Foodie paradise: Secrets of food scene revealed
ASK any farmer across the country why the Sunshine Coast in Queensland is unique and you'll hear about its fertile soils and high rainfall.
Speak to growers and producers on the Coast, however, and you'll hear a different story. Sure, the Coast has good growing conditions, but its food and agribusiness sectors were not always well-known.
In the past five years these industries have undergone a transformation into one of the most sustainable places to run a food-based enterprise.
The secret advantage it now has is a connected food and agribusiness sector, where many restaurants "walk the talk" and supply only local produce. Farms and food manufacturers also collaborate to produce hundreds of unique offerings that celebrate edible goodness grown and made in the region.
From ginger-infused raw honey by Hum Honey to Brouhaha Brewery's strawberry rhubarb sour, food and beverage companies are collaborating to make unique products.
"They're pushing the boundaries," Food and Agribusiness Network general manager Emma Greenhatch said. "I think that's the thing.
"The food industry is so competitive in Australia. "You've got to be looking for new ways of doing things, and new products - or you don't survive."
While most sectors see as many as 90 per cent of new businesses fail within the first five years, nearly all of the network's 280-strong membership are still going strong.
"We've been going for four years now, and in that time we've had two members that have closed their doors," she said. "I think statistically, that is pretty amazing."
The local food industry's collaborative work ethic gives it a distinct advantage above other regions.
"I think that we've got the most collaborative food industry in Australia," Ms Greenhatch said.
"Instead of our region's restaurants, producers and manufacturers competing, they co-operate.
"They work together, because they can see the size of the prize is going to be a lot bigger if they work together than if they work on their own."
Owner of LuvaBerry, a Wamuran-based strawberry farm, Mandy Schultz, agreed.
Coast-based business Bona fide Broth Co freeze-dries Ms Schultz's strawberries, allowing a range of packaged berry products with fruit that would otherwise go to waste.
"I think that's something really unique that comes through the FAN network," she said.
"Even though I am primarily a strawberry farm on the Moreton Bay coast, because the councils all work so well together I've been able to be part of the GrowCoastal accelerator program on the Sunshine Coast.
"I've been able to grow my business by producing products with other companies."
Perfect growing environment
There's no denying the Coast's environment also plays a part in its success.
"From a growing perspective, it's such a microcosm, because you've got reliable sunshine, you've got reasonably reliable rainfall (particularly compared to our poor friends out west), and just really fertile soil," Ms Greenhatch said.
A huge diversity of fruit and vegetables was grown on the Coast, because of its unique climate.
"When you're right up north you're only growing tropical fruits, because the environment won't grow anything else," Ms Greenhatch said.
"But we get the best of both worlds."
When strawberry growers in cooler, southern states finish harvesting around June, the Coast's growers had only just started their season.
"Because we're subtropical, we can be growing mainstream produce like tomatoes, cucumbers and consumers' daily staples," Ms Greenhatch said.
"But we also have a lot of subtropical fruits here that you can't grow down south - custard apples; lychees."
Ethical focus of food growers
The Coast's growing population is one that values health and fitness, which has led to the local market for sustainably-produced food going from strength to strength.
"There's … a real focus in this region on looking after our land and organic producing," Ms Greenhatch said.
"This is all very close to market trends, because increasing in demand is ethical sustainably produced food."
The Coast's base of "home foodies" has created new markets for innovative products like LuvaBerry's "strawberry dust".
"Growing strawberries, it is very hard to be competitive," Ms Greenhatch said.
"You're competing with so many other growers."
LuvaBerry has added value to their produce by freeze-drying it and making strawberry powder that can be used in cooking.
LuvaBerry also organises "carpark parties" through its social media group LuvaBerry: Our War on Waste, where Coast foodies gather at designated carparks to meet its truck, loaded with cooking-grade fruit that would otherwise go to waste.
"People pre-order our cooking berries," Ms Schultz said.
"We started to work with other farms - we worked with a lime farmer, a mango farmer, raspberries.
"We have these carpark parties where an ambassador will host us, and we'll park in their carpark and people will come and collect these cooking berries."
It gave the region's "Thermo-queens" and home cooks who were passionate about local produce a way of supporting farmers direct and getting fresh, quality fruit, she said.
"They go home and make great stuff with it, and then they post it in our group," she said.
Food makers innovate
A growing population with increasing interest in ethical purchasing is leading to more food manufacturing that supports sustainable diets.
Kuluin-based Fenn Foods' plant-based vEEF burger, made by ex-Urbane chef Alejandro Cancino, is a case in point.
Mr Cancino moved from Sydney to the Coast so his young family could have an outdoor lifestyle.
His main passion in life, he told the Daily, was helping people discover the delights of plant-based culinary sensations, through his cooking.
Bona fide Broth Co is another example: it takes certified organic chicken, grass fed beef and organic coconut yoghurt to create "broth bombs", yoghurt snacks and other goodies.
"That healthy lifestyle is what people are seeking. We have a beautiful environment - if you want to be active and healthy you come here," Ms Greenhatch said.
"We also have lots of manufacturers making organic products and free-from products (gluten free; vegan).
"So tying all that together in the health and wellness sustainability space, this region has a real advantage."
The Coast's producers are also starting to do their own stories justice when they tell them.
They are linking their products to who they are as people and as businesses, and consumers love it.
"People want to hear the story these days, they don't just want to eat the food," Ms Greenhatch said.
"They want to know the stories behind the food."
The Coast doesn't have the vineyards of the Barossa or Margaret River, but it's making a name for itself as a food region where you can have a mightily good time.
"It's the people that make this region so special and unique," Ms Greenhatch said.
"It comes back to the connected community."
Eateries like The Hungry Feel Eating House and The Shak Organic cafe in Buderim know the local producers and their stories and tell them with authenticity.
"Our community knows the stories. They're passionate about them," Ms Greenhatch said.
"The chefs want to profile these growers and share their stories.
"They have a connection to the land and the people and they are proud and want to share it."
The Coast has a range of health food and wholefood stores, farmers markets and fruit from Noosa to Caloundra and into the hinterland.
Many of these stores give local produce, meats, dairy, cheeses and Coast-made manufactured goods prominence.
It also has one of the most progressive IGA groups in the country in White's IGAs, where the Locavore program labels Coast-grown and made items are front and centre.
The Food and Agribusiness Network began four years ago and its members are retailers, restaurants, breweries and venues, fruit and vegetable growers, graziers, dairy farmers, meat producers and food manufacturers.
Its cross-sector membership enables relationships to form easily through a busy calendar of networking and professional development events.
"They're sharing knowledge, resources, connection, and some of those connections are buying connections," Ms Greenhatch said.
"They're making products together, which gets them a district advantage."
A growing culture of entrepreneurship on the Sunshine Coast is being fostered by programs including the GrowCoastal food accelerator program.
The youth entrepreneurship challenge Generation Innovation, annual Start-up Weekend and Youth StartUp and programs within school curriculums including Future Anything all add to this culture.
The University of the Sunshine Coast's Innovation Centre CEO Mark Paddenburg said the penny dropped for him when he saw the enormous interest in its inaugural Food Demo Day in August 2016.
"From this trial event, I knew that day that I wanted to develop a world standard food accelerator program on the USC campus," he said.
"There's so much energy from the foodies in this region that we couldn't ignore the opportunity," he said. "In these competitive and challenging times, we need to assist our entrepreneurs to build their profile, attract new customers and connect with potential partners and investors."