Freeze drying takes off
FORAGER Foods was established by John Ranicar at a small processing factory not far from Deloraine.
After starting out doing contract drying Mr Ranicar introduced the first of the Forager Foods range, which featured locally grown apples, in late 2011.
“When we first started most people had never heard of freeze drying, let alone tasted anything freeze dried,” he said. “Now it’s really taken off, particularly on the industrial side with the big companies, there’s been a big uptake there.”
Today the factory includes the original small dryer and three bigger ones as well as a purpose built shed with a storage area. Mr Ranicar has also installed specialty packing equipment.
Processing capacity at the factory has increased from 30 tonnes of raw product a year up to 700 tonnes.
It employs more than a dozen people.
A small on-site shop has also been set up at the factory, which sees a good number of visitors.
Experimenting and trying new ideas has been an important part of the business’s development.
As well as the Forager Foods dried fruit range, Mr Ranicar has also been working with chefs to produce a range of freeze dried pre-prepared meals and vegetables ideal for bushwalking or camping.
The meals are prepared in advance and then the whole thing is freeze dried.
Mr Ranicar said this produces much better flavours than other products where all the individual ingredients are freeze dried separately.
The aim is to expand this range to include breakfast, lunch and dinner meals as well as snacks.
The business is now freeze drying fruits and vegetables for the manufacturing market as well. These products, which can also be made into powders, are used by companies to make things including smoothies and muesli.
Mr Ranicar said changes to Australian labelling laws meant more companies were now seeking out Australian grown fruits and vegetables rather than using imported products.
One of the main advantages of freeze drying is that the foods maintain all their original nutrients, including the much sought after antioxidants.
“Because there isn’t any heat used during the process whatever you’re drying maintains the nutritional benefits of the original raw product,” Mr Ranicar said.
Almost anything can be freeze dried — including meat — as long as it does not have too much sugar, oil, fat or alcohol.
One of the major benefits is Mr Ranicar can value-add second grade fruit and vegetables that are not quite suitable for the fresh market.
“That’s really how we started,” he said.
“There is all this really good fresh produce there and it’s
perfectly fine. It might just have a bit of a rub mark on the skin or a bend in it, but we can use all that.”
On average freeze drying takes about 30 hours and once they are dried the products have a moisture level of between 1-3 per cent.
This compares to traditional dehydrated products, which are normally about 12-18 per cent moisture.
Getting each product perfect takes some trial and error and Mr Ranicar said sometimes the mistakes they made could actually produce something quite tasty.
“We’re always experimenting and trying new things, that’s an important part of what we do,” he said.
“We quite often get requests to try different things as well.”
Once they are dried, most products have a shelf life of a least two years.
Forager Foods products are now sold locally in most independent supermarkets and retail outlets.
However Mr Ranicar now has his sights firmly set on expanding more into export markets.
He is already sending some products into Malaysia and China and a small amount into the Middle East.
Mr Ranicar was also part of a recent trade visit to Japan organised through Horticulture Australia and Fruit Growers Tasmania.
“There seems to be quite a lot of interest over there,” he said.
“Really this was a bit of a reconnaissance mission to find out what sort of products they want, the different pack sizes and how we would need to package it and things like that, but from what I saw I think it could be a good market.”
Processing at the factory is spread throughout the year, but where possible Mr Ranicar said they preferred to dry fruit and vegetables just after harvesting.