Playing with fire: showcasing Australia’s native bush foods

As featured in The Country Web 2017 Annual


After an international career in finance and insurance, 2017 NSW-ACT RIRDC Rural Women’s Award finalist Rebecca Barnes moved to the northern NSW coastal town of Ballina 20 years ago, seeking a career and lifestyle change that would allow her to balance work and family.

When research led her to realise the nutritional benefits and untapped potential of Australian native foods Rebecca and her business partner established Playing with Fire Native Foods. An industry leader Playing with Fire Australian Native Foods  grows, processes, manufacturers and supplies native foods both domestically, to local farmers markets, gourmet food shops and high end restaurants, and internationally to Asia, USA and Europe.

With demand currently outstripping supply due to the growing interest from chefs, foodies, nutritionists and international markets Rebecca believes the industry is at a critical point for advancement.

‘Australia’s native foods are rich and vibrant in colour, taste and nutrition. There are now 15 commercialised varieties available which are in very high demand due to the growing interest from chefs, foodies, nutritionists and international markets. It presents a favourable opportunity to reignite this small but vibrant industry.

‘Native foods, which can be found all over Australia, sustained the Aboriginal population for many thousands of years.  Sadly though, people still don’t know a lot of our native foods.’

Rebecca sells her bush food products at the weekly Farmers’ Market, to the food service sector, other manufacturers, and more recently she has entered the export market, however, she says they are struggling to meet supply demands and desperately need more plants in the ground.

‘I believe encouraging landholders to include bush tucker on their existing farms is a great way to expand the industry.’

Rebecca’s passion for bush foods and encouraging and supporting the participation of Aboriginal people in the industry goes handin-hand, as she works alongside Indigenous communities to provide opportunities to share their extensive knowledge and skills so they can play a key role in growing the industry.

‘I worked for almost 5 years at the Bogal Local Aboriginal Land Council located in Coraki. During that time we received a youth opportunities grant from the NSW government and started a youth horticulture project revitalising and expanding an existing bush food farm owned by the Kurrachee Aboriginal Cooperative Society Limited (aboriginal owned and operated). We grew rosellas, native raspberries, lilly pillys, illawarra plums, aniseed myrtle, native tamarinds and warrigal greens as well as mangoes avocadoes and pecan nuts. The young people received a Certificate II in Horticulture as well as chemical users and chainsaw qualifications.’

Rebecca is currently the Public Officer, Secretary and Treasurer of—Bushfood Sensations—an industry group set up for Aboriginal businesses involved in the bushfood industry.

‘We started by implementing a program to train several Aboriginal people as chefs—Clayton Donovon being one of the more successful
students. The focus of the group shifted to growing and supply when it was evident this was the next problem facing the industry.’

Through Bushfood Sensations Rebecca was involved in running and presenting a series of workshops around NSW as an introduction to bushfoods, fully funded for Indigenous people.

‘The workshops were well attended and evoked a lot of interest. The Indigenous community decided they would like to learn more, so from there, we approached the team running the TAFE NSW Aboriginal pathways program to implement a Certificate II in Horticulture (Bushfood Production) course. Two classes have already
started and a third is due to start in September. The course is fully funded for Aboriginal students from all over NSW.

‘I volunteer my services and present a half-day introduction to bushfoods providing tastings and information on the foods, the industry and the opportunities. The students visit my farm and perform soil testing and I accompany them to a local bushfood nursery to discuss propagation techniques. We hope to have 40 students graduate in February 2018 providing a workforce for existing business and hopefully some entrepreneurship among the students to start utilising land to grow the bush foods.’

Rebecca is also working with the Indigenous Land Corporation to fund a feasibility study
to set up a working processing hub, so Aboriginal growers can send their produce to
the hub for on-sale, storage or processing for value-added products.

‘The hub will be Aboriginal run and owned.  The first step of this process is to do a
‘stocktake’ of the industry and determine the priority crops needed and the processing
required to determine plant and equipment.’

Rebecca says she is very happy to be involved with the Aboriginal community or people on a one-on-one basis to share her knowledge and support their ventures.

‘I see enormous opportunity for Aboriginal people to get involved in a variety of ways,
including horticulture, and I would be thrilled to start filling domestic and larger export
orders with produce supplied by Aboriginal organisations.

‘This not only fills a void in the market but it tells an intriguing story of how the aboriginal people were removed from their land but can now benefit using land returned (or purchased or attained) celebrating their culture and again caring for the country they are so connected to.

‘Most food plants are not just seen as food, but have a myriad of uses and even totems. It
is important to respect this and acknowledge the traditional culture associated with our
native food plants.’

Rebecca wants to encourage anyone using native foods to continue to acknowledge
the original inhabitants and the culture associated with native foods; to tell their
story and include the history as well as the modern functionalities and nutritional
elements of our delicious native foods.

With plans to become an industry leader and mentor for other women to enter the industry, Rebecca hopes that in five year’s time the industry will have a very united front with a whole lot of new entrants.

For more information:

m: 0434 190 239



About nswrwn

NSW Rural Women’s Network is a government program working in innovative ways to promote leadership and action on rural women’s issues. The RWN team is dedicated to connecting and exchanging information with women and stakeholders in rural, regional and remote communities.
This entry was posted in agriculture, education and training, food, RuralWomen, Women leaders and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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