By Kirra Grimes

AS supermarket shelves continue to be stripped bare, demand for local produce has skyrocketed, making it small growers’ time to shine.

Collaborative models that allow customers to order produce from multiple small, local farms at a single point, for ‘zero contact’ pick up or home delivery, have surged in popularity, with the South Gippsland-based Prom Coast Food Collective experiencing a mammoth jump in sales at the beginning of April, up from an average of $25,000-$30,000 a month to over $35,000 in a single week.

Korumburra’s Grow Lightly green grocer has experienced a similar phenomenon since the COVID-19 pandemic’s panic buying and strict social distancing requirements have made a trip to the traditional supermarket less and less appealing, with orders for their pre-packed vegie bags doubling in recent weeks and online bulk orders also increasing.

Likewise, individual growers have reported selling much more than usual at the farm gate, with Cape Paterson’s Goshen Country vegetable farm seeing not only an influx of new customers, but also its regular customers buying in bigger quantities.

For the Prom Coast Food Collective (PCFC), which brings together over 40 small scale and organic producers from across South Gippsland and Bass Coast in a single online ordering portal, the recent boom has justified an increase in the frequency of deliveries; an expansion of the freight team employed to make those deliveries locally and throughout Melbourne; and a search for more producers to come on board to bolster supplies.

Grow Lightly, a not-for-profit providing a shopfront for small-scale fruit and vegetable growers within a 60 kilometre radius of Korumburra, has been forced to reduce the opening hours at its Commercial Street store, with many of its volunteer staff falling into the ‘at risk’ categories for COVID-19. But they’ve begun exploring new ways to get their fresh produce out to those seeking alternatives to supermarket shopping, such as teaming up with the local bakery, butcher, and newsagent in a new home delivery service – ‘Burra Bundles’.

Those involved are hopeful this shift in shopping habits will stick around long after the pandemic.

“I don’t think they’ll be going back,” PCFC co-founder and organic lamb and beef producer Sally Ruljancich said of the new customers the collective has welcomed in recent weeks.

“People are turning to us thinking – how can I do the right thing, stay home, purchase locally, have it delivered, and do it efficiently.

“We want to keep those people on by showing them that supporting a local, organic supply chain is healthier for a myriad of reasons. Hopefully it will turn heads to a new normal.”

There will be challenges, Sally conceded, such as the impact of the seasons on supply levels – something that can be easy to forget with most produce available year round at the supermarket, and something Emma and Michael Burness at Goshen Country are already beginning to grapple with, with the days getting shorter and the produce growth rate slowing right down, while consumer demand remains high.

“Right now, in autumn, we probably have as much produce as we’d have at any time of the year, but we will see a natural downturn because of the climate we’re in,” Sally said.

“That’s a difficult conversation to have but one we need to have. And it gets easier once people see the benefit of having deeper, stronger, regular connection with their food.”


Loss of farmers markets hits home


IT’S not all good news for our local producers, with those who relied on weekend farmers markets for the bulk of their sales scrambling to adjust their business models to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.

The majority of farmers markets throughout South Gippsland and Bass Coast have ceased under new regulations related to public gatherings, in turn removing a vital link between small scale farmers like St Clair’s Nadine Verboon and their main customer base.

Nadine’s been selling her Wattlebank Park Farm beef, lamb and pork products and free range eggs at the Koonwarra, Coal Creek, Inverloch and Warragul farmers markets every weekend for the past seven years.

With all but one of her regular markets cancelled indefinitely, she’s been struggling to move product, and forced to scale back operations.

She says many small growers are in the same boat, suffering the added loss of wholesale income from cafes and restaurants that have closed or downsized to comply with social distancing regulations.

With no government support package to mitigate these unique challenges, those in the farmers market community are relying on each other to get through, Nadine said, teaming up on new promotions encouraging people to buy direct from the farm.

Social media will play a key role in these promotions, she said, with a big focus on telling the stories of the farmers and the work that goes on behind the scenes.

“A lot of stallholders are doing it tough, but we’re hoping to continue to supply our original customer base, as well as introduce some new people to what we do.

“We’ve increased usage of Facebook and Instagram, to give everybody more education, let people follow the business along, tour the farm…

“It’s about keeping the interest and connection with producers, and making sure there is some sort of market community once this is all over. We’ve all worked really hard to promote it over the years and it’s something we don’t want to lose.”