Like tens of thousands of small- and medium-scale dairy farmers, Robert Pekin was a casualty of the de-regulation of the Australian dairy industry that took place during the 1990s. In what was a deeply traumatic period for himself and his family, Robert, like so many other dairy farmers, lost the farm that had been in his family for generations.
Robert’s path to redemption and healing led him to the discovery and practice of community-supported agriculture (CSA). First practiced in Japan, Germany and the UK in the 1960s and then blossoming in the USA and beyond in the 1990s, CSA is a model of direct, food-based exchange between farmers and members of a nearby town or city, who become stakeholders in the farm enterprise, sharing its risks and its bounty. In weaving multi-layered connections between farmers and stakeholders, the CSA model creates intimate and personal relationships around food and farming. These relationships are the building blocks of a food-centred community.
Food Connect Brisbane (FCB) was established by Robert in 2005 as a multi-farmer CSA with this vision, and these principles, firmly at its core. Over the succeeding years FCB has grown and thrived, showing itself to be resilient in the face of considerable challenges. Its many achievements speak for themselves. For example, a ‘Social Return on Investment’ analysis carried out for FCB in 2011, revealed that for ‘every $1 invested [in FCB], approximately $16.83 of social value is created’. This social value included markedly enhanced returns to participating farmers compared to conventional market channels (50% of each food dollar, compared to 10%-15%); and the value FCB subscribers attributed to supporting local farmers, reducing food waste, improving their own health and supporting ecologically sustainable farming systems.
FCB has broken new ground in food distribution systems and innovative social enterprise in Australia. It has served as a source of inspiration to affiliated and like-minded enterprises emerging in the past few years, such as Sydney Food Connect, CERES Fair Food, Bello Food Box and even smaller-scale schemes in places like Kinglake, Victoria. Most of all, the work of Robert and his colleagues at FCB has built a strong and growing community of like-minded individuals, in Brisbane and throughout Australia. It’s all about relationships and partnerships, such as the ‘Adopt-a-Farmer’ program that FCB facilitated for Seven Hills State School in Brisbane. Given the disturbingly high levels of food illiteracy amongst Australian school children, it is hard to over-emphasise the importance of these sorts of relationships.