Indigenous grain harvesting unites culture, food and regenerative agriculture

A different kind of harvest took place this week in northwestern New South Wales, with native millet and mitchell grasses collected at the University of Sydney’s Narrabri Plant Breeding Institute.

Hand and machine harvested, it is part of the Indigenous Grasslands for Grain project.

Other cereals such as purslane were also harvested, as well as grassland plants known to make bush food.

Since its launch in 2020, the programme, led by local indigenous people, has explored the commercial viability of Australian native grasses and cereals.

As part of the process, the grains are grown in field trials on a one-hectare-sized site, with the seeds tested for their nutritional value and then used in food production.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples share their knowledge during the harvesting of native grain.(ABC New England: Jennifer Ingall)

A business partnership

Black Duck Foods has partnered with the Plant Institute to find markets for traditional food-growing processes that care for the country and could potentially bring economic benefits to Indigenous peoples.

Chief Executive Chris Andrew said it was important that the process be led by First Nations people.

A man wearing a hat and a khaki shirt sits in front of a small harvester.
Chris Andrew of Black Duck Foods says the potential market for ancient native grains is significant.(ABC New England: Lara Webster)

The company is working on a roadmap to get indigenous grain to the commercial market.

Mr Andrews said cereals can be grown alongside other cash crops using areas of land unsuitable for other purposes.

A woman surrounded by grass.
Kerrie Saunders is a technician working on the Native Grain Grassland Project.(ABC New England: Jennifer Ingall)

Kerrie Saunders, a woman from Gomeroi, is a grain technician at the Plant Institute and said it was a very passive and regenerative process.

A healing connection to the country

Bernadette Duncan worked with the Garragal Women’s Group in Boggabilla NSW which has a mission to rediscover indigenous knowledge about plants and animals.

“Collecting native grains was so exciting because I saw the health benefits of all grains,” Ms Duncan said.

She said it was about more than physical health, but it was difficult to explain the spiritual connection with people who are not indigenous.

A woman and a man with a bag of weed.
Dr. Amy Mosig-Way and PhD student Kieran McGee experienced the harvesting and preparation of native grains.(ABC New England: Jennifer Ingall)

The harvesting and use of ancient grains caught the attention of a team from the Department of Archeology at the University of Sydney.

Amy Mosig-Way said Narrabri provides a unique opportunity to see grain being grown in a research setting, with the recent harvest and collection of grain being an eye opener.

“What interested me was the difficulty [the grain] it’s for beating,” Dr. Mosig-Way said.

“We had always assumed that when cereal really took off in the archaeological record, it was probably an easier food source.”

The archaeologist said grains contain fewer calories than other meats and vegetables, and she wanted to know why something that took so much effort to collect became a staple food source.

Besides research, Black Duck Foods is also excited about the potential for agritourism.

“Localized food stories based on 65,000-year-old food history are something people will travel to see,” Andrews said.

About Cassondra Durden

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