Eat local: How one farmers market reinvented itself in the face of the pandemic

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By Juliette Milbank

A semi-trailer backs up to the shed entrance and stops next to a large whiteboard.  “Please Drive Thru & Turn OFF Your ENGINE” reads a handwritten sign on the whiteboard in blue and red texta. The word “THANKS” is written on a separate sheet of paper tacked onto the corner, almost as an afterthought. The driver hops down from his truck and carries in a small tray of 15–20 brown and white paper bags of freshly baked sourdough bread.

Among puddles on the muddy gravel outside, an old wooden crate overflows with a purple-flowering salvia. It sits next to a new blue and green sandwich board sign, printed with the appealing logo of an orange sun and rolling green hills and both look a bit out of place in the grey surroundings. The words “Strathbogie Local Order Pickups” stand out over a large green arrow pointing into the shed.

The pickup point is located in a truck shed in the small town of Euroa (population 3,275) in north-east Victoria. The weathered, grey, corrugated steel shed is part of a transport depot. It’s designed for large trucks that can drive straight through, courtesy of the front and rear openings, through which chilly wind currently blasts. The driver hops back into his truck and leaves the way he came, his truck pulling past two orange corflute signs for the local council elections with the words “VISION”, “Determination” and “Delivery” and a photo of local candidate and owner of the transport depot Shirley Saywell’s smiling face: a large fringe, wisps of black hair and a colourful patterned scarf worn as a head band frame a confident face.

Strathbogie Local, a ‘click and collect’ farmers market.

It’s an odd setting for a farmers’ market. But, then, 2020 is an odd year.

When the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown around 50 per cent of Victoria’s farmers markets, unusual measures were called for. While farmers markets were considered essential services and therefore allowed to continue operating, many were located in parks or on land belonging to service clubs. Park closures and insurance licensing conditions forced many to close. And since many are run by older volunteers who are particularly susceptible to the virus’ effects, they could no longer run the market operations.

Sandy Joyce, who co-owns the Strathbogie Brewing Company with her partner Dave, says the pandemic restrictions came as quite a shock. “It happened really quickly for us — the Euroa farmers market and the Violet Town market were both shut down really quickly with not much warning.”

Her voice betrays the stress of the last few months and the uncertainties they’ve been dealing with. Sandy and Dave grow grains, and brew beer and cider on a 10-acre property just outside the small town of Strathbogie not far from Euroa. They lost 60 per cent of their trade through the markets closing, and the closure of the restaurants and pubs killed what remained, leaving them with no income almost overnight. They were also acutely aware of the situation of many other farmers like themselves.

Shirley Saywell (right) rewards regular customer Linda Bennett with some complimentary flowers

Shirley Saywell bustles out of the red brick office on one side of the shed and recounts a steady stream of anecdotes, before dashing off to pick up flowers from a new supplier. As Shirley tells it, Dave Joyce approached her several times, encouraging her to come up with a solution, with the dire prediction that if the farmers market stayed closed for too long the pork lady would go broke, and she wouldn’t be the only one. A nearby cheesemaker is rumoured to have thrown out $20,000 worth of cheese when functions were cancelled due to the pandemic restrictions.

Sandy says they put their heads together and with Shirley’s resources and a bit of research, they uncovered a locally-founded software platform. Shirley called on a friend, Renata Cumming, with whom she had collaborated on other projects around Euroa, and between them they set up an online shop front using the Open Food Network platform founded by two local Violet Town farmers in 2012.

Strathbogie Local, a ‘click and collect’ farmers market, was born.

More than just a shop
Both Shirley and Renata now donate at least a day of their time each week to run and organise the weekly shop that has enabled many of the local food producers to maintain a connection with their customers and continue trading. Of the average 30-odd producers who were formerly at the Euroa Farmers Market before it closed, Strathbogie Local now has 19 producers in their online store after six months of operation. Renata, who works in promoting agricultural enterprises, says it’s hard to estimate but she thinks that’s about half the small producers in Strathbogie Shire where Euroa is located.

Renata says they want to see the majority of the money charged through the shop go back to the producer. Although products from a farmers market might seem more expensive she says, “you know that you’re getting a really good quality piece of pumpkin and we pay what’s fair and reasonable to the farmer”. The online shop takes a small percentage to cover the costs of running the online platform, the transport, insurance, and the cool room lent by the local Rotary Club, but the enterprise is completely volunteer run. “I’m doing it in my spare time”, says Shirley “We’re borrowing equipment. We’re doing it by the seat of our pants.”

