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The Evolution Is Here

The 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award recipient talks about farming, food and the future.

Atherton Tableland Farmer and Entrepreneur Krista Watkins has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things banana, and understandably so. As a banana farmer and recipient of the 2018 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award for her contribution to tackling food waste at the farm gate, knowing the facts in order to find solutions is simply part of the deal.

“Winning this award is very humbling”, says Krista. “I feel extremely grateful. It’s a great recognition for all the sacrifices and hard work to get to this point, but also further highlights the level of industry support available for women making a difference in rural and regional Australia. It’s given me the opportunity to talk not only more about what Natural Evolution does, but what we want to do for the future of food as well.”

Krista and her husband Rob are the first and largest producers of green banana flour in the world. Several years ago, the couple made the leap from farmers to food manufacturers, setting up their business Natural Evolution after becoming disheartened with the amount of fresh produce that was being rejected by supermarkets. “Reports say industry standard product waste is 20%; we believe it to be closer to 40%. The reality is that some weeks, 80 – 100% of a crop won’t be sold.”

“It was an easy decision to say we’re going to make the banana flour, and the reality has been tremendously challenging, but the thing is we’ve got there. Rather than simply dumping fresh produce, of which there is so much on a weekly basis, it’s created an opportunity for farmers to sell their produce to someone else other than supermarkets. We’ve turned food waste into a commercial process and a viable business that benefits everyone.”

Krista’s husband Rob is a second-generation farmer in Walkamin on the Atherton Tablelands running cattle before turning to bananas, avocados and macadamias. The family lost most of their crops in Cyclone Larry (2006) and then again with Cyclone Yasi (2011), after which the family decided to let go of the farm.

“Virtually overnight, Rob had no job. It was just around the time when we’d started playing with banana flour, so I asked him “What do YOU want to do?’’ I don’t think anyone had ever asked him that. It was always just assumed farming is what he would do – that’s the nature of farming. It was a big shock to see the family business leased. When I asked him what he wanted to do, he said to me that he just had a really good feeling about banana flour – and that’s what he wanted to do. So we did.”

The lightbulb moment to develop banana flour occurred in 2011 when Rob ran over a hand of dried green bananas with a forklift and witnessed a cloud of white powder fly up. “We were already quite interested in gluten-free alternatives in cooking, so wondered whether banana flour could be an option.”

Rob and Krista developed NutroLock, an energy-efficient, raw, low-speed, 100% natural food processing technique, that was able to turn a green banana into powder in less than 25 minutes by gently removing water content. With this technology, they began to make medium scale batches of green banana flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flours, for sale in local shops.

The flour has since been found to be high in vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, vitamin E and zinc. But it is its high resistant starch (fermentable fibre), inulin (soluble fibre) and insoluble (dietary) fibre, which is finding an important market as a prebiotic for gut health. Green Lady Finger bananas in particular have been found to have the highest source of resistant starch in the world at 40%.

Further independently conducted research revealed green Lady Finger bananas also contain 5HTP (Hydroxytryptophan), a naturally occurring amino acid that is the precursor for serotonin. Within the diet, 5HTP is used to assist in the treatment of sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, migraine and tension-type headaches, fibromyalgia, obesity and numerous other conditions. Lady Finger bananas are scientifically proven to contain far higher 5HTP qualities than any other banana variety.

“In the Western world, diabetes, bowel and auto immune diseases can be attributed to not getting enough resistant starch in the diet. It’s only found in a handful of food, and what we’re eating in a western diet simply doesn’t provide enough resistant starch for maximum health benefits”, explains Krista.

“In a lot of Asian countries, they eat cooked and cooled rice which has a high percentage of resistant starch. One tablespoon of green banana resistant starch has the same amount of prebiotic goodness (resistant starch) as if you ate two bowls of cooked and cooled rice.

“This is where we come in – the future isn’t always going to be about fresh. Fresh food has a shelf life of about three weeks; three months if you’re a potato in the fridge. Through our processing, we can give a product a shelf life of up to three years. I worry about over supply of the market in certain products and wonder what safety nets farmers have – in farm life, it’s very easy to get caught on the treadmill without thinking of contingencies.

“I hope I’m wrong, but when I drive around the Tablelands seeing all the avocado trees for example, I wonder what it’s going to look like in five years’ time. I know we’re all eating smashed avo now, but are we going to eat more or export more? It’s about coming up with tailored solutions so that farmers don’t need to simply dump their produce.

“Rob and I made a lot of mistakes starting out. But we’ve learnt from them. We want to share and offer this type of business service to farmers, it’s going to make their livelihood destination risk free.”

After years spent fine-tuning the flour production process for green bananas, Krista and Rob have now turned their attention to other fresh produce which needs new markets.

“Evolution Industries is one of the two new businesses we’re setting up. This is the design and technical team behind processing produce on the farm into completely other products, including the beauty and skincare range. Evolution Industries will come up with tailor made processing or marketing solutions for farmers who have excess produce, which every farm has. Last week we received tonnes of broccoli from a farm in Victoria so we could turn the produce into broccoli flour. Without that option, that broccoli simply would have gone into waste.

“This opens up a much larger question, of course, about food security and food availability. Not everyone has access to fresh food – our aim is create solutions where not only waste issues are mitigated, but also the much larger problem of hunger.”

And just in case that wasn’t enough to take on board, Krista and Rob are adding a third business to the group – Plantation Brew Co. In order to make the flours, the NutroLock technology removes the liquid from the produce. Until now, this nutrient-dense liquid has been pumped back out to paddock. Plantation Brew Co proposes to radically change that by producing sustainable health drinks.

“Plantation Brew Co will brew the excess liquid after the fibre component has been used elsewhere. For example, the strawberry incident last year. Who can help in that situation? No one is set up yet to really assist with the dumping of thousands of tonnes of strawberries.

“Plantation Brew Co. plan to be the solution for excess produce, to team up with one of the local distilleries and have that produce turned into a sustainable beverage – a sparkling, a liqueur, even a kombucha. Once you’re brewing alcohol, the shelf life has extended to far beyond what would have been there with fresh produce and our powdered produced.

“We have found that consumers are looking for not only sustainable food, but sustainable beverages as well. This is where Plantation Brew Co. can step in. We’re working with what we’ve got, so our first product later this year will be a sweet potato vodka and a banana liqueur.”
With a seemingly unstoppable energy, where does Krista find the drive to be continually innovative?

“Ha, it’s easy to fail”, she laughs. “Do nothing, throw in a few bad habits, and you’ve got it! Thankfully, that’s just not me.”

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