Tag Archives: Coffs Coast

The real costs of cheap food

The real costs of ‘cheap’ food

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 19.2.11

There’s been plenty of talk over the past month or so about the impact that the extreme weather events north of the border will have on food and grocery prices, vegetables and bananas especially.

There’s lots of things to say about this, beginning with the fact that if the mid-north coast still had a viable banana industry, and if production wasn’t so centralised and concentrated in cyclone-prone areas of north Queensland, then consumers might not be so vulnerable to the sorts of price spikes we’re likely to see in the coming months.

Be that as it may, there’s a bigger question at stake which is rarely addressed, and that’s whether the ‘normal’ price we pay for our groceries is sufficient to maintain a healthy, diverse and viable agricultural sector in this country over the medium and long-term, given the way that current market mechanisms operate.

It’s hardly any secret that many farmers are doing it tough, and have done so for a long time. So it should come as no surprise that Australia has lost around 50,000 farmers since the mid-1960s, and the exodus continues, with five farmers leaving the land every day.


Nor should it be any surprise that the average age of the Australian farmer is approaching 60. There simply aren’t the incentives for young people to want to embrace agriculture as a career and lifestyle choice. Which begs the question: who’s going to do the work of feeding us in 15 or 20 years’ time, when most farmers will be approaching 80, and there’ll be 35,000 fewer of them?

Does this sound like a crisis-in-the-making to you? It certainly does to me. In fact, it’s a crisis that’s been with us for many years now.

Which brings us back to the central issue: the proper cost of food. Through the centuries, farmers have always sought a fair price – a just price – for their produce. The trouble in recent decades is that they simply have not been getting it. At the heart of the global crisis in agriculture – Australia is but one of dozens of countries affected – is that farm-gate prices have failed to keep pace with the rising costs of inputs, freight and labour. In many cases farm-gate prices have barely risen at all.

Alongside this cost-price squeeze, we have seen an equally strong trend towards the concentration of ownership and control of most aspects of the food-value chain: from seed, to agro-chemicals, to grain trading and meat-packing, to food processing and manufacturing, and to retailing. We have witnessed the corporatisation and monopolisation of food and agriculture.

Many would say that the two trends  – the farm crisis, and the growth of agri-food monopolies – are closely linked. So closely, that the latter brings about the former.

There’s no simple answer to this, and I’m certainly not advocating a big price hike in groceries for consumers, least of all the many millions of middle and low-income Australians who are experiencing cost-of-living pressures already, with electricity and petrol price rises, not to mention the constantly rising cost of housing. But the question remains: how do we make farming viable – especially for smaller scale, bio-diverse farms – and yet keep food affordable?

We do need to move away from the culture of cheap food, where price is the sole criterion for making purchasing decisions. The logic of the food system as it stands points in one direction: the factory farm. And if you want to know why that’s a future we ought to say no to, come and watch Food Inc: see the interviews with factory farmers and workers in the United States; the conditions in which the animals are kept; the phenomenal waste that is generated, and the severe consequences for human and environmental health. The good news is that there are alternatives, and they’re being implemented all over the world, including on the Coffs Coast.

Agricultural Democracy

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 15th November, 2014


Food and farming forums are the flavour of the month. On November 3rd, we had the well attended and highly successful Mid-North Coast Food Forum. Key themes emerging were the need for prominent and coordinated marketing and branding strategies to raise the profile of the region’s producers and food enterprises, the importance of finding ways to enable young people to enter farming, and the need for better coordination and collaboration across the sector.

Next week, from 16th to 18th November, the focus will shift to the Northern Rivers and Byron Bay, with the 4th Regional Food Cultures and Networks Conference. The focus is again very much on local and regional food: the Conference will “showcase innovative thinking and demonstrate approaches to the development and sustainability of local food; and examine the cultural, economic, social and environmental implications and opportunities around local and regional food.”

And two weeks after that a Fair Food and Law conference will take place at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, with the involvement of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, the Australian Earth Laws Association, and Monash University. That conference will explore the role of law and regulation in supporting – or not supporting – the creation and expansion of a fair food system.

