Food Connect creates rewarding farmer consumer relationship

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How to get farm businesses working together harmoniously for a better community food distribution system is a significant challenge and is often the reason why co-operatives or groups trying to market food can fail. Robert Pekin is an ex-farmer who believes community supported agriculture can be successful and has started a new business framework to show how. Alisa Cork explains how his initiative works in this article from the May edition of the Australian Farm Journal.

Food Connect’s objective is to supply local, sustainably produced food to the South East Queensland community. Founder Robert Pekin believes the co-operative group of farmers and producers are creating a new, more equitable way of distributing local produce in a socially responsible way.

A massive array of seasonal produce is available through the scheme and is harvested from farmers living within a five hour radius of Brisbane. The producers are paid what Pekin suggests is a fair price for their hard work and for adopting the most sustainable and food quality farming methods possible.

“Our subscribers know where their food comes from and are invited to see for themselves on regular farm tours,” Pekin explains.

Pekin started Food Connect in May 2005 after experiencing his own fair share of tough economic times on the land. After drought, reduced farm gate prices and being forced to milk his herd of 310 dairy cows twice a day by himself, he pondered the point of it all.

“Not only was I not making much of a living from farming, but I felt no connection to the people who were consuming my produce,” he recalls.

Pekin spent a lot of time researching Community Supported Agriculture set-ups (CSA’s) after stumbling across one after turning his back on his own farm. He embarked on a six year agricultural journey and was able to set up not only his own CSA group but help nine other farmers set theirs up as well. It was then that the concept for Food Connect came to life.
The Food Connect brain child consisted of amalgamating CSA groups that worked across many different farms in one region to supply a variety of produce to subscribers. Picture –

“In the early days the success of the project relied on me driving around in my old 1965 Dodge ute to deliver fruit and vegetable boxes to people,” Pekin reminisces. “A lot has changed thankfully and through persistence and a never-say-die attitude, Food Connect has grown to the point where a team of drivers now deliver over 1000 boxes each week to subscribers.”

He acknowledges that Food Connect has come so far due to the combined efforts of many dedicated people. While this is true, Pekin has nonetheless provided vision, leadership and massive inputs of energy to grow the business. He is now looking further afield as Food Connect is being replicated in six other Australian locations.

Food Connect’s home base is not a warehouse but a homestead, situated in Salisbury Queensland, employing more than 30 people each dedicated to the purpose of connecting food to the community. It distributes local seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables along with fresh produce such as honey, cheese, eggs and bread.

Many of the products are grown organically or at the very least, without chemicals being sprayed directly onto the produce. Sustainable farming practices are a prerequisite to being a member of the supply group.

“We are working towards an ecologically sustainable local and regional food system that does not rely on chemical sprays or artificial fertilizers,” Pekin explains. “One of our tasks is to help farmers using traditional farming methods to move towards sustainable food production.”

Participatory Farmer Assessment
Pekin is part of an Australia-wide group currently working to put together a system that can certify farmers according to how far they have progressed on their path to sustainable production methods. This is called Participatory Farmer Assessment and identifies four areas for assessment –
• Safety and nutrition of food (and farmer)
• Landscape & environment
• Use of resources
• Values and ethics
Farmers will be rated AA, A, B and C according to how well they meet the criteria. The produce sold onto the Food Connect community will come from the AA, A and B farmers whilst the C farmers will be encouraged to meet the established standards as soon as they can.

The Food Connect system works like this. Produce is harvested at the same time each week, between Saturday and Monday and then packed into boxes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The boxes are delivered to local collection points, known as City Cousins, around South East Queensland from Ipswich to Birkdale and from Dayboro to Currumbin. These are usually subscribers’ homes, or sometimes community centres or schools. Subscribers and staff take part in regular farm tours to learn more about the challenges faced by farmers and so farmers can meet the people who eat their food.

Food Connect is being replicated around Australia, with new branches burgeoning in Sydney, Melbourne, Wollongong, on the Coffs Coast, in Tasmania and recently launched in Adelaide. An umbrella organisation called the Food Connect Foundation will co-ordinate the activities of the regional Food Connects and steer projects such as the Young Farmers Pathway and the Participatory Farmer Assessment scheme.

In the beginning, Robert took to the road enlisting farmers and potential subscribers. He felt that the system of Community Supported Agriculture was essential because city people involved in CSAs usually have a greater connection with the land and the people who grow their food.

“People who get their fresh food from a CSA operation typically eat with the seasons and eat a wide variety of foods. Farmers generally grow food for the ‘faceless masses’. CSA farmers, on the other hand, often have a greater familiarity with the people eating their food. They really appreciate this connection.

“CSAs are about participating in a shared commitment to local and regional food systems that provide fair financial returns to small family farms, which in turn helps the farmers to look after their land.”

Read the complete article in the May 2010 edition of Australian Farm Journal. 

Find out more:
Food Connect Foundation “putting the culture back into Agriculture”, 07 3216 7777, . Robert Pekin will be a keynote speaker at the RCS 20th Anniversary International Conference in Brisbane from 20-22 July 2010.