13th Anniversary of Food Connect
13 years ago this week we launched Food Connect proper. After a wild 3 month trial the previous year in late 2004 (following a rare and unusual interview with ABC radio’s Steve Austin), we could see that there were people in Brisbane very keen on supporting a model that addressed a lot of concerns they had about the industrial food system and being connected with local farmers..
Relaunching in late May of 2005 was a considered punt based on the incredible community support we had received during that trial period.
Remember, this was before Facebook, Twitter and all other social media channels. I didn’t even own a mobile phone and VOIP was only just being invented, with online ordering still a thought bubble.
Looking back, it was a huge leap of faith to start a business based on an idea and a common set of values aimed at tackling the deeply entrenched issues in the food system. We had a vision, we had a pretty radical business model and we had developed a strategy that was based on restoring farmers faith and regional food resilience by only getting food from within a 3 hour radius of Brisbane.
Personally being an ex-farmer I was very keen on every customer having their food come from somewhere not ‘anywhere’. I was also really committed to the idea that everyone should also know their farmer and eat with the seasons. I did not want to do the bog-standard home delivery either, not only because is it just as inefficient as going to a supermarket, but it also kept people holed up in their homes. I was pretty keen to see food as a connector - not just between the city and country but in all sorts of other areas in our lives where there was disconnection, hence the name.
Original Food Connect Schematic
I was ideals-driven to create a business model that had a heart, where the values of the business were not disconnected from our deeper human values.
Being an ex-dairy farmer who lost the family farm 7 years previously, I had a fairly good idea of what the business needed to be, both in its constitution and in its operational systems. In the 10 years prior to losing my farm (mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s) I had witnessed the complete demise of the cooperative model through to the point where the Co-Op I was a member of (the same one my parents and my grandparents had been members of) had been completely taken over by corporate executives, gradually demutualised and then corporatised to withstand the onslaught of supermarket power and its pressure on prices.
In my vision, the business had to have things like a 2:1 capped ratio of pay between the lowest and highest wage (Australia’s average at that time was 1:300). There were to be no agents, no middle men and to have a direct relationship with all our farmers. Farmers were to be the price makers, not price takers. They should receive 40-50% of the retail dollar (the national average then was around 10-15%). All the profits should go back into fulfilling the mission of the business. It was going to have a circular design not linear.
The business was never going to be ‘for sale’, floated or IPO’d, so I put an asset lock into the constitution. Financial transparency was going to be a key ethic in not only how we communicated the business internally but also the transactional side with our farmers and customers. We would look at every line on the chart of accounts through an ethical lens. Where are we going to get our fuel, toilet paper, packaging, boxes, vehicles etc from? What businesses should we collaborate with? How did we go about developing relationships with each other? I was really keen for the people who worked with me on this ‘project’ actually enjoyed working with me and their co-workers. How were we going to make decisions collectively?
I wanted to take the whole crop from each farmer, not just ‘glamour’ produce which forced farmers to spend huge amounts of money on grading machines, waxes and polishes to meet these insane cosmetic standards. Back then, if a customer rang me about a grub in their apple I would thank them for letting me know and then, tongue in cheek, offer to charge them more for the extra protein and wasting my time. I was pretty unapologetic about this.
All of our farmers had to measure up to a holistic set of ethics, much deeper than just being ‘chemical free’ or certified organic. They had to be willing to accept visitors, grow more diverse crops and take more responsibility for their landscape and waterways. Those early farmers had to step beyond their farm and be active in their community and demonstrate what the food system should look like. I knew that farmers were silently suffering and not speaking up. Suicide rates back then were not known publicly but we all knew it was happening a lot and it was silently eroding regional morale.
Before starting Food Connect, I spent many years of dark wandering, completely lost in my pessimistic and angry thinking that society was beyond salvaging. Over time, I realised that I needed to change my thinking and stop blaming. I decided to get focused around long term business solutions that made the old model obsolete.
Admittedly, it had some elements of my hippy dippy days after losing the farm, but I was pretty intent on it being a serious business built on solid ethics that could not be diluted over time.
So, looking back, what has happened to those dreams? What’s changed and more importantly, did we stick to our guns on some of the deeper issues?
The Wider World
But first, what has happening in the wider world since we started?
Well, bucket loads has changed, and mostly for the better. For those who’ve been watching the War on Waste Series on ABCTV, I think we can say that the awareness of food waste is now becoming fairly mainstream. Increasingly, more people are aware that local food is not only really good for their health but for the local economy as well. There’s still a long way to go in this space though.
There’s a lot of awareness now about Organics - regarding its achievements... and its limitations. Farmers are now acutely aware that monocultures (growing only one type of crop) have damaged the ecosystem. Conversely, agroecological farmers around the world are proving that they can build back biodiversity with a polycultural system, while at the same time lowering their costs and reliance on chemical interventions to protect crops. A very recent report from the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Org) proves these farms are also more productive per square metre than conventional farms. Look out for the word ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ as the new term to describe a more holistic framework that goes beyond Certified Organic. In fact, it’s the new buzzword word in finance and business to describe this concept, aimed at solutions, beyond ‘sustainable’.
In the business world, the term “Social Enterprise” has leapt onto the scene in a big way. Richard Branson has repeatedly said that “if you're not a Social Enterprise in the next 10 years you won’t be in business, or shouldn't be anyway”. Pretty much every University Business School in the western world now has a Social Enterprise stream, with some now incorporating Social Enterprise into the mainstream curriculum. A recent survey showed that 80% of Generation X will be Social Entrepreneurs. To validate this BCorp (Benefit Corporation) Certification is now gaining popularity with the possibility that it will become a legislated legal model in Australia. Over thirty states in the US have now legislated B Corp, plus France and a bunch of other countries. Accountability in business has changed so much over the past 10 years, just look at the divestment movement and even now how CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is continually having to demonstrate its real effectiveness above and beyond a clever marketing strategy. A lot more focus is now on what the whole business / corporation does, not just what it does with its profits.
