South Australia’s mushroom men in the market for expansion

Growing up in the family’s fruit and veg shop must have rubbed off on South Australian brothers Nick and Nat Femia.

For almost half a century their father Sam worked as a greengrocer, with 36 of those years spent at Sam’s Fruit Market in St Agnes Shopping Centre in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

But it seems one vegetable in particular stuck with the Femia brothers – mushrooms.

Nick and Nat, together with Sam, are behind family business SA Mushrooms, based at Waterloo Corner on the Adelaide Plains.

Every week 20 tonnes of Swiss brown, white button, field mushrooms – and a special Vitamin D rich variety – are grown in a humid climate controlled facility.

The mushrooms are grown in a climate controlled facility at Waterloo Corner before being harvested and transported to the SA Produce Markets.

But it’s when they hit South Australia’s biggest fruit and veg wholesale markets, the SA Produce Markets at Pooraka, that the real action begins.

“The farm is located 15km from the SA Produce Market – we’re the closest mushroom farm to a wholesale market in the country,” says Nick, CEO of SA Mushrooms.

“It’s good for our carbon footprint.”

The SA Produce Market is the biggest of its kind in the state, selling 250,000 tonnes of produce, worth a combined $550m, between wholesalers, growers and retail operators every year.

It’s the only wholesale market that supplies to independent fruit and veg retailers in SA such as IGA, Foodland and independent retailers.

“Every mushroom that we grow ends up at the produce market,” Nick says.

“From here our mushrooms are trucked to independent supermarkets including 110 Foodland stores across the state.

“Our mushrooms also end up in pizza bars and restaurants, and we are heavily dedicated to the greengrocers, after all, my dad was a greengrocer.”

SA Mushrooms is one of many traders at the market, the state’s primary fresh produce wholesale market.

The SA Produce Market is pivotal to the northern food bowl area, as almost half of SA Produce Market traders are growers from the Northern Plains, in particular Virginia.

Nicol Carrots, IG Fresh Produce, and T Musolino and Co are all said to have undergone farm expansions or celebrate innovations in recent years – achievements reflective of SA’s strong agribusiness sector.

SA Mushrooms isn’t exempt from growth either.

Nick says the business has experienced significant growth across production, staff numbers and turnover and that an expansion is on the horizon.

“We’re in the process of planning for an expansion in the next year-and-a-half across our composting and production facility,” he says.

“Our staff will increase from 50 to 100.”

The SA Produce Market is also set to undergo a new chapter by way of a $25m expansion.

The project includes new food processing, packing and warehousing facilities, export consolidation, and retail tenancies.

The SA Produce Market is will undergo an expansion that is expected to significantly benefit local businesses.

SA Produce Market CEO Angelo Demasi says the growth will allow businesses to consolidate their manufacturing processes and have direct access to the market.

“The opportunity to work so closely to the market and have their operations in a similar place is a huge benefit to businesses that are looking to expand,” he says.

“The project is currently in the early stages with businesses in discussions that would benefit significantly from the project.”

Angelo says the market plays an important part in the SA economy, with more than 1500 people employed on site.

“ … 13,500 permanent and an additional 24,000 seasonal staff all rely at different levels on the SA Produce Market on a daily basis,” he says.

“Horticulture contributes $3.232 billion to the SA economy on gross food revenue of which $1.65 billion is attributed to the markets.”

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.


Theo’s theory on the success of SA’s spuds and onions

High-tech innovations and a two-fold business growth in 18 months.

It’s been a big past few years for Australia’s leading potato and onion packer, The Mitolo Group, and according to Theo Sasopoulos, it’s still all systems go in the world of spuds and onions.

Theo is the group finance manager for the longstanding family-owned company that built its fortunes on growing, harvesting and packing potatoes and onions.

An accountant by profession, Theo says he’s working in the best of both worlds – finance and food.

“The SA food industry is a key growth area for our economy, especially in the Northern Adelaide Plains (Virginia and surrounds) and traditional food bowl areas like the Riverland and Mallee,” he says.

