Jude Hannah is a Wedderburn local who has returned to the area after many years away – bringing with her a wealth of experience… and a taste of chillies. Reconnecting with an old friend from 30 years ago, local farmer Neville Tonkin, led not only to romance, but to a new business venture: growing peppers and chillies to satisfy Australians’ growing taste for all things spicy.

Red Dog Chillies was born, transforming Tonkin’s 17-hectare farm in Fernihurst, 40 kilometres north-east of Wedderburn, from a traditional cereal and wheat farm a chilli and pepper farm that supplies products across the state. 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 – products which have developed a cult-like following across Victoria.

The pair say other local farmers thought they “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 story of our region’s gastronomy is one of creativity and diversity – people coming up with bright ideas and turning their dreams into reality. In the Bendigo Gastronomy region – which includes the City of Greater Bendigo and the Shires of Loddon, Campaspe, Buloke, Gannawarra, Hepburn, Macedon Ranges, Mount Alexander and the Central Goldfields – the breadth and diversity of our food and beverage production is our greatest strength. Our region produces almost everything, and small-scale, niche growers and producers are leading the charge for quality, local, unique food and beverages. From tomatoes to tea, beer to bread, chillies to cheese: our region is growing and making it all.

As Covid-19 restrictions ease, the lessons learned from lockdown about supporting local businesses, and the importance of our local food and beverage producers to our culture and economy, can help us to build a more resilient, sustainable and delicious future.