Letter Home from an Agrarian Journeyman in Australia

Dear Friends,

After spending a few months in Brisbane, Australia, getting to know some people in the food movement here, I’d like to share my experience and analysis with interested people in Canada. I have been WWOOFing to a number of farms and come across different parts of the distribution system of the city. Mostly I am interested in organic food, and co-operative, local food distribution systems that circumvent the national retailers.

The retailing of food in Australia is dominated by two major chains which control 80% of the market. Their names are Coles and Woolsworths. They stock a small selection of organic certified foods. The chains pay farmers a 10% premium for organically certified produce, then sell it at a 200-300% premium. At a farmer’s market, organically certified produce can be had at approximately the same price as chemically produced food is sold for by the large retailers.

The major retailers are reinforcing the already deeply entrenched perception that “organic = expensive”. Or, more to the point, “Organic = too expensive for me”. My impression from speaking to people and seeing a few surveys is that many people are willing to spend around a 15%  premium if they feel the food has been responsibly grown. Not 200%. Either the retail system is very inefficient or sellers are collecting a large profit margin. In either case, I see their pricing structure as a sign of failure as far as the organic movement is concerned. Farmers markets are delivering product at a much more competitive rate. In Brisbane, distributed through the proper channels, fresh, organically grown food is priced competitively with chemical food.

The farmer’s market is open only one day a week, and in only one location. So, I suppose the large retailers charge for convenience, in location as well as trading hours. But the point here is that those of us interested in promoting organic food can compete on price by using a more efficient distribution system. The challenge is open.

Perception of a higher price is a major impediment to the growth of the organic movement. Major retailers are content with a niche, and they don’t mind keeping the price high and running their niche market. I’m not content with sustainably grown food as a niche market, and I doubt most of you are. I’m looking forward to the extinction of chemically grown food. I think this means organizing in a fashion that circumvents major retailers.

Part of building a niche market has been to co-opt the word “organic”. The word is increasingly legalized in both Canada and Australia. It is being legalized into a strict set of rules, defined by a bureaucracy, which address only on-farm behavior, with some rules about packing and method of shipping. The focus is overwhelmingly on the avoidance of synthetic chemicals and pesticides. The idea of what people eat and aspects of distribution is mostly excluded, although many years ago people perceived “organic” to include these two aspects.

These two other aspects of a food system, are obviously still important parts that need to be addressed. My first response was that we need to re-own “organic” and wrest it from its co-optation, but actually I’ve changed my mind. It would take so much energy to fight giants that I don’t think it’s strategic. Why not be like a Buddhist and just let it go? As long as large expansion-oriented entities exist in the world, they will always seek to co-op things that are innovative. It’s just our role to innovate again. In fact, in a way, this is a good thing because it keeps innovators innovating. Just like the expiration of a patent. I propose that we, as people involved in trying to create a truly sustainable food system, have simply had our patent on “organic” expire. The word passes on and morphs into something else as we move on to different terminology and territory.

All of the above is a nice background to a project I came across in Brisbane called Food Connect, started by an organic dairy farmer who lost his farm to bankruptcy. The project is building an innovative food distribution system independent of the mainstream system, taking a clear stance on what people should eat and creating their own certification system which is much more democratic and considers locality of the food. In other words, they are addressing all three tiers of the old “organic” movement. The organizers of Food Connect have also learned from the past and moved on, giving up the word “organic” and looking towards ways to prevent co-optation in the future.

Food Connect purchases wholesale organic product from farms they trust and tend to have long term relationships with. They also support fledgling farms, some of whom would not have been able to begin without their help. They pack the food it into different sized boxes and distribute it to collection points in the city. The collection points are known as “city cousins” and they are houses of volunteers.

I really like this system because it is participatory and low capital. It is easy to set up more distribution points as the customer base expands. The participatory aspect, picking up food at the houses of volunteers, offers an opportunity to build community. People get to know the group with whom they share a distribution point.