“As our economy has moved away from traditional manufacturing businesses, food and agriculture along with many renewable (energy) type industries will be at the forefront of economic growth in the future.

“There is no better time to be involved in the food industry or with a business such as Mitolo.”

Shop at any of the supermarket giants for spuds and onions and chances are you’ll be buying Mitolo produce, grown on farms located across the Adelaide Plains, and Murray and Mallee.

Every year, 200,000 tonnes of washed and brushed potatoes and onions are graded and packed at Mitolo’s Virginia base and packing facilities in NSW.

Theo Sasopoulos is an I Choose SA for Food, Wine and Tourism ambassador.

The majority of produce is trucked within Australia to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA supermarkets, greengrocers, and produce markets throughout the country.

Only 5% of produce (mostly onions) is exported to Europe and the Middle East.

Theo joined the Mitolo team almost six years ago after working at Adelaide consulting firm Deloitte for three years.

“I already had a relationship with The Mitolo Group as a client through my time at Deloitte,” he says.

“The variety and opportunities that come with working in a passionate family business is both inspiring and rewarding from a personal perspective.”

The Mitolo Group has come a long way since it was launched as Comit Farm Produce in 1989 by Bruno and Angela Mitolo.

Bruno immigrated to Australia with his parents at the age of 13, while Angela was born in Australia to immigrant parents.

The couple has three sons, Frank, John and Darren, who now run the business.

“When Bruno was in charge of the place, it was all about hard work and determination,” Theo says.

“Now with Frank it’s about building on that with professionalism and innovation.

“They (the three sons) have taken a good business with strong foundations and made it great.”

Some of The Mitolo Group’s latest successes include the acquisition of large vegetable supplier Oakville Produce, which went into receivership in mid-2016.

“We’ve doubled in size in the last year and a half – we now have 750 staff across our farming, packing and administration,” Theo says.

“From a production point of view we’ve doubled the amount of produce we dispatch throughout the country.

“Similarly, both costs and revenues have increased substantially.”

Also in 2016, The Mitolo Group invested $5m in near-infrared sorting technology to X-ray onions at a rate of more than 1000 per minute.

The X-ray process detects onions that are damaged or rotten on the inside.

Despite the successes, Theo says working in agribusiness comes with its challenges.

“There are so many variables that can change from one day to the next because the weather conditions have such a big impact on the quality and yield of potatoes and produce in general,” he says.

The father of two says he’s proud to be able to pursue his career within a prosperous industry while calling SA home.

“I am a born and bred South Aussie with a proud Greek heritage,” he says.

“This will always be home.”

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

The grain idea that paid off into a fine food venture

Sometimes all it takes is a bit of thinking outside the square.

That’s exactly what fifth generation Clare Valley farmer Jim Maitland did in 2011 when he value-added his family’s durum wheat by launching a line of wholegrain pasta.

The Pangkarra Foods brand included a stone milled wholegrain flour and lavosh, giving the Clare Valley family a chance at a secondary income and launching them into the world of fine foods.

But the length of the boutique enterprise didn’t stop there.

In 2016, Pangkarra released a paddock to plate range of ready-to-eat snacks that are now sold Australia-wide.

The roasted pulses range has been a hit.

The line includes an Australian first in cooked and ready-to-eat chickpeas, as well as a trio of snack packs featuring roasted chickpeas, faba beans and broad beans.

Managing Pangkarra Foods is Katherine Maitland, Jim’s wife, who also has a background in media, marketing and public relations.

She says the range of snack pulses now make up to 50-60% of Pangkarra’s total sales, while a small portion of the range is exported to Asia.

“Paddock to plate-style, healthy snack ranges are really growing in popularity, especially with the nut free and gluten free (movements),” Katherine says.

“With the snack range there is less competition and a growing market – it’s been very successful.”

Fifth generation farmer Jim and wife Katherine Maitland on the Clare Valley property.

