Straddling the gateway to South Australia from Victoria, the Lawson’s 1500-hectare property at Pinnaroo lies flat against the blue sweep of horizon. Seen from above, crops slice the earth into a patchwork quilt of colour; the gold blanket of wheat, the gilt of barley and the verdant spread of lentils.
Phillipa Lawson is the fourth generation of her family to take up residence in the property’s farmhouse, but it wasn’t the path she expected to take. The mother of two was using her environmental science degree as a middle school teacher, while her husband, Skeet, travelled extensively whilst working in the air force as an aircraft mechanic.
With both her brothers choosing careers off farm, Phillipa was both surprised and delighted when her father approached the pair about trying their hand at farming.
“Skeet had a massive tree change. I thought I was marrying an air force mechanic!” Phillipa laughs.
“He was a real city boy. He was in the RAAF for 12 years. But after coming home, dad asked Skeet if he’d like to give it a go for a year – and here we are.”Phillipa Lawson
The pair moved back to the farm and have been working the land ever since, their two daughters growing free-range in the paddocks Phillipa herself grew up in.
In an effort to look after the land as much as possible, Skeet uses a multi-pronged approach to weed management, helping to reduce chemical use while boosting production and soil health.
The family sow wheat, then barley, followed by a pulse crop for nitrogen fixation benefits in the soil.
It hasn’t all been easy going though, with extra challenges thrown into the pot alongside a complete career change for Skeet.
“He’s had to learn everything from scratch,” says Phillipa. “In the first six years, we had two droughts a number of devastating frosts and a plague.”
But the chance to immerse themselves in the broadacre cropping operation while spending more time at home with their young family has been a blessing that far outweighs the constant grapple with the elements. And it was the couple’s youngest daughter, Annabelle, that helped steer Phillipa towards her latest venture.
The five year-old was a fussy eater with difficulty sleeping, and a nutritionist suggested more protein could be a helpful start using red lentils straight from the paddock – but it wasn’t an easy introduction.
“If I added lentils straight into the dishes, she would pick them out,” Phillipa says.
“I was talking to Skeet about it, and suddenly thought maybe I could grind the lentils to make a flour.
Finally, I was able to get some protein into her diet! I found our lentil flour was the perfect way to thicken sauces and add nutrients to her biscuits and pancakes.Phillipa Lawson
Looking around her at the lentils sold in local supermarkets, Phillipa realised a vast majority were imported, while the top quality Australian grown crops were exported overseas.
With the crops vulnerable to foreign tariffs and considered unsalable if damaged in anyway, Phillipa saw the opportunity to diversify channels onshore.
“If the lentils are chipped or dented from coming through the header and aren’t deemed pretty enough for the packet, they don’t make export grade – even though they have exactly the same nutritional value,” Phillipa says.
“It seems like such a waste, especially if producing a milled product. I started to look into milling lentil flour for more than just our family.
Ultimately, my vision is that The Pinnaroo Farmer will one day use not just our lentils, but crops from around the district, giving farmers greater autonomy about how their lentils are sold.
With demand for plant-based based proteins on the rise, Phillip feels optimistic about her product’s future. Devising a system to separate the lentil and grain side of their operation, the flour is completely gluten-free – another value add that the Lawson’s customers love.
After being harvested, the lentils are sent to be cleaned, before returning to the farm to be processed by Phillipa’s small domestic mill. Samples of the flour are then sent to Adelaide to be tested for gluten traces, which helps put Phillipa’s mind at ease about the purity of the product.
In all, the red-lentil flour has taken six months to go from concept to delivery – now stocked in the Pinnaroo bakery, a supermarket in Adelaide and online. Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, Phillipa’s panache and eye for a gap in the market, combined with her love for the land and the produce they create, has marked the venture a success with incredible future potential.
“It’s good for my family, it’s great for the product to be enjoyed locally and hopefully it will one day service other customers who’d like to be able to trace their lentils from gate to plate,” Phillipa says. “Most of all, it’s the support and feedback from our customers that love what we’re offering. This really makes me proud and suggests we’re on the right track.”
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