This story is sponsored by Rabobank
IN THEORY Australians are eating significantly fewer potatoes than a decade ago, but anybody following the progress of the Daly family in southern Tasmania would find that fact hard to believe.
The one-time fine wool Merino producers have turned a half-acre “pocket money” exercise into a major potato cropping, packing and value-adding venture.
Gerard and Susie Daly’s farm at Marion Bay, just north of Port Arthur on the south-east coast, now supplies about 5000 tonnes of washed potatoes to supermarkets and wholesalers across Tasmania.
The Daly Potato Company name will also break new marketing ground on the mainland next month with its flavoursome range of gourmet potato salads, developed by Mrs Daly.
Already a big hit in Tasmania, the range includes servings flavoured with yoghurt and dill, bacon and dijon mustard, mild curry and smoked chicken with seed mustard.
The Daly brand, which has also just launched a microwave-ready roast potato range in Woolworths’ stores, will be in 180 Victorian and NSW supermarkets by November.
And, for consumers who prefer not to eat spuds, the family’s value-adding ingenuity has also won acclaim for a farm-distilled potato vodka, sold under the explosive-sounding brand, Hellfire Bluff.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Ironically, much of the family’s recent success has eventuated because an alarming 20 per cent of their potatoes were not pretty enough to make the grade required for fresh produce sold through supermarkets and wholesalers.
Strict supply contract specifications meant up to 500 tonnes of lumpy, scratched or skin-stained spuds were being fed to the Daly’s 400 Angus cattle every year until Mrs Daly set about finding a much better use of the “ugly” rejects.
The 400 gram potato salad packs retail for $6 each, while Hellfire Bluff potato vodka (40pc alcohol), sells in distinct French-made 700 millilitre glass bottles at almost $90 each.
Since the vodka’s launch mid last year, Hobart’s Salamanca Market has been a mainstay sales point for the Hellfire Bluff brand - now also featuring a vodka-based limoncello liqueur, and a dry gin.
However, a promotion drive by the couple’s daughter, Ruby, has pushed the fledgling range to mainland liquor outlets, too.
The rise and rise of their potato enterprise has been a bold and extraordinary journey for Gerard and Susie Daly, who did not even own a tractor - or a farm - when they dug and washed their first 10-bag crop by hand in 1989.
THE FIRST CROP
Mr Daly was working on an uncle’s Dunalley grazing property “Boomah View” when he planted their first backyard crop to earn some extra cash.
The couple expanded the following year to about two hectares, still using gardening forks and buckets to dig and collect their harvest.
Blessed with the sort of coastal temperatures, rainfall reliability and relatively sandy soils which could combine to deliver a good yielding early season crop, they kept increasing their potato planting area - and bought a $3000 second hand Massey Ferguson tractor and digging unit to help out.
By 1995 they had also taken ownership of the 160-hectare property and about 1000 Merinos.
However, with the wool market in the doldrums after the 1991 reserve price scheme crash, the family’s potatoes were starting to look like a more rewarding earner.
Like sheep, however, potatoes demanded plenty of physical work and time.
“During shearing, just before Christmas, about three years after taking over the farm, I said to Gerard, `something has to go’,” recalled Mrs Daly.
She had also worked a banking job in nearby Sorrell until 1994.
“We realised our future was in potatoes, not wool.”
The sheep were sold in January.
Two years later potato growing and harvesting became a year-round operation on the Dunalley farm, initially yielding about 1000 tonnes.
The crop was prepared for market in a second hand washing unit bought from a farm at Oatlands.
Mrs Daly’s banking experience provided some useful loan market insight and budgeting knowhow for the farm’s increasing capital equipment needs.
By 2010 - a decade after collecting their crop in buckets - the Daly farm was running two harvesters, six tractors and employing 15 workers.
It was also home to a new $1.5 million automated washing and grading unit.
This introduced optical scanning and weighing to grade the crop, rather than relying on family members and staff to make their own visual and manual assessments.
“Sorting by hand just couldn’t continue - it was cold work and different people look at potatoes differently when they’re grading them,” Mrs Daly said.
The Daly Potato Company now has three farms running three potato harvesters (worth about $300,000 each) and a fleet of 12 tractors, plus associated planters, trailers and tillage gear.