While Jim and Katherine are at the helm of Pangkarra Foods, Jim’s parents David and Margot head the family’s farm, Anama Park.

The farm, which also exports hay, has been in the Maitland family since 1866 and is the unit’s “core business”.

“We’re only starting to break even and make a small profit (from Pangkarra Foods), but the idea is that we’re building something for future generations,” Katherine says.

“It’s about not being a one trick pony, having another means to the end and controlling the supply chain a bit more.”

Pangkarra products are now sold in 150 stores Australia wide and online.

The name Pangkarra is an Aboriginal word which holds great significance to the Kaurna people and means a small piece of land that has been sustained for generations.

The Maitland’s Clare Valley farm has been in the family since the 1800s.

The family practices sustainable farming methods such as the use of organic fertilisers and crop rotation (changing the type of crop grown in a particular area).

Jim’s decision to branch out from a reliance on traditional farming has also benefited two other South Australian businesses.

Once harvested, the grain for the Pangkarra products are milled at longstanding establishment Laucke Flour Mills in Strathalbyn.

Laucke uses traditional stone milling methods to grind the grain into flour.

The grain is crushed, not cut, meaning that more than 80% of the nutrients are kept, resulting in a stronger, nutty flavour and a more wholesome product.

The Pangkarra 100% wholegrain pasta range was the Maitland family’s first taste of the world of fine foods.

The flour is then made into pasta by L’Abruzzese in Glynde in Adelaide’s north east using traditional Italian methods.

While the Clare Valley is mostly recognised as the home of Australian riesling, Katherine says it’s also emerging as a valued food bowl.

“We’re very lucky to live here in Clare, which is very well known for food, wine and tourism and it’s emerging as food destination,” she says.

“We’re working with our cool climate … which is good for growing crops and wine grapes.”

Katherine stresses the importance of choosing SA and says local shoppers have backed Pangkarra since day one.

“The products might be more expensive, but the process is of higher quality,” she says.

“Our best sales are here in SA.”

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

Green grain guru Tony Lutfi on the ‘huge’ potential of SA freekeh

What is freekeh and have you ever tried it?

The ancient grain process has been around for more than 4000 years, but the average Aussie household has probably never heard of it.

Based in offices off Adelaide’s Grenfell Street, Tony Lutfi is the brains behind Greenwheat Freekeh, the world’s first major company producing freekeh via modern automated means.

He says the superfood is experiencing increasing demand in the western world, and that it holds huge potential for South Australia.

“We offer a unique product that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world except in primitive conditions in the Middle East,” he says.

“Why? Because it’s very difficult. Freekeh is a high technology process.”

Greenwheat Freekeh is sourced from grain harvested by farmers in the Lower Light region. PHOTO:

Greenwheat Freekeh is produced by harvesting grains from five SA famers from the Lower Light region.

The grain is harvested while it’s still green before it’s parched, roasted and dried.

The freekeh process halts maturation of the grain and captures its nutritional benefits, including high levels of protein, vitamins and minerals.

Typically wheat is harvested when it’s matured and golden.

Prior to 2001, Greenwheat Freekeh sales in Australia were less than 1% of production, but by 2017 that figure hit 52%.

Now Greenwheat is in the midst of establishing a new plant at Dublin in the Lower Light to keep up with demand.

The new facility is backed by a $900,000 State Government Regional Development Fund grant, and will increase production to 3000 tonnes by 2019.

Tony in the wheat fields in regional SA. PHOTO: James Knowler/@jkcrewphotos

Greenwheat Freekeh exports to 19 countries and is the world leader in scientific research into green grain.

It has worked with the CSIRO and the Flinders Medical Centre to undertake two studies which cemented the nutritional value of the ancient grain as well as its health benefits.

“They (Flinders) found that when they injected the mice with a carcinogen to simulate the development of cancer, the mouse that ate the freekeh didn’t develop a tumour,” Tony says.

