It’s still a rather modest market in the context of Australia’s 2 milion tonne pulse grain harvest, but our thriving culinary obsession with hommus, flat breads and pulse-enriched snack foods has grain exporters now competing with notable domestic demand for legumes.
Pulses perform particularly well in mainstream food market categories promoting gluten-free and high nutrition values, including the burgeoning energy bar and breakfast cereal segment.
For one of Australia’s big players in the grain packing and export sector, Queensland-based, AGT Foods Australia, the domestic retail and processing market for pulses is hard to ignore.
“You only have to compare the sort of products available in snack and health food aisles of supermarkets today with the same stores 20 years ago to realise a huge shift in consumer preferences has occurred,” said AGT’s chief executive officer, Peter Wilson.
“Pulse products and snacks made with pulse grains or pulse flour blends are everywhere, and they’re clearly presented as good for you.
“It’s still a small market base, but it’s a relatively strong growth area.”
The number of Australians consuming pulses daily, including baked beans and lentils in soup mixes, grew about four per cent to 28pc in the past three years according the Gains and Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC).
“Consumers are not just looking for alternatives to gluten or wheat-based products, we’re more aware of different cuisines, and we’re blending dishes from different cultural backgrounds into our Australian diet,” said GLNC marketing manager, Alexandra Locke.
Legume ingredient markets vary widely, from extruded snacks made with flour from various pea crops, to snack bars and muesli made with whole seeds added for their nutrition, fibre and colour.
Other products include flat breads and papadums, mostly made from desi chickpea flour; dhaal, and the fast expanding dip segment which generally uses the larger, easily-hydrated Kabuli chickpea in hommus products.
In fact, hommus has been partly attributed to the strength of the Kabuli chickpea price in Australia this year, which has held around $1200 a tonne.
By comparison the more widely-grown and smaller type desi chickpeas have been fetching around $800 in northern NSW and Queensland.
The desi variety’s global popularity as a source of all-purpose flour, and export trade shortages of late, have kept its prices at least 100 per cent up on values of four years ago.
Grain legumes were the second most valuable Australian grain crop segment harvested in 2016-17.
Pulse products and snacks made with pulse grains or pulse flour blends are everywhere, and they’re clearly presented as good for you.
Pulse business, AGT Foods operates three export packing plants at Horsham in western Victoria; Bowmans, in South Australia’s Mid North, and Narrabri in North West NSW.
It has capacity to handle up to 700,000t of grain annually, most of it focused on container exported pulse crops.
Some consignments are also contracted to other packers, if required, notably in Queensland.
Part of Canadian-owned AGT’s global footprint for the past 11 years, the local operation has grown solidly on the back of graingrower diversification away from cereals and canola to field pea crops, red lentils, faba beans and chickpeas.
Such is the quality and minimal moisture content of the Australian pulse harvest, a big portion of AGT’s exports are containerised and shipped almost straight from the header or farm storages.
There are no free kicks in the international grain trade so at the end of the day the quality and origin of the Australian crop often gets us over the line
Alternatively, consignments can be graded for packing into pallet-sized bags destined for export or local food processors.
At Horsham AGT built a world-leading multi-stage cleaning and processing plant which removes skins and splits various grains, including chickpeas and broad beans, also sorting grain by colour before packing for specific end users in 25 kilogram to 50kg bags.
The company, which has its marketing and management team in Toowoomba, also packs some high protein wheat and sorghum for export.
Queensland export award
Last month AGT won the agribusiness export category in the Queensland Premier’s Export Awards, recognition of its contribution to the state economy as a global leader in value-added pulse processing and services to the food ingredients market.
“Exports support one in five jobs, with increased trade in goods and services predicted to be the key driver of Queensland’s economy in the next few years,” said Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
She said AGT Foods was one of several regional businesses adding to the State’s reputation as a world leader in high-quality agricultural produce that was safe, clean and green.
Its offshore customer base is spread from Europe and North America to South Africa and South East Asia, but its biggest buyers are the hungry Middle East, North African and Indian markets.
AGT’s Mr Wilson said the company was “certainly seeking to push the boundaries on premium markets”.
“There are no free kicks in the international grain trade so at the end of the day the quality and origin of the Australian crop often gets us over the line,” he said.
“But there are a lot of other competitors playing in our market space these days and their production costs can be a very competitive factor.
“Competition is coming from everywhere – Tanzania, Ethiopia, the Black Sea – and even low wheat prices make it a more appealing ingredient for food processors varying their flour blends with price trends.”
Export markets were also distorted by factors as diverse as unpredictable government tariffs barriers in India, to port bombings in Yemen, or the violent multi-sided civil conflicts in Iraq or Syria.
Back at home, soaring energy costs add another layer of complexity to the business, encouraging AGT to keep its value-adding model as simple as possible.
“We’re only a mid-sized operation, but we do consume a lot of electricity and gas to run our machinery – and many of our competitors are in a much better position in the energy space,” Mr Wilson said.
“We watch what’s being said on the energy front very carefully.”