How Kelly Slater helped farmer John Foss put chia on the superfood map

John Foss visits one of the Ord River chia farms

Chia is elbowing out quinoa and kale as the hottest superfood, but it’s taken former wheat farmer John Foss 12 years and a move to New York to fulfil his dream of a sustainable farm gate-to-table chia business.

It was while travelling the world on a Nuffield Farming Scholarship in 2001, talking with global food manufacturers and studying mega food trends, that former Kimberley wheat farmer John Foss discovered a missing link in the global food supply-chain: the relationship between the consumer and the farm gate.

Two years later, he founded The Chia Co and set about building a chia industry in Australia. His focus was on creating an agricultural business that delivered sustainable returns rather than a rollercoaster of fluctuating prices. He also wanted to bring the consumer into a relationship with the farmer.

Now 12 years and a lot of sweat and tears later, he runs what he says is the world’s largest chia production company, with product sourced from growers in Western Australia’s Ord River Valley.

Eaten whole, ground into flour, pressed for oil or soaked in water, chia seeds are an incredibly rich source of omega-3, dietary fibre, protein and antioxidants. The plant is native to South America, and Foss discovered that it grows best 15 degrees from the equator. So his first move was to go to the Ord Valley to convince local farmers to partner with him. With the sugar industry struggling at the time, he found them very receptive.

“But it was important we had a sufficient supply base before we went to market,” he recalls.

“The first milestone was establishing sufficient sustainability of supply to provide weekly volumes to 600-plus Bakers Delight stores across Australia.”

“As a farmer you can do a lot with your patch, but there was limited opportunity to influence people if I stayed on the farm.”

The next hurdle was selling chia to food manufacturers, which meant guaranteeing sustained supply for every new client. After that came the challenge of selling chia as a ready-to-eat food.

“That meant building the supply chains and then building the market, while ensuring that it has sustainability,” says Foss.

The Chia Co has sold 10 million ready-to-eat Chia Pod breakfast snacks to Australian supermarkets Coles and Woolworths in the 12 months they’ve stocked them. It also sells chia seeds to the world’s biggest food retailers and could earn more than A$100 million in 2016.

But building a crop that could be taken to global markets was only half the journey. Foss needed to champion the amazing nutritional profile of chia, and that meant leaving the farm.

“As a farmer you can do a lot with your patch, but there was limited opportunity to influence people if I stayed on the farm,” he says.

“In 2008, I decided that to be able to take Chia Co global, I needed to invest my full attention into my vision for the company.”

He initially shifted to Melbourne, home to many global food manufacturers, and soon opened offices in the UK and the US. Then in 2012 he moved his family to New York to be closer to US investors and food retailers.

“I quickly recognised that to develop these markets, I had to be there. People really want to deal directly with the founder of the business who understands the farm.”

It’s certainly paying off. The world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, recently placed a big order.

Foss also put his marketing smarts to work when in 2013 he spotted that champion surfer Kelly Slater had raved on Instagram about the chia seeds in almond milk he had for breakfast. 

“When we saw Kelly was already a chia eater, it made sense for us to show him our products,” Foss says. Slater loved them and is now a brand ambassador.

“A TV commercial that aired this year featuring Kelly on a visit to the Ord certainly helped promote the brand.

“A good way to crystallise your vision is to imagine lying on your death bed and asking yourself whether you’ve done enough with your life.”

This article is from the July issue of INTHEBLACK

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