Son, Nathan, has joined his parents and about 20 workers on the 530ha aggregation.
A further 100ha of land is leased on a rotational basis from several neighbours to grow their (largely) Nicola crop, plus Pink Eye, and Red Rascal varieties.
However, modernised potato grading facilities actually served to highlight how much product was being rejected as unsuitable for the fresh market, despite the family’s best production efforts in the paddock.
“In some seasons you get very little waste, but hot weather or a wet harvest or other issues can leave the skin finish not looking good enough,” she said.
“On average we reject up to 20pc.
“The cattle were fatter, but it wasn’t a very efficient way to use the crop, and I hated wasting good food.
“It’s difficult to watch today’s shoppers in the supermarket picking through fruit or vegetables and being so choosy with food which is perfect to eat, but not measuring up to their size, colour or shape expectations.”
As farmers, we put a lot of effort in. Waste makes you want to cry.
That frustration, and a determination to find a better use for the rejected spuds, set Mrs Daly on a four-year project to find a value-added alternative for the “waste” crop.
She also wanted an excuse to champion the family’s yellow skin potatoes as a gourmet product full of real nutritional value, including vitamin C, niacin, potassium, folate, and rated with a low glycemic index (GI).
“For some reason potatoes have had a lot of bad press which has cost our industry considerable market share to rice and pasta - and there’s no nutritional value in pasta,” she said.
Back in the 1970s Australians ate potatoes six times a week. Now it is more like 2.4 times.
“I want to fight back and give people plenty of good reasons to talk about potatoes.”
HOT NEW PRODUCTS
Multiple value-adding ideas were considered and rejected by the Dalys, but a gourmet potato salad and a traditional-style potato vodka stayed on the list, so eventually production facilities were established for both.
After a year’s product development work, assisted by some state government funding to pay for help from Hobart food scientist, Hazel MacTavish-West, a purpose-built commercial kitchen opened in Sorrell late last year producing the potato salad.
Within months of the range hitting Woolworths’ shelves, their kitchen was proving too small.
“The response from shoppers was extraordinary - sales blew our expectations right out of the water,” Mrs Daly said.
Walls were subsequently knocked out and the kitchen site expanded into a full scale food processing plant - an investment worth about $1m.
The spiced baked potato range was released last month to an equally encouraging reception from shoppers.
Back on the farm another $300,000 has been spent on a purpose-built shed housing the distillery run by son-in-law Tom Blethman, partner to the Dalys’ daughter, Emma.
HIGH SPIRITS FOR HELLFIRE
Capable of producing 500 litres of spirit from a tonne of crop, Mr Blethman kick-started the artisan vodka operation with a lot of trial and error experiences and information gleaned from contacts in Europe, and a visit to the US.
Mainstream vodka brands tend to be made from grain, unless imported from some of the more exclusive potato-based distillers in Europe.
Hellfire’s vodka is rare, however, being one of just two potato spirits made in Australia.
In the past year the infant distillery has minced and fermented more than 600t of potatoes.
The liquid is distilled for a month before the vodka is rested and eventually bottled.
Meanwhile, adding gin to the Hellfire Bluff distillery’s output sent total sales almost doubling overnight.
In Tasmania, where a distilling culture has flourished lately, small-scale whisky, gin and liqueur makers are everywhere.
There are more than 130 different gin varieties alone.
“Gin is such a huge thing in at the moment, so we get a lot of people visiting Tasmania specifically interested in checking out locally distilled products like ours,” said Ruby Daly.
“I think there’s good potential to look at export markets, too.”
The distillery takes its name from the nearby rocky Hellfire Bluff outcrop above Marion Bay.
Interestingly, while the family’s life is now so keenly entwined in serious potato production and expanding market opportunities, the Daly children (Nathan, Jacinta, Emma and Ruby) were relatively indifferent about growing vegetables when growing up.
“We probably had more to do with the cattle, as I recall, and none of us actually planned to be on the farm after leaving school,” said Ruby Daly, whose first career choice was beauty therapy.
Like her brother, a builder, she decided her parents were making such extraordinary progress it was hard not to be drawn back home.
“Mum’s always thinking about what she can do next - they’re both incredible, really.”
This article is sponsored by Rabobank