Robert Pekin, founder, Food Connect
That’s our ultimate test – when we no longer need to exist ...
For Robert Pekin and his caring and compassionate crew at Food Connect, the day the business no longer needs to exist will be the day it has achieved the ultimate success. The local folks have spent the past decade working day in and day out to fight for a fairer food system – one that equitably supports both farmer and consumer. It was after experiencing the hardship of working on the land himself, and eventually walking away from the family farm with $90,000 debt, that led to Robert founding an ethically aware social enterprise that sought to rebuild the relationships between growers and consumers. The creative food distribution business has come a long way since its conception ten years ago, and this month the team will be celebrating along with high-profile guests and the local community at a street party featuring live music, life-changing lectures, market stalls and information resources. Before the festivities kick off at the Food Connect homestead in Salisbury on Friday February 27, The Weekend Edition caught up with Robert to talk about farming’s tough past and its very promising future.
First of all, happy birthday to Food Connect! Ten years is a long time, did you ever think the social enterprise would have such longevity?
We just worked out we’ve been averaging 585 boxes of produce a week over the ten years, so that’s not bad at all! I always called Food Connect a ‘project’ so we could just trial it, and then a whole bunch of Brisbane mums got excited about the idea and they created the city-cousin model, and the rest just followed after that – I just had to keep up with them, really! It was my job to keep up the logistics and keep the business up with the ideas and the excitement they had.
For readers who aren’t familiar with Food Connect, what can you tell us about what you do?
We’re based on the premise of putting the farmers’ faces on the food and we act as a facilitator between farmer and family. Food Connect provides a distribution network that the community participates in, so we’re shifting people from consumers to connectors, where there’s a relationship, understanding and a closed loop.
What can you tell us about Food Connect’s tenth birthday celebrations planned for Friday February 27?
Well we’ll have the ‘High Priest of Farming’, American farmer Joel Salatin, talking to Costa Georgiadis from ABC’s Gardening Australia about the ten truths of a sustainable food system, right across social, environmental and spiritual aspects. This covers things like it should be empowering for all people, it should be child-friendly and all people should be the masters of their own destiny in the food system – it should be a highly distributed business, where there are a lot of small enterprises doing all sorts of great things. We’ll also have about 18 stallholders, bands playing in the street and a community tent with plenty of information about things like cooperatives.
You were a dairy farmer before you launched Food Connect, what can you tell me about that experience?
I was the oldest of nine kids, born and bred on a dairy farm. I left home for about ten years but eventually I came back and share-farmed it with mum and dad, and then later purchased it. But by the time I came back, fundamentally it had changed – the supermarkets had a lot of control. There were about 20 cooperatives in our area when I was a kid, so all of the farmers had plenty of choice with who they supplied to; there was a quota system so you couldn’t flood the market and it was really fairly done in a local distribution scheme. But by the time I came back, it had become a global system and there was only one cooperative left, so it eventually became corporatised and the farmers had no say. We had CEOs on million-dollar salaries and farmers basically shooting themselves.
When did you decide to walk away and leave the farm?
Ultimately, it was really difficult to compete in a global marketplace where those big corporations had access to capital funds to basically drown out any other business. Added to that, I had three years of drought, and those series of events just buried me – financially, emotionally and physically. I was a wreck. I was technically insane and eventually gave up that fight and just walked off the land. I had nothing left – I was $90,000 in debt. At that time, there was no welfare infrastructure to support farmers who were in the position that I was in. I did all the pre-suicide stuff, but I was saved from lying down in the paddock one night in absolute tears, looking up at the Milky Way and then something in that moment transformed me – it just said, “You don’t have to put yourself through this. Let it go.” It was a pretty awesome moment, and the next morning I rang up the solicitor and started the process to leave.
And when was the seed planted for Food Connect?
In the last few years I was on the farm, I was working with about 15 farmers and we were doing all sorts of organic and alternative things, like acupuncture for cows. But there was a smaller group of us looking at how we could go back to processing and distributing our own milk, and one farmer talked about the community-supported agriculture (CSA) concept, and that idea just stuck in my head …
How has Food Connect evolved over its ten years of operation?
We’re a much more professional organisation now and we’re more aligned with being an aggregator – so we’ve moved from purely retail to education, wholesale and being a real catalyst. We’ve replicated the model right across Australia and New Zealand. It’s been really amazing what our farmers have done – a lot of them have become better farmers and are now growing more things since we drew that circle around Brisbane and said we’re not going to get food from any more than a five-hour radius, because now those farmers have confidence in us. We’ve got a lot of new, young farmers, so that’s also been really exciting, but we’ve got a long way to go – this is a marathon.
What do you believe is Food Connect’s greatest achievement so far?
Probably sticking around! There have been a couple of times when we’ve been technically insolvent, but the thing I always says is, when you look at our balance sheet, it doesn’t mention the value of our relationships with our subscribers and farmers. So I’m probably most proud of the social capital that we’ve built, which allowed us to continue when the chips were down. The other success we had was during the Brisbane floods – we were the only distributor who actually got produce in, because of our nimble crew – our drivers knew the back roads and our farmers are small scale so they don’t need a lot of employees and huge machinery, they could just walk out into the field and pick the produce. So we’ve built the Food Connect model around being able to cope with environmental and social issues, and the resilience factor has been proven.
How have you seen the community’s tastes change over the past ten years?
Ten years ago, I couldn’t even get an environmental organisation to think about where they bought their food from. But in the last five years, the awareness people have of all sorts of things inside the food system, from nutrition to inequity, has been really fantastic. And in the last two or three years, we’ve seen so many new food and drink businesses coming into the scene and throwing the rule book away. The other thing that’s really come of age is the merging of farmers in the developed world and the developing world. La Via Campesina, which is the global movement of peasant farmers, has 250 million members in a true democracy and is built entirely by farmers. It’s an amazing global organisation that’s really shifting the World Trade Organization’s view on how a food system should actually be, and we lead the Australian charge on that. There’s just been so many exciting things happening!
What’s next for Food Connect – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
I’ll be talking at the ten-year birthday about the next ten years, in terms of engaging with the global farmer solidarity movement and all farmers seeing themselves as one in trying to transform the food system. We’re also really excited by the amount of young people getting into food businesses, it’s just phenomenal! They’re young, savvy and passionate, and engaging the broader community who are also struggling against the corporatisation of the world. It’s so exciting to see. So we want to be part of evolving that more. There are so many young people who aren’t into that old mindset of just having a business to make money – they’re in it to have an experience, enjoy themselves, collaborate with other people, challenge the system and get up to some really great mischief!
What does ‘success’ mean to Food Connect?
We actually want the business to be so successful and inspiring that the business eventually doesn’t need to exist. So our success will ultimately be when the business no longer needs to be in business – when everyone is doing things fairly and farmers are happy and getting a good price, and everyone has great nutritious food and they’re getting it affordably, and the environment is ok and people are being paid well – when there’s no longer an inequitable system that frustrates farmers and consumers. That’s our ultimate test – when one day we no longer need to exist.
And finally, what should we be putting into our grocery baskets right now – what’s in season?
Figs have just come into season, mangoes, rockmelons, gala apples, snake beans, beetroot is coming in, we’ve just had the first delivery of spuds from Queen Mary Falls and sweet potatoes are just about to start too.