The second part of our journey tracing the wheat we bake with, from farm to oven to plate…
A short drive through surprisingly green fields brings us to the second farm we’re visiting – a much larger family-owned and operated farm known as Dulla Dulla. Once again, the Martin family have lived and farmed in the area for over 100 years, and have been friends and business partners of the Furney family for much of that time.
Dulla Dulla practices the sustainable farming technique of rotating between various crops of grains, lupins and also cotton. As we wait for the enormous ‘header’ to start harvesting the vast paddock which stretches in front of us, we’re proudly told that the Macquarie Valley is the heart of the wheat belt running through western NSW. The farmers here are resilient, relying on mother nature to nurture the wheat crops with timely rain and temperatures.
This year due to very low rainfall, the yield has been degraded but as a result the wheat is very high in protein – which makes for stronger flour. Some of the crops are irrigated using an age-old method of cutting channels into the gently sloping fields, and siphoning the water from channels so that it flows from one end of each field to the other, watering the crop as goes.
The irrigation is just about the only traditional aspect of this booming farm, though. We are amazed at how high-tech all other aspects of the operation are, especially when it comes to heading – or harvesting – the wheat. An enormous vehicle, around three times tall and at least four times as wide as the 4WD ute we’re riding in today, it is operated using GPS Auto Guidance, which allows for ‘hands-off’ steering while ensuring each field is trimmed to a precise height with only the barest minimum of skipping – or overlapping – taking place as we work down the rows.
A similarly huge header is working through a crop of Ryecorn at one of Ben Furney’s own properties, our final farm visit before heading off to the Mill. In addition to growing wheat on this property, chickpeas are grown to be milled for chickpea flour – although the irregular rain has stunted the plants we see and greatly reduced the yield expected.
In the unrelenting heat and with a brisk wind blowing a fine, reddish dust into our faces, we’re glad to head back into town for lunch at around 2pm. Fortified by rock cakes and icy water thoughtfully provided by our hosts, we aren’t starving yet but it feels good to get into the air-conditioned, quiet corridors and newly renovated break room of the Ben Furney Mills offices. We chat over lunch about the size, scale and diversity of the business – one of Dubbo’s largest privately-owned operations – before heading out to check out the mill for ourselves.
With an output of over 60 thousand tonnes of flour per annum – that’s over one thousand tonnes per week – and clients all over Australia, Ben Furney is a rural success story second to none. Their flours (there are dozens of different kinds) are trucked to every state of Australia and made into every kind of carbohydrate you can imagine, from pizza in Darwin to cake bakers in Perth.
Grains are cleaned & conditioned before being milled and blended based on protein levels to naturally provide selections of flour for breads, cakes, pastries and many more applications. The mill dazzles us with how automated and efficient it is; a staff of what seems like only around a dozen people at any one time are able to process incredible volumes of grain, thanks to a sophisticated process which harnesses gravity as well as the most modern of packaging machines to make the job easy.
Just before we leave for the airport, we watch our own favourite flour being bagged. Known as Maxipro, it contains the highest protein to enable our sourdough to bind together better and create a stretchier, more dense crumb.
It brings us back to the reason for our journey to Dubbo – to explore where this crucial ingredient, to which we owe part of our success as bakers – comes from, and to meet the hard-working, knowledgeable and friendly people behind it.
As we fly back over the Great Dividing Range towards the city, we feel like we’ve definitely achieved that.