All of this activity I find very positive and encouraging. It is only through bringing diverse individuals and stakeholders into the same room that we can begin to transcend institutional barriers and ways of thinking and acting. These spaces allow us to identify and explore what we have in common and begin to develop creative approaches to addressing common challenges.

I keep coming back to the need to support and keep our farmers on the land, help them develop as diverse, financially viable and ecologically sustainable systems as possible. And critically, to build pathways for young people to enter agriculture.

This was highlighted a few weeks ago, on October 16th , World Food Day, by the new UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Professor Hilal Elver. She pointed out that 70% of the world’s food depends on family farmers, most operating farms of less than 2 hectares. That’s right: small-scale family farmers, who, we’re often told, are ‘inefficient’ and ‘not productive’, feed the world, not giant agri-business.

Not that they get a lot of thanks for it. On the contrary, these farmers are at the sharp end of a struggle for their land, which large agri-business corporations and financial institutions, ever hungry for ever more profit, want in increasing quantities.

This ‘global land grab’ is a zero sum game. 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. Industrialised large-scale monocultures are resource-intensive, wasteful, polluting and environmentally destructive. They also generate and intensify inequality, as I saw in Argentina, where the rapid expansion of the multi-million hectare ‘green deserts’ of GMO soy monocultures have forced hundreds of thousands of country folk into precarious villas de miseria (villages of misery) on the outskirts of the major cities.

Casas precarias in the so-called Villas de Miserias, this photo taken in Barrio Nestor Kirchner, part of the Cinturon de Pobreza that encircles a significant portion of Tucuman, in the north-east of Argentina. Similar 'poverty belts' and 'misery towns' can be found in many mid-to-large sized Argentina towns and cities.
Casas precarias in the so-called Villas de Miserias, this photo taken in Barrio Nestor Kirchner, part of the Cinturon de Pobreza that encircles a significant portion of Tucuman, in the north-east of Argentina. Similar ‘poverty belts’ and ‘misery towns’ can be found in many mid-to-large sized Argentina towns and cities.

This mode of production and social organization, the mindset that the earth is only here for us to endlessly exploit regardless of the consequences, so that a few ‘rich’ people can become ‘richer’, for a while – this is what has to change. And it is changing, and the producers and entrepreneurs and government representatives attending all the local and regional food conferences are the ones changing it.

This is part of what my colleague, regenerative sheep farmer and agrarian intellectual, Dr Charlie Massy, calls the Underground Insurgency: a ‘cascading series of personal transformations from soil up, culminating in the Great Turning’. I’ll say more about that in a future column.



Trying to tackle abuses of market power with social media


A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 26th October, 2013

On Wednesday this week, the Victorian Farmers Federation launched a social media campaign with the hashtag, #TellUsWhy.

The targets of the campaign are Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, and the aim is to mobilise shoppers’ collective power, via Facebook and twitter, to pressure these mega-supermarkets to use Australian-grown produce in their homebrand product lines.

“We’re asking consumers – next time you’re in [one of those supermarkets] – check the fine print on the food you’re about to buy. If it’s an import take an image on your phone, then send it with the #telluswhyColes or #telluswhyAldi hashtag and your comments to the VFF – as a tweet to @VicFarmers or post it on the VFF’s Facebook page”, said VFF social media guru Tom Whitty, in the press release.

There’s a growing public awareness of the impact that cheap imported fruit (fresh and processed) is having on our growers and food manufacturers. Also this week the CEO of SPC Ardmona, Peter Kelly, issued an urgent plea to the new Coalition government for $25 million in funding, saying that without the money the company will be forced to close its Shepparton plant. The consequences of such a decision would be grim: 1000 workers redundant, the contracts of hundreds of local growers terminated, thousands of hectares of fruit trees ripped out ‘and a regional economy would be destroyed’, in the words of local Liberal MP Sharman Stone.

