CassTech, an unlisted Australian public company, has been farming cassava in Australia since 2008. CassTech’s direct links to cassava farming, however, extend back to Australia’s first commercial cassava enterprise, Australian Cassava Products, which operated from 1979 to the 1986.
In 2008 the Company established a 75 hectare experimental farm at the former Agricultural College site near the town of Clare, in the Burdekin region of North Queensland. This experimental farm was established using cassava stems collected from numerous locations around Australia. In addition to developing and refining cassava growing techniques, the Company developed proprietary farming machinery for the planting and harvesting of cassava.
Identifying a market opportunity for tapioca flour in the gluten-free sector, the Company constructed a pilot scale facility for the production of flour from the cassava roots grown on the farm. Several tonnes of flour were produced and distributed to a wide range of companies involved in the gluten-free industry. The feedback was very encouraging.
To ensure the most desirable attributes of the cassava are available, and to minimise the risk of infestation, the company has 35 varieties/cultivars of cassava, most of which were imported from the world’s leading cassava research facility in South America.
A combination of focused research and professional farming practices has allowed the Company to achieve root yields of at least 70 tonnes per hectare and typically in the range of 80 to 100 tonnes, and do so on a sustainable basis. To put this in perspective, the average root yields in the major cassava growing countries of Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia and Thailand are well under 25 tonnes per hectare and the global average yield is just over 10 tonnes.
The Company currently operates a 10 hectare nursery on which it continues to grow the 35 varieties. The nursery is sufficiently large to provide planting material for a commercial operation of up to 200 hectares.
Although relatively unknown in Australia, cassava is the world’s sixth largest crop by tonnage and the fourth most important source of carbohydrate-derived calories behind wheat, maize and rice.
Globally, over 250 million tonnes of cassava root is grown annually throughout the tropics and sub-tropical regions.
The crop is noted for its exceptional yield of digestible carbohydrate (starch) and relatively low requirements for both nutrients and water, hence its reputation for high productivity even in areas of low rainfall and degraded soils.
The plant consists of tuber-like roots containing starch of very high purity, woody stems of up to three metres in height and an umbrella-like canopy of foliage. The cassava plant is a perennial which permits harvesting and planting all year round. It is typically harvested for its roots nine to ten months after planting.
In addition to being consumed as a fresh vegetable, cassava root is processed into cassava ‘chip’ and tapioca starch. Millions of tonnes of cassava chip are used annually in the production of ethanol, amino acids, citric acid and MSG, as well as livestock, fish and poultry feed. Tapioca starch is used in a vast range of applications from water treatment, food manufacture, paper making to advanced products such as bioplastics and probiotic foods.
The protein content of the foliage of the Company’s cassava varieties is typically 8 to 10 per cent on a fresh basis and around 25 to 30 per cent on a dry basis. Under intensive cropping, this equates to a potential protein yield of 40 to 50 tonne of protein per hectare per year. This presents an excellent opportunity for a future project.
The cassava plant is propagated vegetatively – rather than by seed – which ensures successive generations are direct clones of the original plants. This homogeneity reduces variability between crops which then translates into standardised farming methods and, ultimately, consistent product quality.