Food futures for RDA MNC

Flying in to Port Macquarie, the DASH 8 drifts a bit – presumably negotiating the thermals that rise from the coast over Bago Bluff and the other ranges. I was there at the invitation of Regional Development Australia Mid North Coast to share the work we’ve been doing in Adelaide to develop models for ‘design led city planning’.

Fly in, fly out speaking gigs can be a dangerous thing without some grasp on the local situation and web searches aren’t a substitute for local knowledge. But some background is essential. A skim through the RDA website was particularly useful for some basic data they’d collated on the region’s economic drivers.

Source: REMPLAN, RDA website

Retail Trade leads the table but given traditional modes of retail are under threat it’s safe to assume that the sector will decline before new models emerge.

It’s easy to read the graphic as an inventory of separate sectors. But in reality, there are cross overs.

Take accommodation and food services. Maybe it was flying in over verdant country that linked food more to production for me than a service to accommodation.

Combining food services with accommodation implies this is tourism driven.

At present it probably is. But even then, is it working? The good folk at RDA Mid North Coast put me up at Rydges – a reliable place. On the way down to breakfast next day I was looking forward to local bananas, maybe the end of the citrus season and some early strawberries (given the sub, sub tropical micro climate). But instead of fresh local, it was tinned pears, peaches, and apricots on offer. Why? Apparently Port Macquarie held the Tasting on the Hastings Festival last weekend – billed as a gourmet journey through Port Macquarie’s great food and wine. Maybe local produce is fine when it’s a niche experience at a weekend stall but not something for the hotel breakfast bar.

Have we now so venerated fresh produce to a ‘cultural event’ that it’s transcended the  everyday?

Later on that day at the RDA Strategic Leadership conference on ‘Inspiring Change’, charismatic RDA CEO Peter Tregilgas tweeted: “it’s hard to be a leader when we’re in the middle..can we look to brand our experience?”

Well, almost in response to this, I had a go at some thoughts. I admit the origin was nothing more than my Rydges breakfast experience.

If places like Port Macquarie want to draw on existing strengths in accommodation and food, a broker might be needed to introduce hotel managers to local suppliers. No doubt this will take some creative/courageous leadership from the likes of Rydges. It’s never easy to reconfigure supply chains. There’s a reason that reliable bulk delivery is valued over the messy admin of many smaller suppliers – all explaining why there’s extra lettuce this week to make up for fewer bananas, or discoloured thanks to some harmless bugs. Less time managing the kitchen means more time spent on the ‘customer experience’. Unless, of course, the customer experience is framed around local food, cheeses, wine, juices, jellies, jams and the rest. Then it’s core business.

But food isn’t just about tourist experience. Food, produce and food processing are now seen as a central stream in Australia’s renewed interest in advanced manufacturing. No one argues this quite as well as Prof Goran Roos. Maybe it’s a Euro thing. Last year, Denmark spruiked itself to the world through a major trade roadshow cleverly disguised as a cultural exchange. Headlined by Princess Mary and Crown Prince Fredrick, it was called the ‘State of Green’ and combined Danish design with sustainable technologies, research, professional services. And food. I sat in on a presentation on the link between Danish researchers and the pork industry. Thanks to this connection, new cutting machines have transformed the analogue abattoir into digital cleantech. A hybrid process shared by human and robot means a higher ratio of meat off the bone so the sector can be more productive.

Goran Roos has spent some time in South Australia; first as part of our excellent Thinker in Residence program, and then as adviser and consultant to the South Australian government to draft the state’s Advanced Manufacturing Strategy Manufacturing Works.

To Roos, food is a raw material to which value can be added by processing. An example is taking wheat and moving beyond the process of cleaning, grinding down and making flour. It’s more about adding value to make what he calls ‘functional food’ – bread with Omega 3 added. Or using 3D printing to ‘print’ food (yes, welcome to the world of synthetic meat; something friend and colleague Kristin Alford introduced me too first).

Hence the idea that food isn’t just something associated with tourism, but also with agriculture, research and education, and manufacturing. And this is just one thread that started to develop.

The mid north coast of NSW is productive land, and it grows a lot. But also just over the range from the Mid North Coast RDA lies the rich open plains where grain crops grow. Further north, it’s New England’s cattle, sheep and milk.

This poses a question; could the Mid North Coast service a growing population in Sydney to its south, and South East Queensland to its north by connecting agriculture to the research at the University of New England and Charles Sturt University to grow an industry around smart food and smart manufacturing – supported by clever transport logistics? Lord knows the Pacific Highway has always been a dominant feature of life along the NSW coast. And while it may not seem like it to those in the business, the sheer volume of transport movements up & down the F1 suggest NSW does it better than most.

This idea of the mid north coast as a smart food hub is not radical. Most of the large supermarkets already have cool stores and warehouses up and down the Pacific Highway to use as ‘staging posts’ for the daily deliveries in to major centres like Sydney, Newcastle, Gosford etc. It’s more likely to challenge the Universities. Transport logistics is probably more likely a strength of the SMART Infrastructure facility at the University of Wollongong. And advanced manufacturing is hitting it’s straps at the University of South Australia. Both local universities have strong agricultural science courses, but maybe a strategic alliance with an interstate or international research institute might help accelerate things on the Mid North Coast.

And would good things follow? Is it possible that a burgeoning food, and food processing sector up and down the coast lend weight to better public transport infrastructure? With only 255,000 people living in the RDA Mid North Coast it won’t be the number of people that gets high speed rail up. But better, faster rail to service the processing and delivery to market of food just might. Especially when the Gross Regional Product is around $10bn annually.This works nicely with the RDA’s own Strategic Plan for the region

Who knows where this could go. Certainly there’s a stronger interest in where our food comes from. Recent press about foreign ownership of Australian farms and a National Food Plan green paper launched by the Australian government in June 2012 represent both an underlying anxiety and a possible course of action to strengthen our capacity to grow, process and deliver good food.

Next on the evolutionary timeline comes wood. Another strength of the mid north coast where, thanks to soil conditions, timber grows tall and straight. Wauchope’s timber industry was legendary for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ve got a faint recollection we have a family link to the old mills when men were men and the saw pit was an effective way to cut the timber (and an even more effective cause of respiratory disease in those unlucky enough to draw the short strawer and work the pit-shift. This involved standing under the log in a deep shaft to hold one side of the saw while another man stood on top of the log. The guy below was showered in a constant cascade of dust and fragments).

But wood is more than timber. Wood is a cellulose material. A cellular fibre that might just save the world. Adding value to wood isn’t just about using it as a material (although using the example of the Danish meat processor, you can get more from a single log. If you’ve ever seen a ‘leaf’ of timber veneer you know what this means). In essence, wood is cellulose. And cellulose can be broken down to its fibre base and then reconstituted as a gel that can be moulded like a plastic. Could cellulose polymer one day replace plastic? Well, maybe. The point is that the work flow for wood as a raw material – through advanced, research-led manufacturing – to new products that are radically different echo the work flow described above for food.

A Mid North Coast acting as a hub for producer/processor/retailer for food and cellulose-based innovation is sounding like a strategic point of difference that creates a neat inter dependence between the major centres like Sydney, and the smaller scale linear strip of coastline covered by the RDA for MNC.

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