So the VFF is to be commended for its campaign, and apparently the building pressure has already had some impact, with Woolworths ‘committing to using Australian-grown frozen vegetables in its Select brand, and replacing $9 mn of imported tinned fruit with Goulburn Valley growers’ fruit”, according to VFF president Peter Tuohey.

Gary Gardiner
Gary Gardiner

But there are deeper dynamics at work which are placing inexorable downwards pressure on Australian growers and food manufacturers. One is the free trade agenda, which as I wrote last time is being ramped up several notches with the Trans Pacific Partnership deal.

And the other is the familiar story: the excessive market power of the big Australian supermarkets and the impacts of that power on farmers, workers and communities. The VFF campaign might persuade the supermarkets to buy more Australian produce, but what price will the growers and suppliers be getting?

This brings me back to Gary Gardiner, fourth-generation local farmer and now proprietor of Paradise Fruits in Sawtell, whom I first wrote about last month. With his intimate knowledge of the wholesale market system in Australia, Gary explained to me exactly how the supermarkets use their buying power to maximise their gains at the expense of growers:

“Coles and Woolies don’t just control 80% of the grocery market, they control the the market system as well. They’ll walk into a wholesale market and they basically control what’s going on. Let’s look at bananas in the Sydney market. There’s probably four main wholesale agents. With potatoes, there’s maybe two-three. So Coles and Woolies come in, they look at a product and say, right-o, that’s selling for $15 a carton. So they say to the agent, we’ll take all your production for $12, everything in your coolroom.”

“So that’s fine, they get a $3 discount. The agent’s going to say yes, because he’s on a fixed percentage. There’s no impact on him, it’s an easy sale. It’s the poor old grower who cops the hit”, Gary said.

“We’ve had so many stories. Let’s say there was a shortage of butternut pumpkin on the market. Let’s say it’s $1 a kilo. The [duopoly] will go in there and offer 70 cents a kilo, and take everything on the market. There’s usually one or two smaller growers there, holding out, and the price will automatically go to $1.50 a kilo, because there’s nothing on the market for anyone else to buy. Mysteriously, a percentage of the Coles and Woolies product will reappear for $1.50. Without even leaving the market, so they make a 100% mark-up on that product.”

Tell us Why? Indeed. To be continued.

Crowd-funding for farming

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 28th September, 2013

It’s been said many times: there is a crisis of profitability in Australian agriculture. Many factors are involved, including drought, the high Australian dollar, softening commodity prices, and the market power of the duopoly.

In May this year the Australian Financial Review reported that ‘at least 80 farming operations worth more than $1mn across Australia are in receivership or some form of financial distress.’

Debt levels feature prominently in this picture. According the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Research Economics and Science (ABARES), total farm debt for broad-acre farms averaged $476,000 as at 30 June, 2013. For dairy farms, average farm debt was $701,500. Debt levels in the Queensland beef industry have increased 500% in under 20 years, with most of the increase coming in the post-GFC period.

Commenting on the AFR report, financial blogger Steven Johnson of Intelligent Investor wrote,

“Any Australian farm funded with more than 50% debt is a Ponzi operation. There are thousands of them.”

Low interest rates bring some relief, and have been welcomed by the NFF. Before it left office, the ALP introduced a two-year Farm Finance package worth $420 mn of concessional loans (interest-only payments for 5 years, before reverting to market rates). But in the absence of a genuinely ‘farmer-friendly’ national food policy (which would likely include substantial tax breaks), this package, which is also supported by the incoming administration, may simply be deferring the inevitable.

At the other end of the scale, smaller scale farmers selling into niche local markets are successfully exploring a different financing alternative: crowd-funding. With its origins dating famously to Joseph Pulitzer’s 1884 campaign that raised $100,000 from 125,000 people to complete the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, crowd-funding has really taken off alongside the rise of the social network era of the internet. US platforms such as IndieGoGo, GiveForward and KickStarter have helped artists, musicians and others raise tens of millions of dollars, mostly in small donations from large numbers of individuals, to enable them to make music videos, write books, fund travel and a host of other projects. Pledges are made securely via encypted software (using a credit or debit card), as you would do if you were purchasing a book on Amazon.com, and typically are only redeemed if the campaign reaches 100% of its target figure within the alloted time frame.

