Bruce Pascoe is working hard to reintroduce native grains and flours into Australia’s food system. Easier to grow and more nutritious than European-introduced wheat, Bruce’s work is as much about protecting the grasses as it is about protecting the knowledge.
Aboriginal Australians used, and still use, over 600 different species of plants for food and medicine. Before white settlement they had an intimate knowledge of the land, her plants and animals, the seasons and how they all interacted together.
These plants were perfectly suited to the Australian environment, growing without fertilisers, pesticides or irrigation. They fed and sustained Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years. Yet when white people colonised Australia they brought plants and foods from Europe which weren’t suited to our soils, our climate or our bush. They brought sheep that compressed the soil and damaged a land that had been cared for through an intimate connection that stretched back tens of thousands of years. The oldest evidence of Aboriginal civilisation is from 65,000 years ago, making Australia’s Indigenous civilisation the oldest living on earth.
One of the the European settlers’ main imports was wheat. Bred to grow large seed heads and to produce maximum yield, however it was suited to a climate and environment very different to that of Australia.
From The Ashes
In Dark Emu, author Bruce Pascoe shares records of early European explorers who wrote of grasses ‘reaching to our saddle-girths’ and of ‘large heaps that were thrashed out by natives piled up like haycocks’. Aboriginal Australia was not the wild, untamed land with native savages as some people believe, it was a highly sophisticated society deeply in tune with its environment.
The records sparked Bruce’s curiosity as to what those grains were, and if they could replace today’s common grains which are not only not well suited to our environment, but also not very well suited to humans.
Since Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe has been exploring the native grasses used by who he calls ‘the old people’ through scientific experimentation on his property, situated on the banks of the Wallagaraugh River near Mallacoota, New South Wales. An overgrazed cattle paddock when he purchased it, there was some evidence of kangaroo grass and other native plants prior to last year’s bushfires, which Bruce spent weeks battling from all directions. He lost sheds as fire ripped through his paddocks and surrounding bush, but what he’s discovered since reveals the true nature of indigenous native plants.
‘We’re trying to bring the forests back to what it was pre-colonial times, ten or 12 trees to the acre,’ says Bruce. ‘We had a lot of theories, but after the fires, as the canopy was gone, the microlaena came back, the kangaroo grass came back, the speargrass came back.
‘But within the forest what we noticed was the orchids came back really strongly and it showed us that all the various orchids that the old people would have been using, and how they were working with those orchids, the cool burns were actually promoting the orchid growth as a food and the same with the grasses.
‘I had never seen redleg (grass) on this property, but it was there in abundance. The austrostipa, the speargrass – I had never seen it in the forest, but there it was.’
The consequence of an otherwise devastating fire was that Bruce now understood the environment required to grow and harvest native grains under trees. This not only has the potential to increase the harvestable area of this country exponentially, but it’s a crop which requires less input to be successful, and a crop which regenerates soil at the same time.
‘If you’re not ploughing and let’s say we don’t use sheep, as a hard-hoofed animal, then your soil is going to be in much, much better condition,’ he says. ‘[When] we use these perennial grasses, their root masses become massive and they can survive droughts, fire and even too much water, so we therefore eradicate the highs and lows of conventional agriculture.
‘Because there’s no such thing as drought, there’s just the wrong crops.’
Compared to wheat, the yield-per-acre is a lot less but it remains economical because the required inputs are greatly reduced, too.
‘A lot of the plants that we are harvesting are young plants, but the older those plants get, the more seed they produce so the yield-per-acre increases as the plants get older, not the other way around.’
The main grasses Bruce and his team have been experimenting with are mamadyang ngalluk (kangaroo grass), spear grass, various panicums, and microlaenas.
‘I’m not a botanist,’ continues Bruce. ‘So what I know about the grasses is what I can see and feel. I need more knowledge and I’ll get that as time goes by, I just don’t have the luxury of time, the planet doesn’t have that kind of luxury at the moment, we’ve got to work really hard to save her.’
Bruce believes Indigenous Australians were the first to grow mamadyang ngalluk, or dancing grass, as food.
‘I think it’s certainly the same for burru ngalluk,’ he adds. ‘They are indigenous to Australia. We didn’t apply any water, fertiliser or pesticide, so they’re totally friendly to the land. They want to grow here, not like wheat [which] we have to make grow here.’
Bruce explains how he and his team have grown root stock of native grasses which they’ve planted. And unlike wheat, once the native grasses have established, they’ll never need replanting.
