South Gippsland farmer Colin Trudgen and sons Jacob and Patrick getting ready to plant their first crops of certified organic Dutch cream and kipfler potatoes in mid September.

By Kirra Grimes

BUCKING the trend towards downsizing during COVID-19, a local farming family has seized the opportunity to diversify and expand their offering to cater to a growing interest in fresh local produce.

Husband and wife team Colin Trudgen and Sally Ruljancich have, over the last 10 years, established a successful certified organic lamb and beef grazing operation at Dollar, near Dumbalk, selling meat to a loyal customer base via the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model.

But with the pandemic throwing one of their other income streams – Sally’s full-time job in the university sector – into doubt, they saw more potential to unlock in their two 90-hectare properties, and an opportunity to take back some control in a climate of economic uncertainty.

Identifying a gap in the market for organic vegetables, Colin, Sally, their two boys, and Colin’s brother David, have spent the past month preparing plots in which to plant several varieties of potatoes and later, corn.

With the first potato crops expected to be ready for harvest at the end of the year, they plan to sell them in various forms – including pre-cut, ready to cook, fries – through the Prom Coast Food Collective, of which Sally is a co-founder.

They’re confident the demand is there, and that the crops they’ve chosen are relatively low-risk, especially when sold through the Food Collective system, which has been designed to minimise wastage by only harvesting what has been pre-ordered each week.

“We’ve grown potatoes as a trial previously, and potatoes can stay in the ground until ready to sell, not needing to be harvested in one lot,” Sally explained.

“We’ve got a willing audience at the collective, and we’ll be selling exclusively to that customer base, rather than wholesale – that’s what’s going to make it work. The customer channels are already there, so all we have to do is go,” she said.

It’s just one example of the resourcefulness of our local agricultural community in the face of challenging market conditions, with Sally highlighting other members of the Collective who’ve found ways to adapt and ride out the crisis.

“One of our volunteers who helps with packing orders, Trish Shee, runs a b&b at Waratah, and while she hasn’t been able to take bookings, she’s used her registered kitchen to create a new product to sell through the Collective.

“She’s taken chicken livers from one of our members, Ilan Goldman at Mirboo Pastured Poultry, and turned them into pate.

“She’s already sold out twice, using what many would consider a byproduct, to add income where income was not before.”