In Australia, the Pozible website (www.pozible.com) was launched in May 2010, and by August 2013 had raised $13 mn for more than 4000 projects. These have included in the past few months: $12,000 to send 5 Australian farmers to the Via Campesina global conference in Jakarta (June 2013), $27,570 to finance an on-farm butchery at the free range heritage pig farm, Jonai Farms in Daylesford, Victoria (June 2013), and $29,250 to finance the making of Just Food, an Australian-first Fair Food documentary (August-September 2013).

In the Coffs region, the owners of Nana Glen Synchronicity Farm, Josh and Tomoko Allen, recently launched a pozible campaign, seeking to raise $30,000 to finance a ‘gourmet food hub’ based on their property. As well as creating a farm-gate store which will be an additional market outlet for local producers, they intend to build a community facility for educational workshops on organic farming, permaculture, aquaculture, shitake mushroom farming and a venue for long table farm lunches to support access to good food for community members on low incomes.

Synchronicity Farm Stall, Coffs Harbour Harbourside Market
Synchronicity Farm Stall, Coffs Harbour Harbourside Market

Josh and Tomoko sell their heirloom fruit and veg at the Sunday Harbourside Market and the Nana Glen general store. Their campaign has around one month to run.

The project is in its early days, but it would make an important addition to food retailing diversity for this region. The food hub sector in the US is booming, with over 100 now in existence. It’s also starting in Australia, with projects in Casey, Trentham, Shepparton and Kyabram, amongst others. For more information, visit www.foodhubs.org.au.

A long road to Paradise

In August last year Master Grocers Australia (MGA), a national employer organisation which represents independent grocery supermarkets and liquor retailers in Australia, released its ‘Let’s Have Fair Competition!’ report, calling for regulatory reform to redress alleged abuse of market power and anti-competitive practices that MGA claimed Australia’s supermarket duopoly – Coles and Woolworths – were engaging in.

The Executive Summary of that August 2012 report claims that the duopoly, through tactics such as ‘price discrimination, shopper docket schemes, store saturation and over-sized store strategies [building huge supermarkets in small local markets in order to drive out existing competition and prevent new market entrants]’, is ‘crowding out all competition [and] rapidly reducing the choices in shopping format, brands, locally-derived products and service levels’.

Faced with inaction on the part of policymakers, the MGA released in August this year a follow-up report, ‘Finding a Solution’, which makes a number of specific proposals for reforms to the Competition and Consumer Act to achieve the MGA’s goal of a fairer grocery retail market in Australia.

These are issues that Gary Gardiner, co-proprietor of Paradise Fruits, a small fruit, veg and grocery shop in Sawtell, is all too familiar with.



Gary’s family has been living and farming on small acreages in the Boambee / Coffs Harbour region since about 1890, first in middle Boambee, then to Stadium Drive, and finally on Sawtell Road.

“The original farm was developed as a diverse farm, with dairy and small cropping. In the early 1900s my family did a run to Bellingen and Nambucca to supply the local shops and markets”, Gary told me.

A century ago, family farming on a small property in this region offered a viable livelihood.

“In the older days, 10 acres was about what one family could manage on their own. Any bigger than that, you needed multiple families and / or outside workers”, Gary said.

“Most farmers grew a commercial crop – usually bananas – supplemented with other, smaller, cash crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers or zucchinis. The income from the smaller crops was what they lived on, and what they produced commercially just about covered the costs of running the farm itself”, Gary said.

There was also a strong ethic of self-sufficiency. “Back in those days, most of the food the family ate was produced on the farm as well. That was certainly true during the Depression era – and even we still did that up to the 1970s”, Gary added.

