Mike and Gayle Quarmby’s native edibles venture has seen two decades of horticultural innovation and close collaboration with Aboriginal Australian communities running remote food gardens.
Outback Pride Fresh has used a big-hearted business model to steer two decades of innovative horticultural groundwork, alongside close collaboration with Aboriginal Australian communities managing remote food gardens. We spoke with Mike Quarmby, who runs the native edibles venture with his wife Gayle.
Interview by Alecia Wood
Can you tell me about Outback Pride Fresh and how you began growing native Australian ingredients?
We spent the last 20 years discovering, analysing, talking over with Aboriginal elders and botanists, working out what species might be commercially viable. [We wanted to] get to a point where it’s a sustainable supply for chefs, so that they can put it on their menu and know that it’s going to be there. We firstly research and then develop species in a commercial sense, to be able to establish the groundwork for a true Australian cuisine based on Indigenous foods.
You run both a nursery at Reedy Creek in South Australia, and work with a number of food gardens across central Australia that are managed by Aboriginal Australian communities, as part of your Outback Pride project. How did it all begin?
We have actually planted about 500,000 native food plants out on 29 communities over that period, so it’s been a long and wonderful journey. We’ve travelled a million kilometres, literally, out bush and we put about a million dollars of our own money into it. The object was to try and create jobs and training were there are no jobs. It happened following the unfortunate death of our 20-year old son; we decided to go on a journey and help the most in-need 20 year olds, which of course are the youth on remote Aboriginal communities.
We said to ourselves [when we began], well my expertise is in horticulture, [and] Gayle [has] a 70-odd year connection with remote [Aboriginal] communities in the centre… we thought for about two minutes and decided that horticulture and the Australian native food industry is something that had not been developed at that stage to the point where [there was a consistent supply]. We had to work out how to propagate, cultivate, post-harvest handle, and do all the research on all the species that the [Aboriginal Australian] people themselves had a historical use for.
How do you coordinate harvesting ingredients from the different locations?
Because of the tyranny of distance, and how difficult it would be to transport fresh produce that might only have a shelf life of two weeks, [in the community gardens] we’ve planted those species that can either be dried on site or snap frozen. That’s distributed to all the restaurants on a continuous basis through the year. Fresh ingredients like ice plant and saltbush, that all comes from the Reedy Creek nursery.
When did you start working with the Fink Group?
Working with Peter Gilmore at Quay probably started about 2009. He’s spent time here at Reedy Creek, stayed with us and gone bush with us, so he knows us very well and we supply him every week. It’s been a wonderful journey and Peter is the reason we got to supply Bennelong, too.
Do you have particular ingredients you focus on supplying for Quay and Bennelong?
Peter takes a lot of seasonal stuff. Certainly probably 80 to 90% [would be] fresh every week, so it’s little tasty native leaves, herbs and fruits, that’s what he takes, but mainly the leaves and shoots.
What are you harvesting at the moment?
At Reedy Creek we’ve got probably 20 odd things, like karkalla, munyaroo, samphire, sea blight, warrigal greens, mountain pepper and lemon myrtle and so many things. There’s something like 250 growing beds and 26 big hothouses.
What do you enjoy the most about your business?
Probably the relationship with the chefs. Their integrity is just fantastic and they’ve turned out to be very good friends and that is very rewarding.