REFLECTING: Robert Pekin from Food Connect invited ladies from the Australian Women in Agriculture Conference to tour his packing shed in Brisbane.
REFLECTING: Robert Pekin from Food Connect invited ladies from the Australian Women in Agriculture Conference to tour his packing shed in Brisbane. Andrea Davy

Fresh food direct to Brisbane customers

LET'S put the 'culture' back into agriculture.

That was the message from Food Connect founder Robert Pekin to ladies touring his facility as part of the Australian Women In Agriculture Conference.

A turbulent dairy industry saw Robert walk away from his family's farm in the 1990s - he was fourth generation.

After years of research, while he was in his words "harmless and farmless”, Robert discovered the concept of community-driven agriculture, a system that allowed farmers to sidestep supermarket giants and send fresher produce direct to customers.

Today, Food Connect customers select weekly produce boxes online - some including fruit, vegies, milk and cheese - which are delivered to their neighbourhood's pick-up site. The produce is sourced within a 400km radius, packed on site, and delivered within one to two days. During the AWIA conference, Robert shared his story.

"I was hard hit by the dairy industry and I wanted a model on the ground to solve a few issues that I had faced. One issue was I didn't know who drank my milk,” he said.

The business journey was kick started in an unusual way: it launched during a segment on ABC talk-back radio. In the early 2000s Robert had about seven farmers on board with his idea, but hadn't yet launched the platform. At that time, a mandatory code for agriculture was being introduced, which was a hot topic on radio. Robert called the station and was invited to go on air for a quick interview about community-driven agriculture.

"This was with Steve Austin. When I walked in it was 20 past 9 and it was only meant to be a 10-minute interview,” he said.

"We went to the 9.30 news brief and he stood up out of his chair, and his chair almost went backwards, and he leaned over the console and said, 'I hate supermarkets, this is fantastic - we are going to go right through, let's go hard on this'.

"So we went right through to the 10am news and the lights all lit up on the switchboard. All of a sudden we had a customer base.

"It was like lights on, let's go.”

Food Connect was launched in 2004 as a cash-only business that quickly ballooned into having a $15,000-a-week trade.

"After three months we went from the original 30 boxes to maybe about 500 boxes and we couldn't cope, the farmers couldn't keep up with supply,” he said.

"It was cash only... money was being left under a rock in backyards, or people were throwing money through a bedroom window left open at (pick up points) - it was literally berserk.”

The business was shut down, and relaunched with an advisory board and new business model in April 2011.

"The idea of community-driven agriculture is about changing city folks from being passive consumers into active participants,” he said.

Food Connect customers are updated on the farming seasons, and their produce boxes include dirt and sometimes imperfect fruit.

Robert wants the smells of fresh, natural produce to greet the customers' noses when they open their boxes.

"I had people ring up and say there was a grub in their apple, so I would say I would have to charge them extra for the protein,” he said. "I was pretty hardcore on getting city folk to accept the idea that you can cut the grub out.”

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