“The apoptotic affect sweeps out damaged DNA cells from the body before they mutate into a tumour.

“There is no way I can claim it can cure or prevent cancer, but based on those scientific indicators it does help in preventing and controlling bowel cancer and possibly soft tissue cancer.”

Tony says there is potential for Greenwheat to delve into the field of nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and to extract the protein from freekeh for use in skincare.

“There is a whole area of industrial opportunities that exist in other countries,” he says.

“What freekeh does is create huge potential opportunities for this state.”

Originally a chemical and petroleum engineer, Tony first tasted freekeh when working as an advisor to the Crown Prince of Jordan.

Greenwheat Freekeh is enjoyed as a side dish, in soups, stuffings and burgers. PHOTO: Dougal McFuzzlebutt.

“He said to me that I was very lucky to eat freekeh in his house because typically freekeh is full of stones and dirt, and that by eating it in his house I could guarantee that I wouldn’t break a tooth,” Tony says.

“He told me that if someone ever developed a process to make freekeh via modern automated means and completely free of stones, then they would be successful.”

Due to the primitive way freekeh is processed in the Middle East (on the bare ground) stones and rocks are usually found in freekeh from these regions.

After leaving the role in Jordan, the American moved to Australia with the intention of settling in Perth.

Instead he fell in love with Adelaide.

“It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Australia,” he says.

Tony reflects on a comment made to him by the first person who imported Greenwheat’s freekeh to the US.

“He told me that there is nothing more painful that a product whose time hasn’t arrived and there’s nothing more rewarding that a product whose time has come,” he says.

“Well, freekeh’s time is here and now.”

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

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Wildest dreams a reality for zoos chief Elaine Bensted

Wild African-style adventures, birds of prey flying overhead and tourists sleeping to the chilling laugh of hyenas – South Australia is set to have it all.

Two of the state’s best tourist attractions, Adelaide and Monarto zoos, are set for big changes on the back of rising visitor numbers which hit more than half a million in 2016/17.

At the helm of the plan is Zoos SA CEO Elaine Bensted who officially opened Monarto’s latest heart-stopper, Lions 360, in November 2017.


The Lions 360 experience brings humans face-to-face with the king of the jungle.

The hair-raising attraction has already put hundreds of visitors within clawing range of a pride of African lions.

“The Lions 360 is definitely a first in Australia, and we think the first in the world,” Elaine says.

“It reverses the zoo concept by putting people inside the cage.

“Our lions have 10ha and they can choose where they want to be, but they generally choose to be all around the people in the dome.”

The Lions 360 is a big ticket project included in Zoos SA’s 20-year Masterplan, a document outlining immersive experiences, displays and improvements expected to set Adelaide and Monarto zoos up for further success.

Changes at Adelaide Zoo over the next two decades include a gorilla exhibit and nature-based adventure playground.

But it’s what’s in store for Monarto Zoo that has hearts racing.

Birds of prey flight presentations, safari-style accommodation and Madagascar walk-through experiences are all on the cards.

“The really exciting one that’s just around the corner is Wild Africa and that’s the development of a safari experience (that will be) by far the largest drive through experience outside of Africa,” Elaine says.

“You’ll be able to go on a sunset safari drive and come back and stay in accommodation from family cabins to a safari resort and ‘glamping’ in tents.”

Elaine says big things are on the horizon for Monarto Zoo, Australia’s largest open-range zoo and a major tourist attraction in SA.

With SA’s tourism industry worth $6.3 billion and attracting 13.6 million day trips to and around the state in a year, Elaine says tourism is a big employer.

“Zoos SA employs 250 people … and we’re lucky to be supported by over 500 volunteers,” she says.

“People think of the obvious jobs, the animal carer and the vets but we also have horticulturalists, asset staff and retail staff – so a really diverse range of jobs.”

Local communities also benefit from the zoo’s operations, Elaine says.

“We have about 3000 animals and they all need to be fed,” she says.

