A Loddon Shire Homecoming Sparks a Love Story and a Spicy New Business Venture

A Loddon Shire Homecoming Sparks a Love Story and a Spicy New Business Venture
How a traditional Loddon Valley cereal and sheep farmer became a hipster chilli producer.

When Wedderburn local Jude Hannah returned to the area several years ago to be closer to her dad after her mother died, little did she know her life was about to take an unexpectedly spicy turn.

Ms Hannah, who left the region when she was 17, had spent the last 20 years living in the United States, where she had enjoyed a varied global career, spanning retail design, visual merchandising, packaging design, brand strategy, placemaking and trend forecasting.

Upon returning to Wedderburn, she reconnected with her old school friend and local farmer Neville Tonkin. Despite not seeing each other for close to 30 years, the pair hit it off and an old friendship blossomed into a new romance.

The couple now live on Tonkin’s 17-hectare farm in Fernihurst, 40 kilometres north-east of Wedderburn, where they have transformed the traditional cereal and wheat farm that Tonkin has run for more than 20 years into a chilli and pepper farm that is now the headquarters of their new business venture Red Dog Chillies.

“Many of the surrounding farms in Fernihurst were continuing to get larger and we were getting smaller,” explains Tonkin. “So we had to start thinking outside the square a bit more and become a bit more niche in our approach.”

“Jude was really the one that encouraged us to go down the path of planting chillies. She has a good handle on holes in the market place and felt interest in hot, Mexican-style food was increasing in Australia and that our climate would be ideal for chilli and pepper plants,” he says.

The couple planted their first crop of over 1800 chilli and pepper plants three years ago and began selling fresh chillies, jalapeños, cayenne peppers, habaneros and other varieties.

Soon after, they turned their hand to producing, and in addition to their fresh products, which can be bought in season; they now sell a range of pickled jalapeños, peri peri sauces in three flavours and a handful of dried chilli varieties, all under the newly rebranded Red Dog Chillies label.

The bold new brand is fast developing a cult-like following across the state - from Bendigo to Fitzroy - and has become a firm favourite among Melbourne’s foodies, following successful stalls at the Fitzroy Mills, Coburg Farmers Market and Gasworks in Albert Park.

With their products available for sale via their Facebook page and a handful of local businesses in Wedderburn and Boort, the pair are now looking to increase their wholesale and retail offering, including an online store, as demand for their spicy locally grown products continue to rise.

The pair say other local farmers thought “we were a bit crazy” when they first started their journey into chilli and peppers but say they have been “incredibly supportive” of their ever-growing venture.

“We think there’s a real opportunity to look at new ways of farming and find alternative uses for our land and that’s very much what we’re doing with Red Dog Chillies. We’d ideally like to see this end of the Loddon Shire become the antipasto food basket of our region, with Simply Tomatoes and Salute Olives already nearby,” Tonkin says.

He also points out that the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting more than ever the need for high quality, local produce.

“Right now, the majority of dried chillies are imported. We felt this was a great hole to fill and we now produce a significant quantity of dried chilli flakes, and other varieties,” he said.

“With coronavirus having us all in lock down, we see a return to simple life and living, clean food and nature as a healer in communities,” he says.

“Both being from the land, we have that sense of return, to put our feet and hands in soil and connect to where we were born and bred and we feel our products really tell that story.”

The Red Dog Chillies range includes:
Small Pickled Jalapeños – 375g - $12, Large Pickled Jalapeños – 750g - $20, peri peri sauces (original, pineapple and peach) – 250ml - $15 and chillies range from $10 and up to $25 per 100g for dried habaneros.

Visit: @reddogchillies on Facebook and Instagram