While dairy farmers around the nation are facing crippling debt and dwindling return for their milk, one ex-dairy farmer is working hard to create a market that ensures farmers get a fair price.
18 years ago Robert Pekin, CiEiO of Food Connect was a dairy farmer in rural Victoria. These days he runs a marketplace for Fair Food, bringing farmers and consumers together and offering suppliers up to six times the price of milk that big chain stores offer.
In 1998, Rob was driven out of business by similar circumstances that dairy farmers are facing now. His milk price dropped 20% in one month and over the next two years it dropped another 15% as the Dairy Industry faced the first wave of deregulation. He sold 100 of the 400 head to try and stay financially alive but the banks used the lowest cash flow period of the year to force Robert into giving up. He struggled on for another five months alone on the property through emotional breakdown. Looking at suicide as the only option, Robert collapsed one night in the middle of a paddock and literally saw the stars. He decided to give up the farm rather than take his own life and vowed to use this experience to be a part of a solution.
In an attempt to change what he saw as a broken system, Rob and his partner Emma-Kate Rose, established social enterprise, Food Connect, a local food hub in Brisbane connecting farmers with eaters.
Food Connect currently has 80 farmers (including dairy, fruit and vegetables, grain, honey etc) and over 7,000 eaters on their books. Their produce travels an average of 180 kms from farmers to customer dinner tables, and farmers are paid on average 40% of the retail price. Compared to industry standard of 14%.
Robert says: “The centralisation, commodification, disconnection and corporatisation of food has led to a complete system breakdown. From the farmer through to the consumer, no one is winning. By bringing back some common sense solutions around human rights, health and wellbeing, ethics and transparency we have demonstrated that another model can completely replace the industrialised model that has ruined so many.”
“People often feel helpless in circumstances like these, however we are more powerful than we realise. Buying and sourcing locally is about more than just nationalistic fairness to the farmer, it’s in our long-term interest in creating resilient food supplies and our individual health. Ask where your food comes from and how much the grower’s paid. Look for distributors who are transparent with the customer, and who personally know their farmers. We’re so used to focussing on the cost at the checkout, but how much does bad health cost? How much does subsidising a broken system cost? How much does a degraded environment cost? How much does farmer breakdown and possibly suicide cost?”
Brisbane eaters go to: Food Connect
Melbourne eaters go to: Ceres Fair Food
Sydney eaters go to: Ooooby