CONCERNS about falling protein levels in grains produced in the Esperance port zone has prompted a grower tour of India and Sri Lanka to look at possible expansion of market opportunities.
The tour was organised by South East Premium Wheat Growers (SEPWA) and included eight Esperance growers.
The trip was partly funded by Royalties for Regions money, through SEPWA's barley project, with attendees of the tour funding the majority of the trip themselves.
The Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre provided background research into Indian barley market opportunities and the group was hosted by Austrade, which introduced in all the meetings and was part of the tour in both countries.
It follows on from similar tours to Vietnam and China in recent years, with the aim of educating growers on markets their grain was exported to, as well as identifying new markets for future growth.
SEPWA executive officer Niki Curtis said the whole reason for the project was about capacity building for the Esperance port zone.
"Because the majority of our grain is exported we are really beholden to our export markets and we don't have a lot of scope for domestic fall back," Ms Curtis said.
"This tour was primarily about understanding barley opportunities in India and what we learnt from that was that with current import restrictions due to phytosanitary irregularities between Australia and India there was no opportunity currently to export barley, but there could be in the future and the Australian government is speaking with the Indian government on this.
"India wants FAQ barley and varieties don't really matter as long as the grain meets their standards, so there could be opportunities moving forward."
Ms Curtis said there was interest in opportunities for pulses, particularly in Sri Lanka.
"In the Esperance port zone we are very aware that quality in regard to protein is dropping in our grains," she said.
"As yield is increasing, protein is decreasing, but growing a pulse crop that is profitable is difficult.
"Growers are losing money on average for peas, particularly if they have to be freighted by road to Perth.
"Having Esperance Quality Grains here and having a container trade out of our port zone has provided an alternative buyer for growers.
"We met with quite a lot of pulse buyers in Sri Lanka, particularly in the lentil and pea space, and there was some positive discussion to come from that.
"There could be a marketing opportunity for us in the short-term.
"If growers in this zone can increase lentils and peas in their farming systems, then hopefully that will lead to an increase in protein levels."
Ms Curtis said feedback in both countries was that they enjoyed meeting Australian grain growers.
"They were delighted that we cared enough to hear what it was these countries wanted to buy from us for now and into the future," she said.
SEPWA president Dan Sanderson was on the tour and said there was certainly a lot of interest in Australian grain and pulses.
"They see Australia as a good, clean, safe and quality destination for buying grain, but they want it cheap," Mr Sanderson said.
"They only grow six-row barley in India and they are really keen on buying our two-row barley and malting it on its own, but if it is not cheap they won't buy it."
Mr Sanderson said due to the government reserve price scheme in India being low for barley, production of the grain in India is reducing.
"Under this scheme, it is more profitable to grow other crops," he said.
"In the future there is a possibility we can get malt barley into India.
"With the increase in middle-class and the hot climate, they are looking to drink more beer and if you have 300,000 extra people a week that want a couple of beers, that is a fair amount of barley.
"The beer produced there has a very high alcohol content, about 7.8 per cent on average.
"This is because the average worker there can't afford to buy too much beer.
"They want to have one can after they knock off work and they drink it and go home, so they make it with a higher alcohol content to provide that relaxing experience in one can."
Mr Sanderson said while there was big demand for pulses in India, tariffs were a major barrier to trade from Australia.
"The message I got out of it, was that in the past few years there has been plenty of production in India and it had plenty of food," he said.
"The reserve price scheme is hurting the government financially and the tariffs helped to subsidise this to some extent.
"The bottom line is that there is plenty of food in India, so the tariffs won't be disappearing any time soon."
Mr Sanderson said from a grain point of view he wasn't ruling out opportunities for Australian grain in Sri Lanka.
"Cost is the main consideration for them," he said.
"They deal with the Black Sea, but they still prefer our product as a brand.
"They also export quite a lot to countries such as North Africa, Iran and Burma - markets we don't have a lot of access to.
"There is an opportunity for them to import grain, value add it and sell it on."
Mr Sanderson said they visited a brewery in Sri Lanka and most of the malt it was using came from China, with a little bit from Europe.
"There would be a percentage of Australian barley in that malt because we send so much to China and they said it was good quality malt," he said.
"We also visited a company called Aussee Oats, which wants to use a certain percentage of Australian oats within a product range that includes things such as instant soups made out of oats.
"They are slightly concerned though as they want to buy Australian oats but are having a hard time sourcing them and are buying less and less each year."