The global spice trade is heating up with Australian farmers and processors are hatching a plan to take advantage of a booming sector of the food and supplement market.
Just 3 per cent of Australia's $494 million spice industry is locally produced with most imported from Asian and African nations.
Researcher with CQ University (CQU) Tieneke Trotter said the Spicing Up Northern Australia research project showed Australia was more than capable of growing popular spices like black sesame, kalonji and fennel.
"We haven't been growing this on a broad scale but we now have seeds available and we're working on the agronomy for these high-value, short season crops that can work in rotation cropping," she said.
With the lure of joining a $30 billion global market for spices on offer, lead researcher Surya Bhattarai said it was important to tailor agronomy packages for farmers.
"The partnership is a very strong one of growers, industries and researchers so things are moving in the right direction, it is real and we're happy to see results coming up," he said.
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With most spices grown in small plots, harvested and processed by hand in facilities that can cause listeria or salmonella transfers, experts say mechanised production could help access markets with strict standards like Japan and Korea.
"Spices are rapidly growing in a multicultural world and there's a desire to have home-grown spices in Australia, we have a reputation for clean, green food," Dr Bhattari said. With a large Hindu population in Australia due to recent immigration, the by-product of one spice crop can even be used for briquettes used in funeral rites.
"They can be made from compressed biomass from black sesame stubble, they're highly esteemed and in demand in Hindu culture," Dr Trotter said.
"They become a part of the cremation process, making biomass that wouldn't be used in our cropping systems except as compost can become a high-value product itself."
Farmers need support
Growers from Rockhampton, the lower Burdekin, Tully and Katherine in the Northern Territory have experimented with different spice crops.
But farmers can be wary of new crops given past experiences with poorly suited rice breeds and disappointing support from some seed companies.
Tully agronomist Charissa Rixon has been experimenting with fallow crops for sugarcane paddocks and said information from North American growers could pave the way for Australian farmers to adapt spices to broad-acre paddocks.
"Nutrition is easy and low-cost but on herbicide and weed management we've got a long way to go," she said.
"I've been looking at some stuff from the US – but before you invest in approvals for new chemical usage and try and interest companies you have to make sure the crop is viable."
Meanwhile central Queensland dry-land cotton and grain farmer Peter Foxwell said industry needs to be provided with the right tools to ensure cropping spices balanced risks and provided reliable returns.
After five years of growing black sesame the grower said he had experienced a steep learning curve with the crop.
"Every year's new, there was no grower pack, no information, no agronomy systems in place to understand how to grow it in the first place," he said.
Recently turning his hand to kalonji trials Mr Foxwell said the fast life cycle of the crops was an attractive proposition.
"There's gaps in our farming system where a shorter season crop might fit quite well, these spices could fit the bill," he said.
"But for this to work in our system we need to be able to plant with the same equipment, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, so there's some modifications we're going to have to make.
"These crops can be widely adapted by a number of farmers with existing equipment, we've found."
Grocer backs Aussie grown
Hyderabad-born Babu Potunak sells 90 per cent Indian products at his store on Ross River Road, in Townsville's Indian shopping precinct.
"We sell basic spices like turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise in large amounts to customers from the subcontinent," he said.
But with shortages of container shipping services recently Mr Potunak's prices have had to go up.
"Some of the products have gone up 10 to 15 per cent the last two months, though I do now buy things like paneer from companies in Melbourne," he said.
"The prices for those products don't increase because they're bought locally, because inflation in Australia is not that much.
"If they could grow these spices in Australia, with our similar climate, I think if they can grow them here it will be cheaper and more reliable."
With kalonji also popular with his African customers, Mr Potunak said it was an obvious choice to produce locally.
Ten per cent local aim
Seed company AgriVentis Technologies' chief executive Lewis Hunter, a project partner said bold plans were being made to capture market share with high-end, non-GMO and traceable spice products.
"Australia brings innovation and a clean, green product – there's a lot of demand in Korea and Japan for premium grade products," he said.
"The nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industry also use these products, so quality and integrity is important, Australia can provide that security and purity."
With two-hectare plots grown commercially so far, the company wants to treble the Australian-produced sector from three to 10 per cent of the market by 2024.
"We're serious about taking the information that's been collected to allow us to look at taking it into the commercial market for our investors, including in Europe," Mr Hunter said.