Friday, January 29, 2016

Niche Marketing for Quality and Differentiated Agribusiness Products

The article below came from a recent NAB Agribusiness newsletter and highlights the opportunity in agribusiness for shrewd operators.

The emphasis is on quality and differentiation of the product, a trait that seems to be increasing in Australian agriculture.  With large organisations such as Australian Agriculture Company - AACo - marketing their own branded beef through supermarkets, mango growers marketing single variety products sourced from a range of areas to the wheat group highlighted here, ways are being found to differentiate products formerly thought of as mass market products.  And creating significant value along the way.

Can you as a rural producer do something similar or create a group that could? 

While not for everyone, it certainly has a place in today and tomorrow's rural product mix, particularly to urban consumers who are often brand focused.

It is important to also note the emphasis on traceability - a big issue for food products.

Here is the NAB article - with acknowledgement to the NAB Agribusiness Newsletter [electronic].

Run by four families, Flinders Ranges Premium Grain in South Australia has an expanding grain and flour export business that sells itself on the location and soil it’s grown in, in the same way wine does. Their specialised Katana wheat is acclaimed by frozen dough producers in India and the Middle East as much as it is by artisan bakers in Australia.

It’s taken 15 years, but Flinders Ranges Premium Grain (FRPG) in South Australia is riding an export boom for their flour made from low-yield hard wheat called Katana.

The Ranges’ low rainfall and limestone rich soil give their specialised wheat an elastic protein profile that gives it an extended frozen shelf life without the inclusion of preservatives or additives. This has made it popular among frozen dough producers in India and the Middle East as well as artisan bread producers in Australia.  “We knew that doing well as a business meant moving away from producing a soft commodity where we were at the wrong end of the pricing chain,” says FRPG CEO Peter Barrie.  “We looked at what food producers in different markets required as well as what our four family-run properties in the Flinders Ranges could best produce. We started experimenting with hard wheat. While not as high yield as many grains, the elastic, high protein qualities of the grains opened up premium markets to us – abroad and at home.”

Understand your product’s role in the food industry

Ongoing research and development (R&D) is a hallmark of FPRG’s business strategy. From early on, they formed a solid relationship with Adelaide TAFE to test how the flour grown on their farms performed for different segments of the food industry.  “Discovering how our wheat performed as a baking ingredient led us to identify our niche export market,” says Barrie. “Once we knew what we needed to provide to frozen dough producers, we continued testing wheat varieties until we found our best for purpose grain.”

This emphasis on R&D coupled with ‘paddock-to-plate’ traceability helped FRPG secure the Bakers Circle India and the Middle East contracts to supply the flour for frozen dough for the regions’ Subway stores.

Even with the Indian contract well established, Barrie still travels to India, and now Dubai, to check how his flour performs within its production environment and as an end product in the local Subway stores. “It’s satisfying being part of the whole production process in all these different places,” he adds.

Consistent quality demands full traceability

Quality, consistency and traceability are equally important for FRPG’s large overseas clients. The company has a fully auditable path from farm to shipping that guarantees the clean and green standards of their produce. This traceability involves having their own storage silos and mill, so there is no risk of contamination with inferior grain from other farms.

Australia’s reputation as clean and green is a big drawcard internationally. The National Residue Testing Standards are a good base. However, Barrie points out that most countries and big food manufacturers have their own strict standards. This makes meeting individual customer protocols time-consuming.  “It’s another reason single origin grain and flour from small family owned farms holds an international advantage,” he says. “We can provide the traceability and quality control. The low rainfall on our properties means fewer chemicals.

We don’t need fungicides, and we select varieties that are disease resistant. Being a family farm is a definite marketing advantage. Companies and consumers like to know where their flour has come from and have the security of knowing who produced it.”

Find your niche and you find your future

Barrie is excited about the future of Australian agriculture and FRPG in particular. While acknowledging that the falling dollar helps, he doesn’t shy away from the need to continuously explore new markets and tailor wheat for their needs, saying: “It’s a non-stop learning curve for everyone involved”.  

FRPG is currently working with the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering to try and double the shelf life of wholemeal wheat and, if international demand is high enough, set up a wholemeal mill.  “We keep one step ahead of the market by identifying and then solving a problem for the food industry,” he says.

FRPG went on three government trade missions in 2015. So far, they’ve steered clear of China because the margins were too low. However, that market is opening up for premium primary produce. “We’re looking to diversify into three or four countries plus develop our domestic artisan sourdough flour market,” says Barrie.

He sees great opportunities for young farmers today. The export market is opening up in exciting ways – if farmers become part of the food industry instead of suppliers of a soft commodity.

“Accept the challenges, and life on and off the farm gets more interesting,” advises Barrie.

More on the business here -

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Could Milk Proteins Clean up Heavy Metals in Water?

