By Kirra Grimes

LOCAL farmers embraced the opportunity to have their say on the State Government’s $2 million artisanal agriculture and premium food program at an event in Meeniyan recently, highlighting online infrastructure and small abattoirs as two key areas in need of government support.
The Andrews Government has set aside $2 million in the 2018/19 state budget to “increase market opportunities for high-quality, high-value produce” and “strengthen Victoria’s regional food offerings” and sent Agriculture Victoria representatives to the Meeniyan Town Hall recently to hear from South Gippsland and Bass Coast food producers on how those funds would best be spent.
With around 30 farmers in attendance, including vegetable growers, cheesemakers, and lamb, beef, poultry and pork producers, the Meeniyan forum provided plenty of opportunity to discuss issues inhibiting the growth of the sector in our local region.
Dollar-based organic lamb and beef farmer, and co-founder of the Prom Coast Food Collective, Sally Ruljancich spoke on the night, and took the opportunity to push for government investment in the Open Food Network, a free online platform designed to make it easy for small scale farmers to sell their products direct to consumers.
“Artisanal food should be, and is, created by the passionate, the creative and the talented. But it is often done so in small batches, by people who cannot, or don’t wish to, scale up. And it’s farmed and produced at a greater expense than mass-produced food…” Ms Ruljancich said.
“In order to support those who create such food, we need the support to sell it, move it around the state and country and free us up from the grind of marketing and administration….
“The local food movement is rich with opportunities. But like any food which you sell, you need to turn the customer’s head away from convenience food or create products and opportunities for purchasing that speak louder and more passionately than the supermarkets can.”
Ms Ruljancich said the Open Food Network had benefited from government support in the past but was now relying on “philanthropic dollars”.
She said investing some of the $2 million in the online selling platform would help all small-scale producers looking for more ways to sell their goods.
“Farms need better pathways to enter the marketplace, and the Open Food Network is a free and collaborative software system, meaning all work to improve it is available to all who use it,” she said.
Increasing access to abattoirs also emerged as a high priority during the forum, especially for the pork and poultry producers in the room, but Fish Creek farmer Dan Bright said the $2 million was unlikely to lead to a quick solution in this area, as the problem was more to do with “onerous” regulations than lack of funds.
“The big problem is that the regulations aren’t scalable, so the guy who wants to kill 10 pigs a week at his little mobile abattoir, he’s subject to the same sort of rules and requirements as the abattoir that’s doing truckloads and truckloads of pigs every day,” Mr Bright said.
“What it should be, is the food safety of the finished product should be the same requirement.
“So, the guy doing 10 pigs or 10 chickens, as long as he can prove that his pigs’ meat or chickens’ meat is safe and low in contaminants and bacteria, then he should be able to do it in whatever way is needed.
“And the same onus should be on the big producer. As long as they can demonstrate that they’re producing a safe product then it shouldn’t matter whether you’re doing it in a paddock in a fitted-out trailer with a cool room or if you’re doing it in a huge stainless-steel factory.”
Dan and wife Amelia, who recently won a prestigious 2018 Emerging Leaders of Victorian Agriculture Award, said the introduction of ‘microabattoirs’ for pigs, poultry and deer presented a big opportunity for growth of the local artisanal/premium food industry.
The Brights currently drive four hours to have their pigs butchered at Orbost, with a Laverton abattoir being the only other alternative, and said this travel created “a whole slew of problems” such as animal welfare issues, extra carbon footprint, personal safety risks, and productivity losses.
The ability to have pigs and poultry butchered locally would not only promote industry growth in South Gippsland, they said, it would benefit consumers by bringing down the price of the final product.
“That is definitely a price thing that you could fix and we’d be able to make our products more saleable and more competitive. At the moment, [travel] is just a cost that we’ve got to pass on,” Dan said.
“If we had lots of these little abattoir businesses, it’d make it a much more realistic and viable sort of operation. And I’m certain that if there were small local abattoirs, particularly for poultry, that’d drive a huge amount of growth into local small-scale poultry production, which would be fantastic,” he said.
Like many in the room, the Brights also supported the idea of directing funding into education programs to increase awareness of the time and effort put into producing artisanal and premium food.
But having forged a successful business over the last five years with little to no government support, and facing “stressful and time-consuming” bureaucratic hurdles, the Brights weren’t getting their hopes up about any major improvements stemming from the $2 million program, though they were encouraged to see Agriculture Victoria representatives taking the local industry’s concerns seriously.
“Things have changed a lot. Since we first started our business, the community understanding of this sort of artisanal agriculture and artisanal producers in general has definitely changed. The awareness is much greater, and the acceptance is much greater,” said Dan.
“But we’ve seen plenty of these sorts of announcements before and what actually comes of it can quite often be a bit lacklustre.
“The government’s always about 10 years behind wherever the avant garde are at, so they’ll hopefully be playing catch up and hopefully they do listen and do something good,” Dan said.
The Meeniyan event was the third in a series of nine forums held across in the state in recent weeks, designed to give decision makers a better idea of priorities and opportunities in the artisanal/premium food sector.
Agriculture Victoria’s Julie Simons said the $2 million would “almost certainly” be directed into a grants program, and that the Meeniyan group’s suggestion that a new category of grants for ‘microbusinesses,’ as distinct from small businesses, be created, would be taken on board.
The findings of the nine forums will be released later this year, with the $2 million to be delivered over two years.