The Fagan family are proof that the ‘agile business’ mindset has been alive and well in agriculture for generations – even when it means coming full circle with your horticulture crop value-adds.

How it all started

Ed Fagan is the company director of Mulyan farming company in Cowra, New South Wales. He grew up with the family’s crops going straight from field to cannery – the local Edgell cannery. But when canned food lost popularity to fresh food, Mulyan went with the flow and switched to horticultural crops.

“Initially we got into spinach and salad crops during the millennium drought,” Fagan explains. “We found we could get a better return by irrigating autumn, winter and spring crops rather than summer ones.” The focus was on getting the maximum return per litre and retaining the company’s staff all year.

Today, the crops are organised so that when one finishes, the next one starts. “We do asparagus from September, then onions and then summer and pickling cucumbers,” Fagan says. “Then we move onto beetroot for March, April, right through to basically September.”

While the Fagans found salad crops a good fit for their land, they recognised the downside. “Horticultural crops tend to be the most expensive to grow per hectare. When it’s ready, you can’t delay or store the product and wait for a better price, as you can with broadacre crops,” Fagan explains. “Combine that with downward pressure on price and you’ve got a problem.

“I did an ag commerce degree, so my thinking was ‘we need to be able to make sure everything we grow, we can sell’. I kept on coming back to needing to somehow preserve the product or sell it into a market that’s there all the time.”

Adding freshness

Asparagus turned out to be the game changer. “It has a very short shelf life,” Fagan says. “When it’s ready to go, you have to cut asparagus every single day for three months and you have to take the market value.”

One day, he walked into the local supermarket and saw the asparagus wasn’t looking that good. “I wanted to work out what was going wrong and how to fix it. So, in 2016 I went to the University of California in Davis and did a post-harvest technology course.”

The course focused on using the latest technology to get cut crops cold faster and how to maintain the quality for longer. When Fagan returned to Cowra, he built a custom processing facility. “The asparagus is cooled to under three degrees within 20 minutes of being in the paddock,” he says. “It’s packed and it’s out. Literally, the day it’s cut, it’s out and in Sydney.

“Our asparagus now goes to top-end restaurants. We now have a premium priced product where demand outstrips supply.”

Bottling success

Fagan wasn’t about to rest on his laurels, however. He was still looking for value-adds that complemented what Mulyan was already producing. “We had a lot of out-of-spec waste. Basically, we needed something that could take the leftover cucumbers and beetroot.”

The solution had already appeared. When Cowra cannery Windsor Farms went into receivership in 2013, Mulyan bought a lot of the equipment. “At that point, Michael McAlpine from Three Threes condiments suggested we look at doing something in glass jars with all our beetroot that had just lost its home,” Fagan says.

Three Threes couldn’t process beetroot in Sydney as the waste water is bright red and can’t go into the sewers. McAlpine suggested Mulyan do the processing for them, using the equipment they’d just bought. Fagan says it took a few years of trying different products, “but we ended up doing a beetroot relish for their brand that sells really well”.

With cucumbers, Mulyan was already supplying out-of-spec stock to a few picklers but they couldn’t take the entire volume. “My wife did a pickle-tasting tour in Sydney that included McClure’s pickles from the US. After a few trips to Detroit, where McClure’s are based, we secured a deal to be their manufacturer for Australia. We have the rights for all of Asia, too.”

Before he expands into Asia, however, Fagan wants to make sure they first get more runs on the board domestically. After that, he will look to a few key cities in Asia. “Frankly,” he confides, “with a couple of restaurants in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tokyo, we’d be flat out.”

Pickling plans

With the McClure’s project lined up, Mulyan built a processing facility for both beetroot and cucumbers. To build the plant, Fagan enlisted the expertise of Bill Salkeld, a retired Edgell engineer, to design an energy-efficient structure. The capacity is beyond what Mulyan needs at this stage, but it’s built for future growth. “NAB were very supportive,” Fagan says. “What we were doing was out of the ordinary. It coincided with the 2016 flood, which destroyed a lot of our income – and we were wanting to expand!

“When I presented this pickling plan to NAB, I was very impressed because they could see the vision.”

At this stage, Mulyan is supplying McClure’s pickles only to food service businesses, but the range has been expanded from just cucumber pickles to include beetroot and jalapenos. “When people buy a $20 hamburger, they’ll know the beetroot is special,” Fagan says. “Compared to canned, the slices are the right size for burgers, we retain more firmness and the brine’s got more punch. We’ve been growing beetroot for 70 years and know a good brine.

“I know it’s probably the best tasting beetroot around and we’re hoping to put it through McClure’s distribution channels in the US.” Fagan laughs at the irony of how adapting to modern issues has led the farm back to preserving its produce. “We’ve almost come full circle,” he grins.

Important information

The information contained in this article is correct as of November 2018 and is intended to be of a general nature only. It has been prepared without taking into account any person’s objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this information, NAB recommends that you consider whether it is appropriate for your circumstances. NAB recommends that you seek independent legal, financial, and taxation advice before acting on any information in this article.

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