Social enterprise Food Connect links small farms and market gardens with city consumers

Adella Miesner

Would you value your fresh produce more if you knew the farmer who grew it? A former dairy producer with a passion to connect farmers to their customers believes most people would, and has spent decades working to make it happen. Rob Pekin was driven to strive for change in […]

Would you value your fresh produce more if you knew the farmer who grew it?

A former dairy producer with a passion to connect farmers to their customers believes most people would, and has spent decades working to make it happen.

Rob Pekin was driven to strive for change in the food production system after losing his multi-generational family farm in the late 1990s.

“I had big dreams, I had a lot of ideas, I was very enthusiastic about farming and agriculture,” Mr Pekin said.

He believes becoming disengaged was largely to blame for him and many others like him losing generational farms.

“I had no idea who drunk my milk or I didn’t even know what it was turned into, so it was a real disconnection.

“After losing the farm and licking my wounds and going through a pretty tragic introspection and depression, I resolved that I needed to be a part of the solution.”

A social enterprise connecting city cousins

Mr Pekin now runs the social enterprise Food Connect at Salisbury in Queensland’s south-east.

Its goal is to get local, seasonal, ecologically grown food direct from a farmer into people’s homes as quickly as possible.

The farmers involved are diverse in what they produce and to what scale, but all come from within 500 kilometres of Brisbane.

“There’s about 200 farmers,” Mr Pekin said.

“We aggregate produce on behalf of all those farmers, so we give them a call on the Thursday or Friday and they start harvesting, it arrives in the warehouse Monday [or] Tuesday morning, and we pack Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and it’s in everyone’s homes that night.”

Josh Bennett-Jones and his partner Jamie Berlancic are market gardeners for Food Connect at Karalee, west of Brisbane.

Six years in and they are growing 45 different cultivars, including herbs, Asian greens and edible flowers.

At just under 1,500 square metres, their patch is proof that you don’t need a lot of space to grow plenty of good, fresh produce.

“We’re up to 50 kilos a week if need be, so we’re pretty much as proud as punch,” Mr Bennett-Jones said.

It’s all about power in numbers

One Food Connect box may hold 20 different foods grown by 20 different farmers.

They are distributed mainly via a so-called city-cousin network.

“In practice, it’s a distribution system, so instead of delivering to your home or to your door … these city cousins act as local pickup points in local neighbourhoods all over Brisbane and the Gold Coast,” said Emma-Kate Rose, director of the Food Connect Foundation.

But Food Connect is far bigger than fruit and vegie boxes; the shed that houses the social enterprise is Australia’s first community-owned local food hub.

More than 500 “careholders” invested in an equity crowd-funding campaign that enabled them to buy the $2 million warehouse.

“We don’t owe any money to a bank,” Ms Rose said.

“We’ve got 513 people who are on board with us 100 per cent.

“They really get what we’re trying to do in terms of our broader vision for the food system here in Australia.”

The shed is home to 27 tenants, all of whom bring something unique to the table.

“We make Japanese-style cheesecakes,” said Sing Ho, a pastry chef who rents commercial kitchen space.

“The honey cake is quite popular because we use the local farmers’ honey that we order from Food Connect.”

The benefits go both ways; growers also appreciate being able to see what their produce is being turned into.

“We have so many farmers who come in here and see their products being turned into amazing cheesecakes and so many other really great products,” Mr Pekin said.

“That gives them just so much joy to see it being made locally, sold locally and enjoyed locally.”

The Food Connect crew is now working to help similar food sheds take shape in other towns and cities.

“Our theory of change is that while we haven’t got the financial capital to replicate this all over Australia, we’ve got people power,” Mr Pekin said.

“The big dream is every farmer should have the opportunity to connect with the people who eat their food.”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on .

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