“If you see our fruit, veg and meat bill, it’s fairly large, so of course all this is supporting local communities.

“When we built the Lions 360 is was engineered by a Mt Gambier firm and then another SA company Sarah Constructions did the building work.”

Elaine has been Zoos SA CEO for the past five years and says her role is “an absolute dream job”.

“It’s really diverse, you are doing a range of conservation projects, but you’re also looking at sourcing funding and looking at new tourism operators to partner with so that people can explore this fabulous region,” she says.

Elaine grew up in SA wanting to be a veterinarian but later decided it would be a poor choice as she faints at the sight of blood.

She says the state’s scenery and business environment make it “a great place to live”.

“I’m very passionate about SA,” Elaine says.

“We have amazing local scenery, and it’s also a really nice place to do business.

“I think we’re the right size and we have a lot of connections.”

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

Wine media cadet telling our grape stories to the world

For fifth generation Barossa Valley local Emily Hay wine journalism is about more than clinking glasses with the industry’s movers and shakers.

Emily is helping to sell South Australia’s premium wine stories to the world as the inaugural Wine Communicators of Australia wine media cadet.

Since September 2017, she has gained exclusive insights into SA’s wine industry, attended key events overseas and met with high profile wine identities.

Emily snapped this photo of SA winemakers representing the Great Wine Capital of Adelaide in Hong Kong.

Publishing her stories on a blog, Emily is set to not only build her career and polish her communications skills, but help share the state’s wine stories.

“I think the wine industry needs more voices telling the stories,” Emily says.

“We have incredible landscapes and people know we have this incredible sense of beauty and purity.

“We have this sellable product that’s tourism driven – this is our future.”

With SA’s wine industry generating $2.1 billion in 2015/16, Emily says the industry is one that shouldn’t be underrated.

In 2016 Adelaide became a member of the exclusive Great Wine Capitals (GWC) Network, which recognises eight other internationally renowned wine regions including the Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Verona.

“It’s an incredible accolade,” Emily says.

“Internationally we are putting ourselves alongside the greats rather than pitting against them.

“We’re at the same table as Napa Valley and Bordeaux – all these incredible places that have a high sense of quality and pedigree. We’re equal to these places.”

A Barossa wine stall before the Hong Kong skyline.

In October/November Emily travelled to Shanghai for the Wine Australia Australian Wine Fair and China Wine Awards before visiting Hong Kong for the Wine and Dine Festival.

“It was a huge eye opener for me,” she says.

“To see Australia’s place in food and wine was confirming that we are doing the right thing and we can hold ourselves high.”

Emily says she took the overseas opportunity to talk about the diversity of SA’s wine offerings, as well as the regions’ close proximity to one another.

“What was really exciting was talking to people about the Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Coonawarra, Kangaroo Island, the Adelaide Hills,” she says.

“When you look at these places on a map they are all so close together.”

During her travels Emily met with renowned wine critic James Halliday and published a story on his take on ‘the state of play of Aussie wine in China’.

Her appreciation of high quality produce dates back to the age of 15 when she was working as a waitress for Barossa food identity Mark McNamara.

Emily Hay is a proud advocate of not only her hometown in the Barossa Valley, but all SA wine regions.

She pursued a degree in visual arts at university and has also worked in the tourism industry on Kangaroo Island.

Six years ago Emily returned home to the Barossa, working in a marketing role at Turkey Flat Vineyards where she wrote for a blog on the company’s website.

“I just fell in love with writing,” she says.

“It was my favourite day at work when I could sit down and write.”

In 2015 Emily was a finalist in the Wine Communicators of Australia Awards in the Gourmet Traveller WINE new wine writer category.

This cemented her decision to pursue a career in wine writing, and so when the wine media cadetship came up she grabbed it with both hands.

“It’s absolutely blown me away with how much it’s done for me,” she says.

“It’s ignited a huge desire in me to continue in this role.”

Read more of Emily’s posts on the GWC blog and at Wine Communicators.

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.