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A Victorian farm is determined to redefine silk farming for Australia, but for now, it’s wine and liqueur
Silk Estate, a beautiful two-hectare expanse on the South Gippsland Highway, is the dream project of Sarita Kulkarni, who is determined to help Australia rediscover its long lost silk growing industry.
In a bid to showcase that growing mulberries can be a commercially viable and sustainable crop industry, apart from its sericulture use, Sarita began growing mulberry trees on her estate. Today, it makes for a breathtakingly beautiful sight in summer, with trees laden with thousands of sweet berries. The fruit eventually gets bottled as mulberry wine or liqueur and as pure mulberry syrup.
A native of Karnataka, Sarita arrived in Melbourne in 1987 following her engineer husband. Armed with a Masters in Zoology (specialisation in sericulture from Dharwad University, Karnataka), she also had ample experience teaching and working in the sericulture industry in India.
Sarita was very passionate and ambitious about her sericulture work, so she decided to further her expertise by doing a PhD. But, unfortunately, Australia’s silk industry had died long ago and no one seemed to know anything about it. Quite often, she was taunted when people responded that they knew only ‘Aussie culture’ and not ‘sericulture’.
Not one to accept defeat, Sarita went on to get a second Master’s degree in Applied Agriculture/Entomology from Monash University, and in 1994, began work with the Agriculture Department working her way up to be a quarantine officer. It is here that she got the opportunity to work closely with, and understand, the farming practices and industry within Australia, also working extensively with the grape vine industry here.
Being knowledgeable about Australia’s golden silk era, Sarita was positive that it was only a matter of time before she would find mulberry trees here. And that opportunity came after a chance encounter with Monnie Fenner who used to maintain silkworms to spin silk for her weaving and craft activities. Sarita’s excitement knew no bounds when she came across a nursery which was selling two-year-old mulberry trees to the public who were interested in growing these in their backyards for the sweet fruit.
This relentless enthusiasm and passion for her subject made her place an order for 20 mulberry trees, a personal attempt to prove that the silk industry can be revived and commercialised in this country. This eventually led to the Silk Estate farm, which Sarita and her family purchased in 2003 and where they started the mulberry plantation in 2005.
Sarita refused to accept the fact that silk does not fare well here as depicted in the history of Australian silk, but her repeated attempts to get the universities or the government interested fell on deaf ears. Projects and studies were taken up and discarded for the silk venture; so she decided that it was time to showcase the versatility of mulberry as a fruit and in a different light to the public.
In an attempt to prove that it can be a cash crop and mulberry cultivation is an organic and sustainable venture, she began to package and sell the berries to markets across Australia. While Sydney took to these delicious berries in a big way, Melbourne markets were a bit sceptical. And this presented another challenge; mulberries have an extremely short season. Sarita was forced to research how to preserve these for longer, and this led to the mulberry liqueur, wine, syrup and jam project.
When the Silk Estate Mulberry Liqueur won a bronze award at an international wine show in 2011, Sarita knew she was on the right path. Today, the liqueur and syrup is produced in small batches every year, depending on the crop, in association with a Victorian company and is available for sale on request. A boutique product handcrafted with loving tender care, the liqueur is sweet and vibrant on the palate reminding you instantly of port wines.
The wine makes an excellent pairing with poultry, seafood, desserts and can also be used in making cocktails. The syrup is thick and sweet from the natural sugars present in mulberries and would be an incredible addition to any baking project.
In spite of a major health set back, Sarita is still passionate about taking her sericulture work forward in the hope that the silk industry of Australia can be revived. Silk Estate also grows other produce, has a small temple on site and Sarita also has plans to build a museum to educate, increase awareness and showcase her studies with silkworms.
Not one to sit still, she also runs a successful business and is the Quality Assurance Inspector and Entomological/Quarantine and Sericulture Consultant at Brij BugTrap Consultancy Pty Ltd. She also works as Community Development Officer/Trainer/Life coach with the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition (VIC & RWC). She is also a trainer with Learn Locals in the community in many disciplines, to keep the project afloat and viable. “I am extremely thankful to each and every one for their effort in making this venture possible,” she told Indian Link.
While the mulberry liqueur and other byproducts make excellent business sense, Sarita’s real passion remains for sericulture.
“Sericulture is a vibrant, incredible, prodigious, sustainable, environmentally friendly and miraculous commodity given to mankind by accident, which should give our agriculture industry a boost not only in the wine industry, but also in the fruit, health, and well-being of mankind,” Sarita observed, her passion for the fruit coming through clearly. “The gurus of the silk world once said to me when I was in their country, to give them 100 hectares of land and they will make sure that Australia will be seen as one of the top producers in the world market of silk production. It is this dream that keeps me alive. One day, I wish to see the silk industry of Australia get up on its feet again with a lot of help from families, government bodies, venture capitalists, and many entrepreneurial dreamers who have a vision and similar goal.”