Renata Cumming adds the recently arrived sourdough bread to the order boxes

Farmers markets are often seen as selling specialty foods and produce via alternative production methods to that of industrial-scale farming. But the collapse of outlets for those small producers illustrates broader issues about how producers and customers connect in the food supply system. Specifically, how do producers access customers when the large supermarkets dominate the market and demand both quantities and prices that are beyond the scope of small, local enterprises? And how can customers access locally grown food that can be healthier, supports their local economy, and is less susceptible to wide-scale disruption in times of natural disaster?

Solving food supply problems
The small towns of Corryong and Walwa in the Upper Murray region of Victoria are at the end of a very long supply chain for fruit and vegetables. Little to no fresh produce is currently grown commercially in the area. After the catastrophic fires over summer during 2019–2020, the town was cut off and for a time only dried foods were getting through to the local supermarkets. But local film maker Josh Levi Collings, who lost his house and art gallery in the fires, noticed that a good proportion of his vegetable patch survived, as did the vegetable gardens of other residents. To address supply, Josh founded Acres and Acres Coop, an organisation to create ten community market gardens across the Upper Murray region. The organisation also has a tool library, educational resources, management systems and distribution channels. The aim is to provide food resilience to the local population both on a day-to-day basis and in times of emergency.

Josh has already raised over $100,000 towards the cooperative via philanthropic donations and grants. The grants address weaknesses in food supply chains in north-east Victoria. Those weaknesses — and measures to address them — are identified in the North East Local Food Strategy 2018–2022 published by North East Health and is the culmination of two years of consultation and research by health and community organisations. Some of the weaknesses include a lack of distribution mechanisms for small producers and a lack of consumer knowledge and therefore demand for local produce. The effects of problems with distribution affect not only the economic fortunes of small-scale producers, but also the health and well-being of the local population. They also exacerbate issues such as a lack of food security after the bushfires.

Customer orders are lined up along a wall of the shed with fresh produce, bread, beer and olive oil

Megan Hunt, the Health Promotion Coordinator at Gateway Health in Wodonga, worked on the local food strategy report. She says the aftermath of the bushfires and the pandemic restrictions has created an opportunity for people to think about where their food comes from, what is in season and where they can purchase their food beyond supermarkets. “People take pride in being able to buy something when it comes from the local area — they know the story behind it,” says Hunt. She says that the more prevalent locally-grown food is in an area, the more it becomes normalised and price becomes less of an issue. She also points out that there are other benefits, such as being able to buy the quantity required, rather than what may be pre-packaged, and a greater proportion of the price being paid direct to the producer.

When quizzed about the size of producer that the North East Local Food Strategy was aimed at, she says that it’s not so much about scale as it is about a regional approach. The report looked at producers that sell their product direct to consumers within a 100–150 km radius of where it is grown and therefore have an interest in supporting the geographical area around them. This brings the benefits of short food supply chains, such as low food miles, short times between harvest and consumption, and therefore high nutritional content, seasonality, recognition by consumers of local values such as quality or environmental benefits, and putting the maximum amount of income into the producer’s pocket. The report also notes that reduced distances between food production, points of sale and consumers, improves access to healthier food choices, a key factor when tackling issues such as obesity and other lifestyle diseases.

Connecting consumer and farmers

A sculptural stack of old tyre rims host a warming fire while a customer picks up their order

None of this is a surprise to Kirsten Larsen, cofounder of the Open Food Network (OFN), the software platform that Strathbogie Local are using for their online shop and that Josh Collings says Acres and Acres are planning on eventually using too. Kirsten and Serenity Hill, both Violet Town farmers, cofounded OFN in 2012 as an open-source, non-profit platform to facilitate food distribution systems that are open and transparent, showing food origins and production methods. They both came from a policy and research background and Kirsten said they had a “systems change” set of eyes in terms of how they designed it. The resulting platform has the tagline “Food Unincorporated” highlighting the fact that it’s designed in a way that does not require centralised control. And because it’s open source software, the underlying software code is available for anyone to use.