Modified milk proteins hold some promise to remove heavy metals from water according to recent studies.  If confirmed it is a big breakthrough that a common product might hold a key to cleaning up contaminated water - with heavy metals such as lead and arsenic as well as radionucleide  metals eg radium often seen as ground water contaminats in many countries including much of Asia.
Reports from Washington recently noted that scientists had found that proteins similar to those implicated in Alzheimer’s disease could help purify polluted water, according to Science News.
A new membrane uses thin amyloid protein fibers to pull heavy metals and radioactive wastes out of water. The membranes can capture more than their own weight in some contaminants, said scientists in the Jan. 25 report in Nature Nanotechnology.
I think what’s really interesting in this study is that it actually used a protein material, which is novel,” said Qilin Li, an environmental engineer at Rice University in Houston who was not involved in the study. Specifically, the team converted milk proteins into fibers of durable amyloid protein. Other amyloids are infamous for building up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, but the team put their amyloids’ sticky tendrils to different use.
When paired with strong, porous carbon in a membrane, the lab-made amyloids successfully filtered over 99 percent of toxic materials out of solutions that mimicked severely polluted waters, the scientists report. The amyloids trapped particles of lead and mercury at a molecular site that is involved in turning the original milk protein into its pasty form. Radioactive waste particles also got tangled in the membranes. And the membranes snagged gold contaminants, which the team found could later be recovered and purified. A membrane with less than 6 milligrams of amyloids could trap 100 milligrams of gold, the scientists report.
It’s exciting to see that the amyloids can hold more than their own mass in heavy metal particles, said Li. More typical membrane materials, she says, would grab only a fraction of their weight in pollutants.
The membranes could be developed for small- or large-scale water purification units, said study co-author Raffaele Mezzenga, a physicist at ETH Zurich. Mezzenga estimated the technology would cost roughly one dollar per every thousand liters of water filtered. And a membrane can recover hundreds of times its own value in precious metals, Mezzenga says. The membrane design is simple and flexible, and could be adjusted to optimize cleanup or metal recovery, he says.

Li said the membranes will need to be tested and optimized in real polluted waters, which may have chemical complications such as high or low acidities. But the amyloids’ performance is encouraging, she said, and the proteins’ contaminant-trapping capabilities could inspire other researchers developing contaminant filters.

Partially sourced from Water Technology

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Benefits of Using Compost for Erosion and Sediment Control

The following article was written recently by a colleague in the US [ Ron Alexander] and some content needs be seen in the context of that general location.

However, the broad implications are still relevant and even more so in the tropics with normally much greater intensity of rainfall, in comparison to temperate areas.  The experience of our own operations in the tropics on very large mining projects in Indonesia and tropical Australia adds to to the ideas written below here by the author, with surface applied mulches and composts being excellent erosion and sediment management options, even on slopes up to 1:1 - ie 45 degrees. Much better than silt fences!!

We even used chipped coconut husk pieces on some steep slopes very successfully, but commonly in Indonesia we used rice straw, a nominally waste material supplied by local farmers rather than burning it as waste in the fields after threshing the grain.  It was excellent, as mucous exuded from the straw helped bind the material together, allowing permeation of water through but not necessarily washing it all away.

Yes.......we needed some rechecks and repairs but for a very large area of bare slopes it was excellent, and certainly reduced erosion enormously at relatively low cost.

Mulch berms are now also commonly used on larger flat exposed areas near Darwin, with more extensive use on several large mining, construction and building projects in recent years.  Definitely a go to option that works well, is easily repaired when needed and it can tolerate heavy tropical rain, reducing high intensity overland flows.

Surface applied mulches can be very effective - consider them as a sensible option for your next erosion and sediment management project.

We offer ESCP plan development for projects and can assist you develop an appropriate solution. 

9 Benefits to Using Compost for Erosion and Sediment Control

by Ron Alexander  8 January 2016
Credit: Erth Products

Erosion and sediment control. Although still considered relatively unknown in certain regions of North America, the use of compost in erosion and sediment control has been a very successful landscaping practice for over 25 years. 

Compost blankets (the application of a layer of compost on hill slopes), compost berms, and compost filter socks are incredibly effective, enhance the long-term quality of the soil, and, in the case of compost blankets, have excellent stormwater reduction advantages. These innovative techniques have been thoroughly proven through university research, and have been recommended for use by the USEPA. 

National specifications exist for these applications through the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. (Go to, then “Library of Articles,” and look under “Compost Specifications” to see the full specs.)

When used as a compost blanket, compost is typically placed on up to 2:1—and sometimes more severe—slopes at an application rate of 1–2 inches [25-50mm] in depth. 

This technique is used and is highly effective in reducing and slowing the sheet flow of water. 

Lesser application rates are possible in areas of lower rainfall accumulation and intensity, on less severe slopes, and where vegetation is to be established. Once applied, the woody fraction of the compost increases surface roughness and slows the flow of runoff, thereby making it less erosive, more likely to induce infiltration into the soil and reduce the transport of pollutants. 

In addition, the woody fraction absorbs the energy of the rainfall, preventing soil particles from dislodging (the first stage of soil erosion), while the finer fraction beneath it absorbs a substantial volume of moisture, and is optimum for plant establishment and growth. Research completed at University of ­Georgia illustrated that a 2-inch[50mm] application of compost onto a slope could absorb and hold 1–2  [50mm]inches of rainfall.

