Machines to increase the efficiency of planting crops, opening oysters and manufacturing ancient superfoods are helping South Australian companies meet demand from global markets.

A tillage system developed in the mid-north of South Australia is helping to boost the productivity of cover crop planting. The Kelly Engineering system combines a diamond-shaped tiller with an air seeder to allow the entire sowing process to be completed in one pass.

The patented Diamond Harrow tillage machine, fitted with a Cover Crop Seeder, began testing in the US last month and is expected to be commercially available next year. The launch is a calculated response to the rise of planting of cover crops in the United States as farmers look to increase crop yields while reducing their reliance on pesticides and nitrogen fertilisers.

The Diamond Harrow is made from Australian RHS steel, which is laser cut in Adelaide using a CNC-controlled machine enabling very specific profiles to be cut on the end sections. Plates are also laser or plasma cut for accuracy before components are MIG-welded.

The diamond shape of the harrow includes a perimeter set of chains that allows the machine to pass the soil to the left and right. This way there is no ridging or clumping through the paddock. The four chains allow the machine to prepare the seedbed in rough fields. The Cover Crop Seeder is integrated into the machine, which is towed by tractor. Each chain is fitted with a crop-specific row of metal discs that rotate and penetrate the soil. The design also allows the machine to work the soil, attack crop residue and manage weeds.

It takes 4-5 days to manufacture a harrow, which sells for $85K-$90k.

Kelly Engineering Managing Director Shane Kelly says the company’s focus was to build highly efficient products, which were also affordable. He believes the addition of the Cover Crop Seeder to the Diamond Harrow successfully achieved this.

“There are government incentives for farmers in the US to get involved with a cover crop program for environmental benefits, whether it be nutrient recycling, erosion control, soil improvements or water runoff,” says Kelly. “In the US, as here in Australia, there is recognition that maintaining live plants year round helps soil health and productivity.

“Farming on a global basis should be sustainable and we know that soil degradation, weeds and water-use efficiency are things affecting agriculture – we know that the tillage tools we provide can help address all of those issues.”

Cover crops are increasingly becoming an accepted technique to improving soil health and crop yield. The North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) in the US estimate there was an almost 40% increase in the number of farmers planting cover crops from 2012 to 2013.

SARE has set a target of 20m acres of cover crops in the US by 2020. Some of the most common types of cover crops in the US include rye, wheat, barley, field pea, canola and mustard.

Kelly says the new Diamond Harrow would not only save time, but its precision seeding would lead to more accurate germination and deliver higher crop yields in all types of weather. He says the machines can also help farmers save on additional maintenance costs.

More than two-thirds of Kelly Engineering’s business is in the US, where it has generated more than $50m in sales. The family-owned business, based at Booleroo Centre in South Australia, also exports to Canada, Germany and the UK and is gearing up to grow its business in Africa.

Freekeh frontrunner

At the other end of the grain cycle, a company about 60km north of Adelaide has modernised an ancient technique to become the world’s biggest manufacturer of freekeh. Regarded as a “superfood”, freekeh is made via a process of heating immature green grain to halt its maturation without cooking it. It was first developed in the Middle East in about 2300BC.

Greenwheat Freekeh has been producing the superfood commercially in South Australia since 1997 and was awarded two gold medals at this year’s inaugural Australian Food Awards. However, it is the processing technique invented by Greenwheat Freekeh’s Managing Director Tony Lutfi that has allowed its production to grow to more than 500 tonnes a year.

The company plans to expand production at its plant north of Adelaide to 3000 tonnes a year by 2018. It exports to 17 countries including the US, Canada, UK, Netherlands, Spain, South Africa and Brazil and has begun shipping product to Japan and South Korea this year.

Lutfi first tasted the grain in the Middle East nation of Jordan in 1994.

“It’s a product that’s been around for 4300 years and processed by very primitive means,” he says. “I started examining the process and experimenting in 1995, then in 1996 developed the process and in 1997 built the company in Adelaide and started exporting it to the rest of the world.”

As well as expanding production in South Australia, Lutfi says the company is looking to license its technology in a joint venture arrangement, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere so that the seasonal production could continue year round.  Demand from the US soared in 2011 after television host Oprah Winfrey nominated freekeh as “one of four exotic grains that can improve health”. Freekeh is cooked and served in a similar fashion to rice and can also be used in salads, breakfast cereals, soups, breads and cakes.

Lutfi says demand for his freekeh products continued to grow globally and in Australia.

“In 2011 the Australian market accounted for less than 1% of our sales,” he says. “In 2015 it accounted for 50% of sales.

“I could sell our entire product to export up front but we are holding stock back for the Australian market. There are so many companies from all over the world writing to us … it’s a genie out of a bottle and we are the main supplier.”

Easy-access oysters

Meanwhile, an Adelaide company is engaged in developing mass-production machinery for a new method to make oysters easier to open. Devised by Simmonds Seafood Marketing Agencies, the new method involves shaving the lip of the oyster to create a small opening where a knife can later be inserted to greatly simplify the shucking process. The opening is immediately sealed with wax to keep the juices in and the oyster alive.

Inventor and oyster marketer Bob Simmonds says the wax coating also provided branding opportunities because it allows stickers to be applied that provide information about providence and packing dates.

Simmonds explains that the ability to keep oysters alive while making them easier to open gave them a much greater shelf life compared with the typical pre-shucked product.

“Most oysters are opened, half-shelled and then sent to restaurants and hotels,” he says. “You only get three or four days life out of the product whereas with the new process you probably get 10 to 12 days life out of the product, which is a huge benefit.”

Trading in Adelaide as Oyster Bob, Simmonds sells 18m to 20m oysters a year on behalf of South Australian oyster farmers, who produce about a third of Australia’s harvest. He has entered a partnership with the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC), which now owns the worldwide patents for the procedure, and is working to develop machines to streamline the process.

“The product itself performs. It’s now about getting the numbers up,” Simmonds says. “We’re looking at robotics and laser technology.”

Simmonds says the easy-open oysters would be ideal for the Asian market because of its appetite for live seafood products. Australia exports more than $1bn of seafood a year to Asia, driven by strong demand for rock lobster, tuna and abalone.

“All the oysters that are sent out of Australia have been whole live and they are opened overseas but it’s a very laborious task,” Simmonds says. “If we can take that part of it out of the equation and have an oyster ready to eat, that’s going to appeal to a whole lot of areas – especially China and Asia where they like live product.

“It can be opened live at the table and people can see the branding and have a discretionary taste of it just like they do with a bottle of wine.”

In 2013-14, Australia produced 11,402 tonnes of oysters with a value of about $90m. Simmonds and the FRDC have secured grants to develop three machines to realise commercialisation. Oysters processed using the new method could be on the shelves in about a year.

Simmonds says as well as having great potential for export, the new method also was ideal for the retail market. He says cooking shows on television had created an appetite for freshness among home cooks and made people more adventurous when it came to news ways of serving food.

“Now at retail level we can put them in a dozen pack and people can take them home and open them themselves easily at a dinner party or whatever it may be,” Simmonds says. “It’s also the novelty factor of doing something a bit different too. Having it live at the table and branded are the essential ingredient to me.”

Simmonds says the machines could be potentially sold commercially to other oyster processors once the process was perfected.

“The FRDC and I both believe this is one of the best things to happen to the oyster industry as far as marketing is concerned for a long, long time,” he says. “I don’t say it’s ever going to replace the current method but it’s just another string to the bow.”

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