By Kirra Grimes

A GROUNDBREAKING collaboration will see South Gippslanders able to access fresh baked bread made with locally grown grains for the first time in recent history.

Betsy and Greg Evans of Mirboo North sourdough bakery Oak and Swan are joining forces with lamb and beef graziers, Sally Ruljancich and Colin Trudgen of Dollar, to make it happen, with the first crops expected to be ready for harvest in early 2022.

Colin and Sally will supply and cultivate the land, as part of a new venture into rotational cropping which also includes several varieties of certified organic and heritage corn and potatoes.

Betsy and Greg will do the rest, milling the flour and baking it into loaves available through local retailers including Grow Lightly, Udder and Hoe, Gibsons cafe, and the Prom Coast Food Collective.

Though South Gippsland’s not known as a wheat growing area, the collaborators know other farmers – including Betsy’s own father – who’ve had success here in the past, and they’re confident they’ll be able to find a variety to suit the region’s heavy soil and cool climate.

With several trial crops on the go, rye is already standing out as one promising option, Betsy said.

“It won’t necessarily be wheat, we won’t limit ourselves in considering other types of grains,” she said.

“Rye could do really well – it’s traditionally grown in northern Europe where they have wet, colder climates like here. It’s also tasty; great nutritionally; and allergen-wise, a lot of people can eat it.”

A champion of small scale producers, Sally is excited to support the emergence of a local grain economy, though with plenty of practical obstacles to overcome – such as sourcing suitable cropping machinery in a market geared towards conventional broad acre farming- everyone involved knows there’s still a long way to go.

“There’s no small-scale machinery in this country – it’s all for huge crops – whereas in Japan and Europe, people are growing wheat on a small scale to diversify,” Sally said.

“It’s not considered viable here, and we might find that it’s not, but we’re going to be selling in a different way and not relying on one crop; we’re going to be focused on crop rotation and not denying soil fertility, and that could be the magic.”

The collaborative element is key for Betsy, who admitted her trial plots had been a bit neglected while her school-aged kids were learning from home during the pandemic – although “it did help show which ones grow faster than the weeds!”

“To have such experienced farmers as Colin and Sally come on board and have that help just a few hills over the way, it’s very exciting, and we’ll all be learning as we go,” she said.

Oak and Swan has always sourced grain from biodynamic farmers within Victoria, visiting each farm to ensure it’s coming from a good place.

With consumers hungry for locally made products, cutting down the food miles even further was sure to win more fans, Betsy said.

“As a bakery, it’s been really important all along to know where the grain comes from, so to have it grown in our own neighbourhood is just taking it that step further,” she said.

“It’s a really positive movement, and there’s definitely a market with an interest and a passion for it. We’re really lucky to have such a good network of local producers and shop owners here.”