Chicory, a root vegetable, was grown on Phillip Island from the 1860s to the 1980s. At harvest the root closely resembles a parsnip with broad flat leaves. From the time of the Napoleonic Wars it has been customary to blend chicory with coffee, and a little goes a long way. Chicory was grown on Phillip Island as a sideline, usually with dairying as the main farming activity. The limited growing areas indicate not only the inherently small demand for the final product, but also a narrow range of environmental conditions which is necessary for the chicory root to grow vigorously and produce the compounds required for good essence in adequate amounts and proportions.
Attempts to grow the crop further inland generally resulted in corky or pithy roots unsatisfactory for extraction of essence. Rains extending late into spring to promote strong early growth, a dry summer to inhibit excessive top growth, and a reliable autumn break seem to be most suitable. Some believe that proximity to the sea is also an advantage.
Wet ground presented the biggest problem at harvest time. When the tractor could be brought into the crop, the plants were lifted with a ripper, topped by hand in the paddock and transported to the kiln for drying. If the crop was lifted by hand, a fork or single pronged "chicory devil" was used. The labour requirements for harvesting were very high, being well over 100 man hours per acre.
The fresh chicory was washed, mechanically sliced and elevated to the kiln's upper storey to be spread over the wire screen floor. Most kilns had a 12 foot by 12 foot drying floor, taking about 1 1/2 tons of fresh root, which would yield 1/2 ton of dry chicory. Wood was the fuel burnt in the furnace below. Oil had been employed, and allowed for quicker drying, but was not an economic replacement for wood. The fire was built up to raise the floor temperature to 300 deg F. Each batch was turned several times during the usual 24 hour drying period, after which the dried chips were shoveled off the floor and bagged, as a new batch of fresh sliced chicory was elevated up for drying. Satisfactory drying reduced the moisture content to 10-12%
The sale of chicory was regulated by the Chicory Marketing Board, which consisted of two producer representatives and one government nominee. It was granted vesting powers, so that all dried chicory had to be delivered to the Board, and was transported by rail to Melbourne. The Board negotiated the sales with the various coffee merchants, stored temporary excess for release throughout the year, and arranged payment to the producers. The price in the 1970s was $990 per ton of dried chicory.
Due to competition from imported chicory, and decline of chicory essence market, the Phillip Island chicory industry faded out in the 1980s.