Fresh food di­rect to Bris­bane cus­tomers

Warwick Daily News - South West Queensland Rural Weekly - - Women in Agriculture Conference -

LET’S put the ‘cul­ture’ back into agri­cul­ture.

That was the mes­sage from Food Con­nect founder Robert Pekin to ladies tour­ing his fa­cil­ity as part of the Aus­tralian Women In Agri­cul­ture Con­fer­ence.

A tur­bu­lent dairy in­dus­try saw Robert walk away from his fam­ily’s farm in the 1990s – he was fourth gen­er­a­tion.

After years of re­search, while he was in his words “harm­less and farm­less”, Robert dis­cov­ered the con­cept of com­mu­nity-driven agri­cul­ture, a sys­tem that al­lowed farm­ers to side­step su­per­mar­ket gi­ants and send fresher pro­duce di­rect to cus­tomers.

To­day, Food Con­nect cus­tomers se­lect weekly pro­duce boxes on­line – some in­clud­ing fruit, ve­g­ies, milk and cheese – which are de­liv­ered to their neigh­bour­hood’s pick-up site. The pro­duce is sourced within a 400km ra­dius, packed on site, and de­liv­ered within one to two days. Dur­ing the AWIA con­fer­ence, Robert shared his story.

“I was hard hit by the dairy in­dus­try and I wanted a model on the ground to solve a few is­sues that I had faced. One is­sue was I didn’t know who drank my milk,” he said.

The busi­ness jour­ney was kick started in an un­usual way: it launched dur­ing a seg­ment on ABC talk-back ra­dio. In the early 2000s Robert had about seven farm­ers on board with his idea, but hadn’t yet launched the plat­form. At that time, a manda­tory code for agri­cul­ture was be­ing in­tro­duced, which was a hot topic on ra­dio. Robert called the sta­tion and was in­vited to go on air for a quick in­ter­view about com­mu­nity-driven agri­cul­ture.

“This was with Steve Austin. When I walked in it was 20 past 9 and it was only meant to be a 10-minute in­ter­view,” he said.

“We went to the 9.30 news brief and he stood up out of his chair, and his chair al­most went back­wards, and he leaned over the con­sole and said, ‘I hate su­per­mar­kets, this is fan­tas­tic – we are go­ing to go right through, let’s go hard on this’.

“So we went right through to the 10am news and the lights all lit up on the switch­board. All of a sud­den we had a cus­tomer base.

“It was like lights on, let’s go.”

Food Con­nect was launched in 2004 as a cash-only busi­ness that quickly bal­looned into hav­ing a $15,000-a-week trade.

“After three months we went from the orig­i­nal 30 boxes to maybe about 500 boxes and we couldn’t cope, the farm­ers couldn’t keep up with sup­ply,” he said.

“It was cash only... money was be­ing left un­der a rock in back­yards, or peo­ple were throw­ing money through a bed­room win­dow left open at (pick up points) – it was lit­er­ally berserk.”

The busi­ness was shut down, and re­launched with an ad­vi­sory board and new busi­ness model in April 2011.

“The idea of com­mu­nity-driven agri­cul­ture is about chang­ing city folks from be­ing pas­sive con­sumers into ac­tive par­tic­i­pants,” he said.

Food Con­nect cus­tomers are up­dated on the farm­ing sea­sons, and their pro­duce boxes in­clude dirt and some­times im­per­fect fruit.

Robert wants the smells of fresh, nat­u­ral pro­duce to greet the cus­tomers’ noses when they open their boxes.

“I had peo­ple ring up and say there was a grub in their ap­ple, so I would say I would have to charge them ex­tra for the pro­tein,” he said. “I was pretty hard­core on get­ting city folk to ac­cept the idea that you can cut the grub out.”

PHOTO: AN­DREA DAVY

REFLECTING: Robert Pekin from Food Con­nect in­vited ladies from the Aus­tralian Women in Agri­cul­ture Con­fer­ence to tour his pack­ing shed in Bris­bane.

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