Gary Gardiner
Gary Gardiner

As the food supply chain in Australia became steadily more centralised over the decades, the viability of the small-scale, diversified family farming model was increasingly threatened, as Gary explained:

“About 24 years ago, we were still growing bananas and small crops, and around that time we set up ripening rooms so we could supply the two Coffs Harbour independent supermarkets, Cox’s, and Tucker Bag. But they could only take 10% of our production. But the profit we got from that 10% equalled the returns we got from the other 90% going through the mainstream marketing system.”

“That’s how much we were all getting ripped off”, Gary remembers. “So we [aimed to] take out the middle men. And when you do that, you have a chance of actually making a living [as a grower].”

“It’s basically the difference between being a price-maker and a price-taker. If you were selling to the [central] markets, new cartons had to be used, so you had to buy those – $1.50 each. Freight – $1 per carton to get the product to market. Agent’s commission – $3 a carton back then. We were only getting $10 a carton.”

“And during the summer, when there was a glut, we got nothing back at all. You’d be doing all of that work, carrying all those costs, and you’d actually be paying to send your product to market, and you’d get nothing for it.”

Cox’s and Tucker Bag closed their doors not long after Woolworths opened, in the late 1980s. We’ll hear Gary’s thoughts on the impacts of the supermarket duopoly next time.

Suspended Coffee in Sawtell

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 31st August, 2013

As I have described in two previous columns, Coffs Coast independent coffee roaster Amelia Franklin has worked hard to get where she is today. Hers is a values-driven small business, with a strong focus on the ethics and sustainability of Fair Trade coffee. Her packaging, for example, is completely compostable, and she runs her coffee roaster on solar power.

Of course, having an ethics-driven business is one thing, but the product has to be top quality as well. And Amelia’s product is excellent, as recognised in her winning a Silver in the Golden Bean Roaster awards for 2012/13 in Open Class for her Mama Quilla blend: a combination of Peruvian Feminino beans, Chiapan (Mexico) beans, and Sumatran beans from the Aceh province.

“My Mama Quilla blend was the second-highest rated in the milk class (lattes, flat whites) against over 750 coffees entered”, said Amelia. “It’s not just Silver, because they give out ten of those. It was second-highest overall.”

In addition to these regions, Amelia sources beans from the Purosa co-operative in Papua New Guinea, and from co-ops in Ethiopia, East Timor, and Colombia.

How many beans will Amelia be processing at any one time?

“It can be anywhere from zero, to two tonnes. And if it’s two tonnes, I’m like, aagghhhhh!” she laughs. “A pallet is about one tonne, and that costs me $10,000, which is a big investment. I can turn around about a tonne a month. It takes me that long because I’m still using my little 5 kilo roaster – I really need to move up to a 20-25 kilo roaster, which I could still run on solar power. But that would cost me $80,000, if I was lucky, and I don’t want to get stuck in the debt cycle again,” Amelia says ruefully.

Beyond her own business, Amelia wants to link up and support women working in the coffee industry across Australia, whether as roasters, growers, or baristas, in the Australian chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.

You can sample Amelia’s Peruvian Feminino single origin coffee pretty much everywhere in Bellingen; but in Coffs Harbour and Sawtell you need to go to Wholly Cow café in 1st Avenue, Sawtell.

And there you will find that the owners Ricky and Michelle Lee have just launched something that is big internationally, and taking off around Australia, but has not yet made it to the Coffs Coast – until now.

It’s ‘Espresso Sospeso’, or ‘Suspended Coffee’. The concept originated in Naples and has now gone viral, as they say, with over 40 businesses in Victoria, and more than 25 in New South Wales, taking part.

Michelle Lee and Amelia Franklin
Michelle Lee and Amelia Franklin

The basic philosophy is that you are practising a ‘random act of kindness’ to a complete stranger, a person in need of a warm and soothing beverage.

How does it work? Very simply, you buy a coffee for yourself at a participating business (in this region, Wholly Cow) and at the same time buy a ‘suspended coffee’, which will be entered in a register of such purchases.

That suspended coffee can be redeemed by someone in need, who may have just lost their job or otherwise find themselves in financial hardship. They can simply walk into the café and ask for a suspended coffee, which will be provided courtesy of the generosity of the paying customer.

