Earlier this year I noticed a new supplier had moved just across the road from our office, into the same building as Martin Seafoods and Feather & Bone. It turns out it was a food cooperative aptly named Food Connect, linking regional growers directly with city people wanding fresh, organic and chemical-free fruit and vegetables.
Laura Dalrymple from Feather & Bone suggested to the Food Connect team to set up their operation there, as they shared the same vision, and hoped that together they would form a sustainable food hub. (A biodynamic wine supplier has recently moved in as well.)
Food Connect is based on the principle of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), by sourcing fresh produce from local farmers only and distributing it directly to the consumer, in various city locations run by their “city cousins” (often their own houses). Then once a week or fortnight, coop members come to pick up their box which contains an assortment of seasonal fruits, vegetables, sometimes with eggs and bread.
When I saw a few weeks back on their website that they were organising a Farm Tour the following day, I decided to join, thinking it would be a good occasion to see for myself what it was all about, as well as a great opportunity to get out of town and breathe some fresh country air!
The lovely Amber from Food Connect had arranged a ride for me and that is how I found myself the following morning in Summer Hill, freshly debarked from a CityRail bus/train, and therefore late (thank you week-end track works!), to meet with my ride and her friend.
The first stop of our journey is a 5-acre organic farm, Lin’s Organic Produce, located in Londonberry. Our group of about 35 is greeted by Belinda, who runs the farm together with her husband, and May, who handles all the communication side of the business, as Malaysia-born Belinda is not confident with her English. They produce all sorts of vegetable like lettuce, kale, fennel, sprouts and citrus fruits such as the huge pomelo oranges hanging from the trees at the front of the farm.
May explains how organic farming is a difficult business as the organic fertilisers and pesticides used for it are very expensive and the yield is much less than in a regular farm. For instance, one pesticide they use is about $700 for 120g and she says that it is why organic is so expensive.
“I told my son to find another job!” she says, as she doesn’t want him to know the uncertainty and unsteady incomes they experience on the farm. He is now a truck driver, she says.
However she says for all the hardships of this lifestyle, Belinda still much prefers organic farming in order to produce better food, as well as for environmental reasons.
After a chat around a cup of tea and snacks of fried battered pumpkin and fresh pieces of fruit, it is time for the group of members and non-members to get back in their car the second part of the tour, Swallow Rocks Organics, an organic potato and free-range pig farm located in Ebenezer ever 48 acres, a bit further north in the Hawkesbury region.
Ian MacGregor, newly arrived at the farm by Matt and Sue, used to work on the African Refugee Farming Project at Mamre Farm in Sydney West, as well as for Food Connect as a produce coordinator.
We sort out the garlic and choose the smallest cloves to replant them, then Ian takes us through the field to show us how to plant garlic, and put us all to work, under the watchful eyes of Lucie the labrador.
We are all give a little bag of garlic cloves to plant and it’s quite fun! (Wouldn’t like to do it all day though!)
Sue Simmons, whose husband Matt is at the Eveleigh Markets for the day, takes us to the second part of their farm, producing free-range pork.
Five piglets are roaming free in the paddock, as their mothers are snuffling the ground and scratching their massive bodies against slabs of concrete, provoking a cloud of dust dancing in the afternoon sunlight. One of the piglets tries to join its mother, its little ears flapping away as it toddles along, but she wants none of it and kicks it away. The rejected piglet lets out a shriek and runs towards the fence, from where we are all watching the scene.
Pigs can easily catch human colds, so we are invited to stand a bit further back. To protect the pigs against another threat, foxes, Matt and Sue have found a really simple but efficient solution: lights which turn themselves on automatically at night time, an Australian invention. There is nothing they can do during day time though, and some young foxes still manage to sneak in the paddock… to play with the piglets!
Sue points out to the next paddock, a potato field. After harvest, pigs will be let loose to clean out the leftover potatoes, an organic way to get rid of the pest like nut grass, which the pigs are crazy for. Sue says that they have a huge demand for organic potatoes and that they wish they could grow more.
The group then goes to a beautiful natural picnic area, with a view on the cliffs and the river, where a few months ago two Masterchef contestants were watching chef Colin Fassnidge demonstrate various ways of using Matt and Sue’s organic potatoes (episode here). While the visitors unwind with their picnic, Teale, one of Matt and Sue’s four children, does the rounds with packs of fresh garlic and organic macadamia nuts, a few of which he had previously cracked for everyone to taste.
The talk around the table revolves around food: subscribers of the food boxes explain the not-yet members how they enjoy the challenge of thinking about how they will use the fruit and vegetables they receive. A young Spanish man talks about the various recipes he’s had to come up with using spinach, which his French girlfriend usually hates, but has come around to like as a result!
That’s another advantage according to Julian Lee, Food Connect’s Enterprise Coordinator, as subscribers tend to increase substantially their fruit and vegetable intake once they start receiving their boxes.
Julian Lee used to be an organic farmer a few years back in Singleton, as he wanted to see for himself how to make an organic farm viable. He saw that not many farmers believed in organic farming: “Most farmers were saying that organics was either a lie or impossible to achieve.” He was inspired by what he learned at a Slow Food conference in Italy and when he returned, he saw in Food Connect in Brisbane run by Robert Pekin a new opportunity “based on respect and fairness” and decided to apply this idea to Sydney.
He describes the cooperative as a Social Enterprise, “a new way of doing business”, which combines the best of a non-profit organisation and the best of a business: it allows the enterprise to be self-supporting and not to depend on grants or fundings. The difference with a regular business is that the profit made goes towards a social outcome: pay the farmers a fair price, support local agriculture and provide good food. Julian says that the current system is extremely hard on the farmers, as the big supermarkets can pay the farmers as little as 5 cents for $1 worth of food bought by the end consumer: “We give them 40 cents in every dollar.”
Julian Lee sees the future of the cooperative as “big and rosy”. They already count 350 members, but “the more people come to us, the more they support local farmers, and the more they support sustainable and healthy food and help build the communities.”
Farm Tour was $10 for adults, $5 for children.