April 2, 2019
People & Places

Sweet success

The world’s best carob is grown and processed by one salt of the earth couple on their Booborowie orchard.

Michael and Jam Jolley took a risk planting carob trees in the Mid North.

  • Michael and Jam Jolley took a risk planting carob trees in the Mid North.

Among the wheat fields and sheep grazing around the tiny township of Booborowie, just outside Burra, are 6000 carob trees.

After gardening all his working life, in 2000 46-year-old Michael Jolley was looking for a way for him and his wife Jam to have a less physically-dependent future, while still getting their hands dirty.

“I knew trees like the back of my hand. Everyone at the time was planting olives and vines, so we thought we’d do something different,” says Michael.

With his natural green thumb, Michael knew the soil and conditions were ideal for carob trees, with drought tolerance and lack of summer rains that would produce fungus-free pods. “I’d tried carob before and hated it,” says Michael. “We thought if we could plant the better tasting, sweet varieties rather than the bitter types that were exported into Australia, we’d be the point of difference.”

Michael and Jam began planting 3500 carob trees by hand on their 30-hectare block. “Our neighbours thought we were absolutely crazy, they thought the trees would be gone in a year. They don’t say that now,” says Michael.

Then, as the carob trees matured, they realised a shed and processing machinery would be a good idea. Earning and building along the way has seen the couple expand the orchard and welcome kibbling, milling, roasting and packing machinery, learning everything from manufacturing to marketing along the way.

“Our biggest learning curve was that things don’t happen as fast as you might think,” he says.

After 10 years, the carob trees finally produced pods and the company began packaging their range of organic kibble, powder and syrup, selling initially through Australian health food stores, but with a keen eye on the export market horizon. 

With the advent of healthy eating and customers prioritising less-processed, natural alternatives, demand has boomed on both the local and international markets, which according to Michael, was pure luck. “Our timing couldn’t have been better!”

With their syrup, powders and kibble all made from 100 per cent carob and processed on site at the farm, the Jolley’s carob is vegan and gluten and allergen free. The chocolate-like powders and syrup can be used in the place of flour, sugar for baking, in teas, milkshakes, and desserts.

“People used to eat carob solely for the health benefits, but our naturally sweet variety has all the benefits and still tastes good,” says Michael. “It has no caffeine, no milk, very high in fibre, vitamins and antioxidants and is great for digestion.”

The Australian Carob Co. is now selling to the USA, Canada, France, Europe, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and India, as well as continuing domestic markets. The international market is booming too, with sales on Amazon USA reaching $10,000 USD per month.

The next harvest is expected to reach more than 4000 tonnes of carob, but Michael says this is just the beginning. “They’ve been known to produce up to 200 kilograms per tree, so as our markets grow, we’ll feed and water the trees as we need to produce more,” he says. “Carob trees are like a super fund: a very long-term work in progress.”   

In the early days, Michael and Jam harvested the pods by hand with the help of a few friends, completing close to 50 trees per day. As sales increased though, they were able to purchase a shaker that can harvest 120 trees in an hour, “we definitely don’t miss those days!”

Michael admits that he and Jam are still finding their way in the carob business, learning new skills from experience and advice from Food SA, with a future firmly planted in SA. The couple still do everything on the farm, from managing water and harvesting, to milling and packing the containers, with their faithful Blue Heeler Nadi alongside.

“Jam is definitely the backbone of our business,” says Michael. “Nothing would have happened or progressed without her.”

The Australian Carob Co. products will be used in healthy waffles developed in Japan, and chocolate bars in South Korea. Michael’s favourite way to enjoy the fruits of their labour is adding carob syrup on his breakfast cereal every morning, and in chocolate cake.

Most recently the pair have developed their fluffiest, finest raw carob powder after two years of trial and error, with nothing else like it on the world market. While Michael admits it’s a relief to have perfected the product, they’re already looking to the next challenge.

“If we knew how big this farm would be when we started it, we’d have been too overwhelmed. It’s best to be dedicated and throw yourself into it, even if you know nothing at all,” he says.

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of SALIFE.

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