DE JONG: It’s probably doubled in about the last three years and we’re hoping it’ll double again in the next three years to come.
KERRY STAIGHT: But for every Kestrel, Maranca, Nadine and Charisma, there are many more which never make it to market.
FRANK MITOLO: Something like Charisma, we invested several million dollars in that, getting it off the ground very quickly and incorporating the marketing. With one winner there’s probably seven losers so it’s expensive sort of process to invest and find the – it’s like racehorses, I guess.
KERRY STAIGHT: While some of the varieties available to all growers are still popular, they are steadily being replaced by these exclusive lines.
JONATHAN ECCLES, POTATOES SA: It depends on some of the independent retailers versus the supermarkets, but we’d probably, I’d say, about 50/50 we’d be private varieties versus publicly available varieties.
KERRY STAIGHT: While many major producers are sourcing their spuds from the other side of the world, they’re also keeping a close eye on what’s going on in their own backyard. I’m in the Yarra Ranges north of Melbourne, where these local potato breeders are trying to come up with a home-grown variety that ticks the right boxes.
It’s D-Day for these spud specialists. They’re digging up the first of 5,000 varieties they’re trialling in the hope of finding 30 or so that may meet industry needs.
TONY SLATER, POTATO BREEDING PROGRAM: When we uncovered them for the first time it’s nervous, you don’t know what they’re going to look like, but then when they meet, what you’re actually aiming at, it’s really exciting.
KERRY STAIGHT: Tony Slater has been assessing spuds for a decade as the leader of Australia’s only potato breeding program. The program is responsible for 10 public varieties, including Ruby Lou and Coliban. But even though it’s partly funded by industry, some of the big commercial players say it’s a lightweight on an international level.
FRANK MITOLO: I think it’s either there’s more money spent on it or we forget about it because it’s one of those areas that unless you’ve got a bit of scale about you there’s no real point to it. … The breeding houses in Europe are huge. The scale is, you know, probably a thousand-to-one to what you can do in Australia, so there’s just that much more to work with.
TONY SLATER: We’re a small program in comparison, but we still can be effective simply because we’re breeding for Australian conditions.
KERRY STAIGHT: Is Australia a good climate for potato growing or not?
TONY SLATER: No, it’s not. It’s – the ideal climate is around 22 to 24 degrees average temperature and a lot of our production is under 30-plus degree temperatures.
KERRY STAIGHT: Many of the European breeding houses do also trial their potatoes in hotter countries. But supporters of this program say local research is needed to look after local needs.
JONATHAN ECCLES: There will be some characteristics that we need to have for the Australian marketplace. For example, we may wish to try and grow potatoes in a more arid environment or a wetter environment and it’s very unlikely some of these key genetics would be produced from overseas.
KERRY STAIGHT: And when it comes to genetics, Tony Slater says Australia has the smarts to outperform larger scale operators. His team is using molecular science to unlock the secrets of potato varieties by looking at the DNA in their leaves.
TONY SLATER: To be able to take a leaf sample from material that’s only very on in its development for all those traits will really accelerate the breeding process. It will take development time down from around 12 years to around five years.
KERRY STAIGHT: While researchers are embracing the high-tech approach, the basics are still an important part of their work. All potatoes with any promise are put through their paces in the kitchen, with peeling, boiling and frying just part of the rigorous testing.
TONY SLATER: We expose them to light to see how responsive they are and how quickly they green because we don’t want to be poisoning the public. We actually hit them and see how they bruise, because they’re mechanically harvested so we don’t want them to have cracks or bruises for the consumers. We cut them in half to see if there’s any deformities because when you’re at home you don’t want to be cutting them open and they’ve got a hollow in the middle or they’re black in the middle.
KERRY STAIGHT: Then there’s the colour. While it might’ve been white all the way in the past, momentum is gaining for a slightly darker hue.
TONY SLATER: A number of these cultivars have yellow skin and yellow flesh, more similar to European cultivars, but I don’t mind that because they’ve got good flavour.
KERRY STAIGHT: And they haven’t stopped there.
TONY SLATER: We do have a couple of coloured-flesh cultivars that have been released or are planning to be released commercially over the next 12 months or so. Very colourful, in fact. One has red flesh and the other one has purple flesh. They may look strange, but they taste wonderful.
KERRY STAIGHT: Frank Mitolo is also experimenting with a patch purple, but doesn’t expect bright coloured mash to become mainstream.
FRANK MITOLO: I think there is a place for some variety, but I don’t think people want to see 10 different colours.
KERRY STAIGHT: Why purple?
FRANK MITOLO: It’s an original colour. There’s nothing strange about it, from the old Peruvian days, but it’s also quite healthy ’cause they’re high in anthocyanins; it’s up there with blueberries. … Those varieties are really not money-making propositions, more to create some interest.
KERRY STAIGHT: And creating interest is one of the big challenges for the industry.
FRANK MITOLO: If you compare us to other industries like citrus or avocados or bananas, we’re way behind. We don’t really band together and invest in marketing our products.
KERRY STAIGHT: That’s where the former boss of the Australian Banana Growers Council, Jonathan Eccles, comes in. He’s been appointed as the head of a new potato lobby group in South Australia. And he’s got his work cut out, with an oversupplied market sending prices crashing this season and some worrying longer-term trends.
JONATHAN ECCLES: Fresh potatoes have actually been losing market share and that’s really been an expense of two reasons to rice and pasta, but also to the processing industry. So the overall consumption of potatoes has remained fairly static, but the fresh market has decreased.
KERRY STAIGHT: While new and improved varieties may be hitting the shelves, the hurdle to convince consumers the humble spud has gone up in the world remains.
JONATHAN ECCLES: One of the challenges to de-commoditise, if you like, the potato, and reinvent it as an exciting product for the consumer, because it is an all-round versatile food and it’s great for all ages, and I think we need to debunk some of the myths that it takes long to prepare and it’s unhealthy because that’s not the case.
KERRY STAIGHT: As for the family that has built their business on the simple side dishes, well, it reckons the industry now has the tools to take Australia’s favourite vegetable to the next level.
PIP COURTNEY: Kerry Staight reporting.