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Unwanted produce gets new life

What would you do if you were presented with one tonne of peaches? What about 80kg of eggplant?

For Kelly Johnson of Mypolonga (a small town on the River Murray between Mannum and Murray Bridge), the answer is simple: you create dehydrated products and sell them in more than 30 outlets across South Australia.

Kelly founded Woodlane Orchard about two years ago when she noticed a friend had a surplus of peaches that was going to go to waste.

“Each year he was throwing away around one tonne of dried peaches. So I thought I’d help get them and move them on for him. Very quickly, I found markets for them and they vanished,” she recalls.

With the encouragement of her husband who was keen to see Kelly find some sort of employment, she soon discovered more produce that needed to be moved.

“So I started collecting whatever was around and my product range grew out of whatever I could find.

“I would pay the farm at market or above market price, wherever I can, dry it and then turn it into whatever I can think of that will utilise that particular produce.”

The idea to dry the produce was founded in her years as a Scout leader, when it was often challenging to find lightweight and palatable foods for Scout hikes. It was here that she turned to dehydrating food.

“We’d have almost science food nights with the kids. I’d lay it all out. Some of the concoctions were horrific. They would just throw everything in, and out we’d go on our hike, and they would enjoy whatever it was they made,” she recalls.

And so, the concept of being able to create delicious, dehydrated products, has now been applied to a business, which is about to spread beyond a home-based operation.

The pandemic created its challenges for the business that was really only selling through farmers markets and a little online.

“When COVID came my business effectively shut. Although I could still go to Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, the business wasn’t thriving. It wasn’t something I could make an income from.”

With that realisation, the website was upgraded and Kelly applied herself to become more savvy online and with social media.

“I also had to have faith in my product to take it out to wholesalers. Once that happened it just started growing all on its own,” she said.

The first approach to wholesalers was in the company of the original peach supplier, and a local honey producer. The trio headed off to see GD Wholesale to pitch Mypolonga produce.

“Once I had that one leg in, the honey and the peaches came with us, it was all systems go. I was hooked and excited to get out and do more.

“Now have more than 30 outlets, but only about six I actively sought. The other 24 have happened of their own accord. Literally people see the product, start asking and they come to me.”

There are plans underway to move into premises away from the family home, employ a food processing trainee, and two full-time staff and to open a tasting area with other local producers – Rio Vista Olives, Bakehouse Farm Honey and Pommy Gold Pomegranates. A café is expected to follow too.

There are also investigations underway into export opportunities.

“We’ve got 50 products in the range. I really need to stop at that, but it’s so much fun creating new things.”

The growth of the business has definitely been a surprise to Kelly who admits to an unusual driver to make it successful.

“I think it’s been successful out of spite.

“My husband said that it would never work. And I said, well, come hell or high water, it will work. I wanted to prove him wrong. He has eaten some serious helpings of humble pie. He is very much onboard now. I couldn’t do it without him.”

She remembers how the business started, just working from her kitchen.

“It was a bit hilarious really, you know, your round dehydrator, we tend to have in our homes; I was drying things in those, they take forever. I could only do a really, really tiny amount and I thought I was very successful.”

Today she has four industrial dryers that hold almost 90 trays between them which are rotated two to three times a day.

“It’s a massive amount that we’re doing now, and we’re only actually just keeping ahead of the wave. We need to double our capacity very quickly.”

There have certainly been challenges in operating the business from home that she won’t miss with the impending move, which is just awaiting council approval.

“We can’t run any more equipment off the electricity. When our dryers are running, you can’t turn things on in the house. We pop the switch all the time.

“It literally means I have to work 18 hours a day so I can keep those dryers turning all the time. That will be the biggest thing when we move to be able to do an 8-hour day because we will have enough drying space.”

With her three boys – twins with Aspergers Syndrome and a third who had heart surgery at a young age – well into their teens, Kelly now gets up in the middle of the night for her new “babies”.

“I will get up in the night and turn dryers. I will keep the timers going, set my alarm and get up and turn everything and put new stuff in, so I can fulfill my orders.”

And, she won’t miss the heat of the home operation either, particularly in summer.

“Winter is great, but summer is really not nice. When you’re talking about your four dryers running at 65 degrees in a room, and you’re in there turning fruit and cutting things, it is horrific. I try to dart in and dart out, so I don’t pass out. It’s very unpleasant.”

Although the business name suggests otherwise, Kelly doesn’t actually own an orchard.

“I chose Woodlane Orchard because I was using two orchards that are side by side at Wood Lane. One was called Autumn Leaf Orchards and the other was my brother’s citrus orchard.”

“The significance of the name was just, well, it’s all coming from Wood Lane, and now it’s coming from all across South Australia.”

And it’s not just fruit. Woodlane Orchards handles “anything that’s going to go to waste” which includes not only fruit, but also pumpkin, eggplant, zucchinis, carrots and potatoes as well.

“It doesn’t matter, whatever is out there. We collect it up and make something,” Kelly says.

Although originally buying the already-sulphured and dried fruit, Woodlane Orchards doesn’t do those products anymore.

“What we do is collect the peaches and apricots that aren’t good enough to either dry, or they’re too large to be put into dryers, cut them really finely and dry them so they have no preservatives.

“That’s a totally different product to what we started doing. It’s pretty eclectic what we collect, which is why our range is so broad.”

The range of produce that literally just comes down the driveway can be diverse. The arrival of 80kg of eggplant was a challenge since Kelly had never eaten or cooked eggplant before.

“It’s not a staple in my home. I thought, what am I going to do with it? So that’s how ratatouille became a product line.

“A farmer down the road had grown 7 tonne of pumpkin and couldn’t get rid of a tonne of it. It had marks from the ground. I paid him the same price that he got for all the rest of his pumpkin, dried it, turned it into pumpkin soup and into pumpkin risotto and it’s now into vegetable stews.

“All of our products are all vegan, gluten free and preservative free. You can add your meats and any extras to them, but they’ll just stand on their own. So, whatever is available, that’s what I make.

“With most of them you just open a crockpot, pour in the packet, pour in the water, put the lid on and leave. If you want to have meat chuck that in there. And that’s it really. Most of them are just that simple.”

And, don’t think that seconds produce means a second-rate product. Kelly even stops producing some lines out of season if she can’t get produce that’s fresh.

“I want to make sure the customer is getting the premium product at the end. Even though they’re often coming from seconds, I want them to have lots of colour and life and taste, and I don’t want them to be old and, you know, horrible looking. So, I just cut them off once I can’t get them.”

Apart from the challenges associated with running a larger food business from home, Kelly’s other big challenge has been overcoming a reluctance to ask for help. And being named in the top 25 for the She-EO award has certainly helped her deal with this.

“I tend to wave along and do it myself. Being a woman running a business and being in a farming setting, where I generally have to communicate with men, I’m afraid to ask for help because I might look weak.

“So it has become a bit of a habit where I don’t ask for help, and I put myself through all sorts of horrors that could have been avoided if I would just stop and ask.

“She-EO have a big philosophy on asking and giving help. It’s been a bit of an epiphany. It has really been good for me, and good for my business. They make you ask for help.”

Kelly says she’s looking forward to the next stage of the business journey, opening her own premises and employing staff, but is also ready for additional challenges which are likely to come from the conversion from a home business to a premises. But she feels the whole community is behind her.

“Mypolonga is just a wonderful, wonderful place to live, and I feel like I can’t do enough to make sure that my place in this fabulous community is earned.

“I’m not just going to sit back and just enjoy it without giving to it. So that is how I’m hoping Woodlane Orchard can give to the community.”