Further, the unique properties of the product allow for extensive rooting of the grass and other vegetation, locking the blanket to the slope and protecting the soil beneath it. 

It should also be noted that compost blankets are effective with or without vegetation, but application rates of compost can often be reduced if it is applied with vegetation. University research consistently illustrates that compost blankets not only constantly outperform hydroseeding and conventional erosion control blankets (e.g., rolled fabric) in vegetation establishment, but also more effectively reduce stormwater runoff volume and peak flows, as well as total sediment and nutrient loads (Faucette et al. 2005; Faucette et al. 2007; and Faucette et al. 2009, “Large-scale performance and design…”).

Research performed for Portland Metro, an environmental regulatory body based in Portland, OR, and the USDA ARS further illustrated that yard trimmings compost was capable of not only controlling erosion, but also of filtering, binding, and degrading contaminants from the stormwater passing through the layer (Faucette et al. 2013; Faucette et al. 2009, “Storm water pollutant removal performance…”).

The benefit of using a compost blanket lies in its ability to:
  • act as a buffer to absorb rainfall energy,
  • reduce wind and water erosion,
  • stimulate microbial activity to increase decomposition of organic materials in the soil thereby adding to the soil structure,
  • prevent soil compaction and crusting, thereby facilitating percolation,
  • slow the flow of water over the surface of the soil,
  • capture and retain moisture, reducing soil moisture loss thereby facilitating plant growth,
  • provide suitable microclimate for seed germination,
  • in areas with cold winters - capture blowing snow to increase the insulating effect of winter protection, and
  • improve soil texture (Story et al. 1995).
Compost berms and filter socks are “3D” filters possessing huge sediment and biofiltration capabilities. 

Where the berms are used in sheet flow conditions, the filter socks (think pantyhose filled with coarse compost) can also be used in concentrated water flow situations. 

This is because filter socks can be staked into place, and the compost media is contained within a mesh netting material. 

Although both compost berms and filter socks are used as perimeter control devices for sediment, installed around the borders of construction sites and at the top and bottom of slopes, the filter sock technology is much more versatile (see 

They can even be used around stormwater inlets and to build “living” walls. 

One of the most important research findings pertaining to compost filter berms and socks, is that they are much more effective in capturing fine particles of sediment, which are not captured as efficiently by other more conventional sediment control devices (e.g., silt fences). 

This is very important in that fine particles of sediment have the potential to be much more damaging to the environment, since they transport further and stay in suspension longer, and also contain a greater amount of chemical contamination (e.g., petroleum hydrocarbons, heavy metals, nutrients) than larger particles of sediment.

The use of compost in erosion and sediment control projects has expanded significantly since the adoption of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II regulation for construction activities in the USA. 

This regulation requires that construction sites of 1 acre or greater to have erosion and sediment control plans in effect on a daily basis using prescribed best management practices (BMPs).

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Styrofoam May be Banned More Widely

Will Styrofoam Get the Plastic Bag Treatment?

Say farewell to Styrofoam take-out containers in the US s capital. It’s been a few years in the making, but Washington, D.C. has finally enacted a firm ban on polystyrene food and beverage containers

Henceforth, all restaurants will have to provide biodegradable alternatives if they want to send their patrons home with leftovers.

The ordinance is a big score for the environment since Styrofoam is a harmful material that takes hundreds of years to decompose. Although it was recently discovered that mealworms can safely digest polystyrene, that’s not currently a practical approach to handling the world’s massive foam waste problem. 

As it stands, Styrofoam products account for about 30 percent of all space in landfills in the U.S. Altogether, Americans toss approximately 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year.

Styrofoam may be a nationwide problem, but lawmakers also factored in local concerns when deciding to enact the ban. The city has undergone a serious effort to clean the highly polluted Anacostia River, and the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) notes that foam containers are some of the most common types of litter fished out of the river. By eliminating Styrofoam boxes and cups, the river should become that much cleaner.

The D.C. law pertains specifically to food and drink containers obtained at restaurants. Styrofoam will still be allowed for a number of other uses, including to pack and ship food products. The DOEE says it will conduct regular inspections to determine that food industry businesses are complying with the law, and it invites citizens to call in tips to report restaurants that continue to serve Styrofoam.

While D.C. may be the current largest populated city in the United States to ban foam, it’s certainly not the first. The Surfrider Foundation compiles a list of places across America that have similarly kicked out polystyrene containers, including Seattle, Wash., Portland, Ore., and over 60 communities scattered throughout California. Though most municipalities are recent adopters, a handful of places have laws dating back to the late 1980s/early 1990s.

New York City was the biggest city to get rid of foam containers until a few months ago. 

A judge in New York state undid the ban on polystyrene containers throughout New York City, saying that the city had the responsibility to find better ways to recycle the material before outright banning it.

[ partially sourced from ]