If you are aware of the impact / ethical investment movement, you also know that capital markets are being shaken up. There’s still a long way to go in terms addressing systemic change in the way business is done and the expectations around returns, however there is movement at the station.
I could go on about the massive changes happening in the big wide world, and apart from some of the geo-political aberrations horrifyingly (and humorously) being played out, most of it is very positive. If only the mainstream media world would report on it!
So, what’s happening down at Food Connect central?
Well, we still have the 2:1 wage ratio - it currently sits at around 1:1.3. We still have an asset lock, although we’re currently changing the constitution to allow for equity ownership by our farmers, customers and employees - more on this later. We still pay 40% of the retail dollar back to farmers - it did get up to about 53% at one stage but that seriously compromised our financial viability. We expanded the radius to get our produce from 5 hours for 95% of our products. We still enjoy direct relationships with our expanding circle of brilliant farmers and food makers, and our average weekly food miles are down to 140 kilometres, even though we have gone beyond our original radius - that’s still 20 times shorter than the national average!
The connection between farmers and customers has been one of the highlights for me. So much so that I’ve lost track of all the relationships that have come out of our regular farm tours and events.
From a business perspective it’s still very financially tight. We have a lot more ‘competition’ doing ‘local fair food’ but we view that as a good thing. In fact, we have been very active supporting and fostering many of these new businesses, buyers clubs and cooperatives. We believe that growing the whole pie and collaborating with ‘like businesses’ is the future. So whilst this strategy has it’s downsides to normal business imperatives like ‘endless growth’, building the local food ecosystem and public awareness with and for each other is critical to the future of the planet.
Our business model is viewed by many to be the mother innovator ‘Fair Food’ business. We have a prominent presence in research circles - being case studied many times in what’s called the ‘New Food Economies’ movement. This has also contributed more to our reputation nationally and internationally than business success at home here in Brisbane. On the other side of the coin, out of that success is the unfortunate spin that is exploiting customers into thinking they’re supporting local farmers and all the other ‘values’ we very deliberately demonstrate. This is very frustrating as the marketing clout of some of these players makes it really difficult for us to cut through. Thank goodness for social media!
At the customer level we have facilitated the formation of ‘The Friends of Food Connect’ (FoFC) and equally, we’ve also seen farmers form their own network around the Food Connect Manifesto. Both groups have been extremely helpful in supporting and working with us strategically on our model as well as the movement more generally. This holistic integration from supply to customer is one of our unique successes. Led by one of our long term City Cousins, Bronwen Irimichi, the FoFC have provided us with much needed advice and perspective as we traverse the ‘road of most resistance’.
Globally, this year will be an historic one in that for the very first time an Australian farming organisation will be accepted as members of La Via Campesina (LVC). This has been a 7 year journey that started with us partnering with Reciprocity to host the very first visit of LVC farmers in Brisbane back in 2010. LVC is the largest democratic movement in the world with over 200 million farmer members. Food Connect farmers Ray and Sam Palmer along with their children are currently in the Basque region of Spain where in July near the famous city of Bilbao, the formal announcement will take place. Our customers have played a huge role in this when we crowdfunded five Food Connect farmers to attend the Global LVC summit in 2013, along with a few trips to Japan and Korea for the LVC youth summits for Ray and Sam.
Twenty of our original farmers are still supplying us 13 years down the track, and when we started with value added products in 2007, we have developed deep relationships with young ethical food entrepreneurs that are now significant brands in their own right. The Community Kitchen at the homestead has now incubated over 10 new businesses and now hosts 6 wonderful enterprises co-sharing the space. It has been amazing watching them create not just wonderful products, but innovative partnerships and collaborations.
Is it Enough?
Have ours and others efforts moved the needle on some of the now well-researched negative impacts of the current food system?
In our view, not really! Whilst the renewable energy, sustainable transport and green building sectors have become mainstream and doing their best to decouple from fossil fuels, the industrial food and agriculture system system is still tied to an old and extractive business model. Farmers have been playing their part to a large extent, however unfair globalised trade agreements, combined with the centralised domestic market with unchallenged power in distribution (both retail and wholesale) is failing to tackle these obvious failures. Whilst we know a lot has improved and awareness is increasing, most of the solutions aiming to address the root cause are very conventional, and from a systems perspective, will not be enough.
This is why we have been trialling a Food Hub model that will allow us to scale our impact and at the same time deepen our values relating to the true cost of production, affordability, quality, zero waste, community ownership and collaborations, transparency and local economic resilience.
You will hear more about our plans furthering our Food Hub ideas in later updates as the Food Connect Foundation starts to roll out its community engagement plans. This is a very exciting initiative, another first of its type in Australia. Stay tuned.
If you have been with us for a long time, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We really appreciate you sticking with us and taking on the challenge of eating seasonally and going with the flow of all things Food Connect. For those that have recently joined us, we welcome you with open arms - it’s the beginning of a whole new world of eating and participating in the food system - your food system. It may be a challenge at times, but we know over time you will come to appreciate the ‘convenience’ and deeper pleasures of joining the Food Connect table.
We look forward to the next 13 years transforming the food system with you and your family / community working in collaboration with us and our family of farmers and food makers.
May the farm be with you.
Robert, Emma-Kate, Mark, Luke, Pallavi, Jakub and the team at Food Connect.