Larsen says the software encourages transparency and source identification, so customers know where the food they purchase is from, who produced it and how it was produced. The platform facilitates flexible and diverse distribution systems and organisations, such as are often found with small producers and those that supply widely differing local areas. It supports direct connections between producers and customers, or cooperatives and customers, and farmers markets and third-party customer buying groups. Food relief organisations are also looking at ways of using the platform.

The platform has now been established globally in 18 countries, including both high income and lower-middle income countries. It’s an indication of its flexibility with scale and different food supply models. After a few years of consolidation and redevelopment of the underlying platform, Kirsten says they find themselves in the unique position of being ready to deal with the sudden large increase in users with the arrival of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Since pandemic restrictions were introduced in Australia in March, both turnover and numbers of producers signing up to the OFN have increased up to 10 times what they were prior to the pandemic. Within Victoria there are now 270 producers that have sold products through the platform this year and 50–60 active shop fronts, such as Strathbogie Local.

Larsen hopes the pandemic has been a wake-up call and is illustrating why it’s important for consumers to have connection with their food. But it’s not just consumers who benefit. It’s also important for farmers to have connections with customers and to have the flexibility and diversity over how they sell and move their food. In the past OFN has had difficulty getting interest from agriculture departments to fund projects: most of their government funding has come from health departments.

But that may change if their projects take off. One project is promoting the development of short and direct food supply chains in North East Victoria, with a framework provided by the North East Local Food Strategy and using regional development funding. It is one of many projects looking at local food supply chains in different settings. Others include working with social enterprises in Melbourne, such as Fawkner Commons and Moving Feast, examining ways that local, fresh food can be supplied to lower socio-economic groups and those who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic, without playing the welfare of vulnerable people off against the welfare of farmers. She says, “people are really looking at ways to share the cost of community food security, whilst not paying less to farmers.”

A new path, a new direction

Flowers from the newest producer to join the Strathbogie Local online store

Back at the truck depot in Euroa, Shirley is carrying large bunches of glowing waratahs, leucodendrons, proteas and eucalypt leaves, with reds, pinks, whites and greens lighting up the shed interior. The flower supplier has only just joined Strathbogie Local and the flowers are a gift to reward several of the most regular customers. The recently-delivered bags of bread have been added to a line of varied cardboard boxes on a shelf of red wooden pallets along one wall, each order box sprouting combinations of multi-coloured beets, carrots, salad leaves and spinach, and bottles of beer or olive oil, with a five-litre can of olive oil sitting next to one of them. Customers have started trickling in to pick up their orders. Some get out of their car and have a quick chat behind masks, greeting Shirley and Renata by name. Others open their boot while their order box is popped in, providing contactless delivery.

Renata is relaying a story about the local mushroom lady. She tried to sell her mushrooms in a small supermarket, 19 kilometres from where they were grown. She discovered that the mushrooms the supermarket sells come from Sydney and are sent to a distribution warehouse in Melbourne, before being driven up the Hume Hwy to the supermarket. In total, it’s a 1000 kilometre trip by road. Renata doesn’t think the mushroom lady succeeded in her quest but it’s an example of the craziness of the food supply system that they are seeking to address.

With the end of pandemic restrictions in sight, the monthly Euroa Farmers Market is due to reopen in mid-October. Shirley and Renata plan on continuing with Strathbogie Local even when the Euroa Farmers Market resumes. They even have plans to expand it, seeking funding to employ someone one day a week to run the online shop. They reckon they can triple their turnover with some marketing. The response from both customers and producers has been universally positive: the customers appreciate the ability to purchase weekly and the farmers appreciate the regular orders that give them an income and allow them to only harvest what is required. But neither woman expects that the online shop will replace the farmers market. The opportunity for producers to meet customers face-to-face, for customers to sample the produce and the atmosphere, for travellers on their way up the Hume Highway to drop in, all mean that the monthly farmers market is here to stay. As Sandy Joyce points out, most people won’t buy her beer unless they can taste it first. But the online shop has strengthened what was a fragile supply chain, helped local residents to eat local produce more regularly and expanding the reach of local producers in addition to ensuring that they didn’t go out of business.

It’s not a revolution. Not yet anyway. But the tectonic plates of change have tilted with the pandemic, opening new pathways and new ways of doing things.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Such a wonderfully written piece that highlights the ‘why’ we need to focus on our local food system now. The opportunities are there, but it takes collaboration, connection and strong advocacy to bring it all together. Fantastic work Juilette!

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