Opportunities expand for Black Barley Australia's ancient variety

By Shannon Beattie
Updated April 5 2022 - 10:27am, first published April 3 2022 - 10:00pm
Roger Duggan started growing black barley in 2016 after getting his hands on 160 grams of the ancient grain from university seed banks.

A RARE, hull-less ancient grain that not only has impressive nutritional and environmental benefits, but also looks incredibly aesthetically pleasing on a plate.

They are the reasons why Roger Duggan started growing black barley six years ago and despite two droughts and a pandemic, the venture has gone from strength-to-strength.

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Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains in existence with its history as a farmed cereal dating back to at least 4500BC.

While standard barley varieties have been modified to produce greater yields and more economical farming methods, black barley has remained unchanged, farmed for generations in small batches and prized for its flavour, colour and nutritional value.

Black Barley Australia, founded by Mr Duggan after he sourced 160 grams of the grain from university seed banks, is in a unique position in the Western Australian agricultural market as it is the only current grower of the ancient grain in the country.

In 2016, he collaborated with the then Department of Agriculture to expand the volume of seed under quality assurance standards.

This is the first year after two droughts that Black Barley Australia has had tonnages available to organise sales agreements with companies that have value-add endeavours.

"Black barley is a delicious ancient grain that is low GI and contains high amounts of protein, fibre, vitamin B6 and phosphorus," Mr Duggan said.

"It offers a nutty taste and unique texture and the beauty of this grain is that it is hull-less, so it is the only cereal grain that does not require further post-harvest processing.

"This is how it maintains its wholegrain health potential, coupled with the environmental benefit of less energy required for growing and processing the final product."

While there were scientific papers about the benefits of black barley, not many people were using it in recipes at the time Mr Duggan started growing it.

He set up a Google alert and after 12 months eventually got a ping with well-known cook and food author Maggie Beer stating it was her new favourite grain to cook with.

Mr Duggan contacted her immediately and sent a kilogram of black barley to use.

Ms Beer then vouched for the product to enter the Delicious Produce Awards, which Black Barley Australia won gold for in 2018 and every year since.

Black Barley Australia grows the crop at four sites - Pemberton (pictured), Pingelly, Beverley and New Norcia.

Some of the country's top restaurants serve black barley on their plates, including Perth's Wildflower, plus Mr Duggan recently started exporting to Singapore and is soon to add Japan to the list.

"There's been a few trials and tribulations, so I haven't had a chance to go to distributors around Australia and have a face-to-face relationship," he said.

"This is the first year after two droughts that we have some tonnage available and are able to organise sales agreements with companies that have value-add endeavours."

That includes a collaboration with Limeburners, a miso trial and a few other value-add projects, including with CSIRO.

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Black barley may have some fantastic nutritional benefits, however it is a very low yielding crop.

While the science has caught up and through hybridisation there has been improvements in yield, it still tends to average about one tonne per hectare.

For Mr Duggan, who has an environmental science background, the positives outweigh that factor.

"It's an efficient plant-based protein which can be grown in marginal areas and with my environmental science background, that was something I wanted to see advance," he said.

"Plant-based protein consumption is growing and I think it's turning pretty mainstream, so I want to be active in the area with some value-add products to go along with the raw product."

Coming from a farming background - his parents owned a farm at New Norcia which his brother now runs - Mr Duggan also saw Black Barley Australia as the chance to do something with his family.

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Some of the barley is grown on the New Norcia property, with three other farmers in Pemberton, Pingelly and Beverley also contracted to grow the ancient grain.

All of those farmers have a regenerative farming ethos, which is something Mr Duggan also wants to engage in further.

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