The cut and dried of food waste

Where do all those marked, undersized, scratched and cracked pieces of fruit and vegetables end up? Most shops and consumers won’t even look at them. But one woman is turning second-grade produce into top-notch snacks, meals and garnishes.

It’s amazing how with a dehydrator, aesthetics suddenly aren’t all that important. The magic of turning fresh rejects into prized dried all happens in a factory at Monarto, east of Adelaide. The founder of Woodlane Orchard, Kelly Johnson is full of wisdom when it comes to preserving food.

Kelly Johnson is a magician with a dehydrator.

One door closes another opens

It all started when Kelly found herself out of a job and she heard a friend was about to throw out a tonne of peaches. She had the time, and the know-how with her background as a Scout leader, so she decided to help.

“I couldn’t think of anything worse than going to the trouble of watering your trees, pruning the trees, picking the fruit and then throwing it away. It just seemed criminal to me.”

By value adding with some dipped chocolate and pretty packaging, they sold out at her market stall.

When Kelly wanted to turn the venture into something more permanent, many growers doubted her. “It was almost like they were letting me have my fun and thought I’d chuff off and get a proper job. They can’t believe we’re still going,” she laughs.

Woodlane Orchard has grown since the chocolate dipped peach days. Now she collects surplus produce, dehydrates it and turns it into soups, meals, snacks and garnishes. 

More than just dehydrated fruit

Many of us would be familiar with the dehydrated fruits for snacks and garnishes but the vegetables are a gamechanger. Her days in the Scouts remind her of unpalatable long-life food. She’s using the same concept but turning it into family sized meals that actually taste good.

“They’re dehydrated raw, so everything needs to be cooked for under 15 minutes.” Think apricot curries, chow mein, vegetable soups, risotto and rice pudding. It has taken a lot of trial and error. Dehydrating eggplant for a ratatouille has been a challenge, as has potato bake.

“We finally got there. My poor husband has had to eat a lot of dehydrated meals!” 

Doing things differently

Once you get the meal, you add water and put it on the heat or in a thermal cooker if there’s no access to power.

“I just can’t get people to understand what we are doing is different. It’s simple, generous and sustainable. You’ve got a packet that’s reasonably small. When you say a whole family can eat out of that, they assume it’s a couple of tablespoons.

“But every vegetable has dried down to at least 10 per cent of its original volume. When you add water to that product, it’s going to reconstitute. Something like a veggie soup that weighs 300 grams is going to make 3 litres of thick, hearty soup,” she explains.

Woodlane Orchard products also don’t contain sulphur as a preservative which is great news for people with allergies. To achieve that, the produce must be cut very fine for the drying process, which is very time consuming and comes at a higher price point.

Kelly says once customers realise how delicious the meals are, they are happy to pay a bit more. It wasn’t long before she couldn’t keep up with demand and every room in her house filled with produce. “I was diagnosed with cancer. I looked at the house and realised I couldn’t live like that anymore.” She moved herself to a local factory, which was a life changing decision.

It’s a true circular economy. Excess produce is converted into ready-made food whilst Kelly’s food scraps are returned to the farm as feed for animals.

“Farmers have always done circular economy. It’s insulting to imagine that’s a new concept. They’ve always done the right thing.”

Kelly has saved 40 tonnes of food from going to waste and counting. Some of them very unexpected – from cabbage, to eggplant, to potato. But there is one that’s become her nemesis. She cannot dehydrate avocado. “We did try, and it was disgusting. I’m not going there again,” she laughs. Everything but avocado is very much on the table.

Hear more stories like this by subscribing to the Telling Our Story podcast on iTunes (or wherever you listen to podcasts) and follow podcast host Angie Asimus on Instagram for more updates.

Angie Asimus

1 comment

  • I am so pleased to see someone doing something positive. No one should be starving in Australia and people need to realize where their food comes from. So wonderful keep up the great work.

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