As well as the native grains Bruce and the team are experimenting with, they’re looking to add astrebla (mitchell grass), lomandra (spiny head mat-rush), nardu (matgrass) and cumbungi (bullrush) to the mix, looking at all four’s potential to be milled and used as flour.
‘And it wasn’t just the half a dozen we’re working with, there were hundreds of these things in the bush. And we’ve just totally dismissed that knowledge.
‘Some of that knowledge is held and some we have to go and find. Some you have to trial and error and be prepared to make lots of mistakes, but use a combination of those three things and you’ll end up with a good result because the grass is still the same.’
According to a 2020 study by the University of Sydney, kangaroo grass contains 40 percent more protein and five percent more minerals than wheat, which Bruce says is due to the slowly digestible starch found in native grains.
‘On its seed there’s a bloom that is a living thing that interacts with the seed of the kangaroo grass. If you eat it, which you inevitably do when you eat the seed, it has a positive interaction with your gut,’ explains Bruce. ‘A lot of the cancers and the bloatedness of people these days is because of eating wheat instead of these complex carbohydrates out of the grasses.
‘Yet we’ve gone for wheat because it’s bigger, not because it’s better.’
And the benefits don’t stop at the superior nutritional values, either. The aromas, textures and colours of the breads are what Bruce describes as ‘fantastic’.
‘It creates a really aromatic, rye-like loaf of bread,’ he says. ‘When my daughter was staying during lockdown, we were making a loaf of bread every second day using microlaena, mamadyang ngalluk, the dancing grass. It’s a really dark, rye-looking type of bread, [it] doesn’t rise as much as wheat bread but you get used to it and it’s incredibly good for you.’
Because of the experimental nature of the project and the small quantities of native grains being produced, he’s needing to mix conventional flours into the dough.
‘It’s part of our experimentation,’ he says. ‘What percentage are we going to use.’
Bruce, along with Noel and Trish Butler (Indigenous Knowledge, Pip Issue 19) and others, has started a small social enterprise called Black Duck Foods. Named after the Aboriginal totem of the region, it was set up to revitalise the growing of traditional Aboriginal foods and to create an industry where Aboriginal people directly benefit from their traditional knowledge and skills.
‘If we don’t do this now, as Aboriginal people we’re going to be snowballed by non-Aboriginal people and I want us to have a place in this industry,’ says Bruce. ‘It’s going to be an industry and people are going to make a lot of money and I want us to be in there. That’s why we jumped in – I felt we had to.
‘Everyone wanted to talk about these things, people wanted me to provide them with seed, but no one ever asked me how they can ensure Aboriginal people benefit from this,’ he continues. ‘And that’s the real question for Australians. This is Aboriginal intellectual property we are talking about, we’ve got to be in the industry.
‘But what do you need to grow? We need land. And what don’t Aboriginal people have? Land.’
Apart from a few seed grants, most of Black Duck has been funded by sales of Dark Emu. And ironically, recent commentary by Andrew Bolt questioning Bruce’s Indigenous heritage caused sales of the book to rocket, allowing him to employ more local Aboriginal people which means more funds going into the community.
A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of Dark Emu beer also goes to supporting the studies of local Aboriginal students at Orbost, Mallacoota and Eden. Produced through a collaboration with Sailors Grave Brewing, a microbrewery near Orbost and not far from Bruce’s farm, it’s currently being produced in small quantities. And while Bruce said the project will eventually be more productive, ‘making lots of it isn’t what I’m trying to do, other people will do that,’ he says. ‘The thing is to make sure that it happens. I can’t afford to put pressure on myself to make any money straight up.
‘It’s the idea I want to take hold.’
It’s the same idea that spreads across all Bruce’s work around native plants and their varied uses. It’s about the conservation of Aboriginal knowledge and, through experimentation and application, realising the enormous value it offers to today’s landscape and its inhabitants.
‘We can do this science on the ground here, it’s just a matter of applying ourselves and respecting the knowledge and respecting the history of the country and learning from it,’ says Bruce. ‘I think it will help to solve the country if we are able to respect Aboriginal knowledge.
‘I’m also an Australian and I want the best for the country, I’d like all Australians to benefit from this.’
|Nutritional values per 100 g|
|Wheat||14.6 g||2.5 g||69 g||1.8 g|
|Mitchell grass||4.6 g||57 g||4.5 g|
|Kangaroo grass||20.7 g||8.5 g||52 g||9.6 g|
|Mulga wattle||24.7 g||11 g||51 g||4.3 g|