The contents of the boxes are fixed, although there are 10 different ones to choose from. In my interview with the founder of Food Connect, he was clear that is done to make a clear statement about seasonality. Food Connect purchases food from many farmers, and has a wide selection of food, all of which is delivered within a 4 hour drive. The Food Connect website allows adding a selection of preserved, local, ecologically produced foods to any order. The subject of how to organize the contents of the box is a big one, big enough to have to put off to a different piece of writing. But I appreciate that Food Connect makes a statement on the issue of what people “should” eat. Maybe it’s presumptuous. Customers used to a supermarket probably don’t like it. There are good reasons for the preferences people have. Yet, -what- we eat is fundamental and needs to be addressed. Somehow.

The certification system that Food Connect is creating acts as a credible replacement to the currently popular third-party certification system. In it, farmers are recognized as thinkers and innovators who sincerely care about sustainable agriculture, rather than people who need instructions, control and oversight. The system recognizes how far the food has traveled, and allows a sort of farmer ranking, which reduces barriers to farmers in conversion and encourages increasingly sustainable practices. The system has farmers form democratically controlled groups which create, to a large extent, their own criteria and bylaws. There are criteria for the membership composition of the group as well as certain non-negotiable principles and cross-checks. For example, sampling of food for chemical residues, the cost of which is shared between Food Connect and the farmers. One of the principles behind the group certification is that it uses social cohesion, the close relationships of farmers in a neighborhood, to both support each other and ensure they follow their established rules. The group is certified as a whole, and loses its certification  as a whole which creates much more of a team feeling and reduces the cost of external inspection.

Food Connect has done quite a bit of research and taken preemptive steps to prevent co-optation of their organization. After seeing so many great organizations start small, grow large and then be sold to the highest bidder only to compromise their values, Food Connect has no intention of repeating this mistake. The takeover of Macro Foods by Woolsworths in 2009 is a case in point. It’s something that the Food Connect founder, Rob Perkin, thinks it is important to avoid.

When the profitable Macro Foods was bought out, many contracts with farmers were discontinued. After seeing this sort of thing happen repeatedly, farmers are understandably wary. In order to establish a trustworthy relationship, there need to be some substantial safeguards in place. For the long term development of a sustainable food system, I think this is extremely important. Who will plant a natural avocado orchard if they can’t trust that they will be able to sell the fruit in 9 years?

Food Connect is not for profit. Also, it is more flexible and more financially (therefore politically) independent than a typical NGO. The business operation is owned by the Food Connect Foundation, which means they are ultimately non-profit, and not owned by an individual who can easily decide to sell out. Yet they are able to mostly act like a normal business, with all the flexibility that entails.

Food Connect is growing quickly. The Brisbane branch is helping greatly to set up autonomous organizations with the same fundamental ideas in Sydney and Melbourne. Replication is also occurring in Adelaide, Bellingen, Coffs Coast and Wollongong. At the same time, they are cognizant of the fact that there is such a thing as “too big”.
I am very inspired to see that Food Connect is an organization that has the idea of -movement- behind it. It acts as an organizer, addressing many different parts of the food system, and pulling the pieces together into something that is really working for everyone involved. They are encouraging production, moving a range of food, engaging in education, and catering. They have a great analysis to sow it all together with. They are not just running a small business. They are really helping to build a system and a movement.
To close, I asked Rob for advice, for his opinion on what what is important to similar projects going on in Canada. He told me that software is key. To look into different models, like food hubs and different box systems. Collaborate. Don’t give in with regards to your principles, and also don’t let them get in the way of your ultimate reason for action. Don’t get into intellectual property; investigate “intellectual protection” instead.  Organize in advance to prevent selling out. At the same time, don’t be hard on people who are just trying to make a living. Don’t try to copy someone else’s project too closely; each one must suit the skills, experience and context involved. The most success comes from an autonomous creative project that follows basic principles.

All the best,
James Douglas

For more on James’ journeys, please check out http://jameskdouglas.blogspot.ca/,  a blog about his search for people who know how to live: “I want to learn about the religions, agriculture, and activism around the world. The best way to do this is by joining in.”

1 thought on “Letter Home from an Agrarian Journeyman in Australia

  1. Pingback: We have to go beyond co-optation « FutureActs

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