US founding father Benjamin Franklin’s quote: “out of adversity comes opportunity” might seem cliché, but for Queensland banana farmer, Krista Watkins, is couldn’t be more fitting.
The former school teacher and mother of two was introduced to the cut-throat agriculture industry after marrying her husband, Rob Watkins, in 2009, and moving to the family’s banana farm in Walkerman, Queenland. Two cyclones, Larry (2006) and Yasi (2011), wiped out between $10 million and $20 million in value annually, twice over in just five years.
The night after Cyclone Yasi, Krista – who had a four-month-old baby at the time – vividly remembers having a difficult discussion with her husband. The farm was about to be leased to a multi-national, and she needed to know what their future would hold – and fast.
“I said to my husband: what do you want to do with your life? Do you really want this life? I can go back to work if you want to do something else. I had realised pretty quickly that being the farmer’s wife was not for me.”
Rob’s reply to her question didn’t shock her. He had an “ah-ha” lightbulb moment some months prior when he had stood on an old, dehydrated banana in the driveway. A puff of powder had come out of the banana and he had tasted the floury substance.
It was just like regular flour, made from wheat, only better. He then began researching and “playing” with the substance, and realised with some R&D, there could be a market for banana flour in Australia.
That evening made the decision to go back to teaching full-time to support the family and raise funds for their new business. In the meantime, she found alternative care for her baby while her husband worked on the R&D side of their new venture. Four years later, in 2015, they finally had enough capital to launch Natural Evolution.
“Rob is the Einstein of the business when it comes to the mechanical side…and for innovation,” she says. “But there are areas where I bring a lot of value: such as the relationship building with staff and suppliers and business strategy.”
Natural Evolution now employs nine people in Walkerman and several sales representatives throughout Australia. It sells its products through Woolworths, Aldi and independent retailers.
Watkins says her company is currently finding it difficult to meet demand for its product, with a growing number of vegans and people with coeliac disease seeking out the product. In response, she plans to open a manufacturing facility that is 8 to 10 times the size of its current facility in 2020.
Turning fruit and vegetable products that would otherwise been left to rot because they are considered “imperfect” into flour products it is a common-sense way of making the most out of the food resources already being produced in Australia, Krista says. It is also a way that farmers can minimise risk when it comes to “imperfect” produce, she says. “People talk about needing three or four more planets to provide food for our growing population, but it’s not true,” Krista says.
“We are throwing away about 40% of the fruit and vegetables that we are producing, and drying it and turning it into a very nutritious flour product is one way we can feed many more people.”
Natural Evolution is currently exploring other areas of growth in the fruit and vegetable market. It already produces and sells sweet potato flour and is experimenting with other vegetables, such as broccoli and mushrooms, which it buys from other farmers and turns them into flour. It is also producing a line of liquors made from fruit and vegetable products.
Krista says the company would like to open more manufacturing facilities down the east coast, not only to grow her business, but to bring more manufacturing back to Australia.
“Like Justin Timberlake talked about bringing sexy back, I’m talking about bringing food manufacturing back! We have the product, we have the skills – we can do it and I’m determined to see it happen.”