16 October, 2018

Farming innovator wins rural women's award

Krista Watkins is the winner of the 2018 Agrifuture’s Rural Women’s Award.

A powdery explosion of what was once an unripened green banana has turned into an agricultural revolution that reduces food waste, adds post-harvest value and serves the vegan and coeliac community.

Krista Watkins, a banana farmer from Walkamin in the Atherton Tablelands, Northern Queensland, was awarded the 2018 National Rural Women’s Award in Canberra last night.

Eight years ago Mrs Watkins and her husband Rob discovered banana powder when his forklift drove over a bunch of green bananas that had been baked dry in the sun. They took this concept and transformed their idea into a global phenomenon, becoming the first company in the world to commercially produce the rare gluten-free flour.

Natural Evolution now produces a number of products, ranging from protein powders, gluten-free flour and cake mix, all natural healing balms and even equine fodder.

One of the more popular items is their Green Banana Resistant Starch powder which research has linked to lower cholesterol, reduced inflammation and an increase in the absorption capacity of vitamins/minerals and antioxidants.

Ms Watkins said at least 500 metric tonnes – and as much as 2000 metric tonnes – of green bananas were trashed across North Queensland farms every week because they were either “too small, too big or too misshapen” to be sold by leading grocers.

“When you think about all of this food and the investment of time, money, energy and love poured into producing it, it just doesn’t make any sense for it to be thrown away,” she said.

“Originally we were producing about 350kg per week; now we can produce eight tonnes in a single week, bearing in mind that it takes 10 kilograms of bananas to make 1kg of flour.”

The process uses award-winning technology designed by Mr Watkins, which locks in much higher rates of nutrition than conventional food processing techniques. It also produces one of the richest sources of resistant starch in the world, making it a true “super food”.

Ms Watkins said the banana powder tasted like flour – and not like bananas at all. “It was earthy and wholesome and quite delicious,” she said.

But Ms Watkins success with value adding and creating by-products from banana waste is not what earned her the prestigious accolade at last night’s award ceremony, it was her cross-industry work with sweet potato growers.

The farming couple have applied their patented technology to process other foods that would otherwise go to waste – starting with gold sweetpotato powder, which last week hit the shelves of health food stores and independent grocers and chemists across the country.

Ms Watkins has already started research into developing by-products for the four most common sweetpotato varieties grown in Australia and said this was just one example of creating a full-circle income stream.

“The sweetpotato industry wastes up to 50 tonnes per acre because of over-supply in the market and supermarket size requirements,” she said.

“As a primary producer, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see so much of your crop that you’ve put a lot of love, care and money into simply thrown away.

“Our approach looks at adding value to reduce waste. It’s a new way of doing business, it’s breaking stereotypes, and it’s conditioning growers to think of alternatives.”

Ms Watkins said she is now looking to try and help more growers in the community solve their on-farm issues. She said she hoped her success will inspire other producers to think about how they deal with farm waste.

“The average amount of waste per farm is 20 per cent, if you’re lucky. Some farmers in some weeks will have 80 per cent of their crops not sold,” she said.

“Repurposing produce is going to be incredibly important for the future of agriculture, in terms of providing new revenue streams and ensuring longer-term sustainability.”

It’s estimated that food waste at the farm gate represents 10 per cent of gross food production, valued at $4 billion.

AgriFutures Rural Women’s Awards are sponsored by Westpac Agribusiness.

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