The reason I was invited to Australia was to work with VEIL was to further explore new trading models to confront the inherently unsustainable system we have for farming our land and feeding ourselves. It is a system that has concentrated power in the middle, in-between farmers and customers. The two have been driven apart with huge profits made by supermarkets, processors and wholesalers whilst small-scale farmers are paid less and less and consumers see rising food prices.
By building on the enthusiasm for farmers markets and the latent demand for a more connected food system with customers having more direct relationships with farmers, we and many Food Hubs around Melbourne have been grappling with the questions; What next? How can we scale up? What will offer a majority of farmers an alternative?
We believe it is what we call (tentatively) Supply Chain Co-operation – or Food Hubs. Where a range of elements in the traditional food supply chain work collaboratively for the good of farmers and consumers to minimise the middleman.
In the UK, Manchester Veg People is leading this experiment. It is a co-op of buyers and growers. Around Melbourne SE Food Hub are going similar things.
They have just completed a month-long trial with Monash University, working with partners to test out systems and strengthen relationships. The collective of farmers they have brought together is pretty impressive with fruit, veg, meat and apple juice all being offered. But crucially they have also brought on-board a food distribution company and a warehouser.
The trail went well, the University's staff and students loved the quality and some of the student visited the warehouse. But challenges remain:
Harvesting and delivery days and times are crucial, as they need to fit in with the growers existing commitments, like farmers markets.
Minimum orders was a clear lesson.
Pricing is a potential problem – as public institutions are very price driven.
So onto the next stage of the groups development. Do we run another trail? Do we just go for it? Whatever happens next, we will be focusing on getting a broader range of customers. As our wise distributor said: “The crucial element is to find the right customers. We need to find the 10% of customers who are not so price and time driven. They are out there. They will be supportive and will join the process.”