We can hardly have too much kindness and generosity in the world, and this is a great way to build up those reserves.


Fair Trade – A story not told enough?

Fair Trade Coffee

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 20th July

In food and beverages, ethical and sustainable products are a booming niche market sector, which has doubled in the last four years.

Fair Trade is leading the way, averaging an astonishing 50% year-on-year growth over the last five years, according to Fairtrade Australia New Zealand operations manager Craig Chester.

Talk about recession-busting. In barely 10 years, products bearing the Fairtrade ANZ label now generate sales in excess of $191 million.

Chocolate is largest segment of the fair trade market, at 62%, followed by coffee at 31%, and tea at 6%.

Fair Trade is a certification system that allows importers and retailers of products from developing countries to sell them under the Fair Trade label. So what does Fair Trade actually mean in practice?

This was the discussion I had with Bellingen-based coffee roaster Amelia Franklin. For Amelia, being herself perhaps unique as the proprietor of a 100% woman-owned coffee roasting business, a very important element of the Fair Trade system is its strong support of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

“To be Fair Trade is to be a co-op, which is a group of small farmers with small plots, getting together and selling their product as a community”, she explained.

“One of the main guidelines is that women have an equal voice in the co-op. There needs to be women representing all the farmers’ families, and there needs to be women making decisions. When you look at countries like Papua New Guinea (PNG), where the only people to sit in the circle are men, that changes the dynamic. That gives women a voice. I think that’s a good thing”, she said.

Fair Trade

For Amelia, another very important part of Fair Trade is its support of education.

“The children are going to school, they’re not working”, Amelia told me. “So you’ve got maybe 500-1000 family members in the co-op, and one member might cover up to 15-20 people, including several children. If you have 500-1000 members, then that means that all those children are going to school, and all those women have a voice.”

Fair Trade also supports sustainable agricultural practices, although the system itself does not duplicate or replace organic certification. Fair Trade producers are typically small-scale farmers, working on two-hectare plots, so ‘they’re not putting fertiliser and pesticides on their coffee’, said Amelia.

Whereas in large-scale coffee production, ‘you’re looking at deforestation and full irrigation, and pesticides and fertilisers because you’re completely stuffing with the environment, to engage in that kind of monoculture’, she said.

In terms of the difference that the Fair Trade premium – 2% of the market price on green beans – makes, this is determined democratically by the co-operative through a discussion and voting process.

“[The co-op] will have a number of projects they want to achieve”, Amelia told me. “One of the first things they usually do is put in a nurse’s post in their community, so they have direct access to primary health care. I’ve been to PNG and in remote areas the basic health care is minimal. And many people don’t access that health care because they have to pay, and they can’t afford it.”

“Also there’s often no school nearby, so the second thing they do is build a school and fund a teacher”, she added.

Coffee – whether it’s Fair Trade or not – is a commodity crop for export. So what about support for growing basic food groups?

“There is a massive problem in PNG with the food quality”, Amelia told me. “It’s terrible. Many people live on a diet of canned meat and two-minute noodles. Supermarkets are full of canned produce from China, that’s what people are eating.”

“I visited a cocoa-growing Fairtrade community. Fairtrade were supporting a lot of women to be trained in horticulture, and encouraged them to grow their own food. Australians don’t see that as part of Fair Trade, they don’t see what it does on the ground [in countries like PNG]. There are so many good stories to tell, but Fair Trade isn’t telling them enough. It’s not perfect, but they do really good work”, Amelia finished.

Veggie Swap arrives in Sawtell!

Veggie Swaps

According to sources, veggie swaps in Australia first took off in Brunswick, Melbourne, in 2004 with the CERES Urban Orchard Project. The initial idea was to map household fruit tree plantings in the inner city local government areas of Moreland and Darebin, and to encourage householders to gather surplus and unwanted fruit and bring them to a central venue on a regular basis to exchange for other produce.

From those humble beginnings the CERES Urban Orchard now takes place every Saturday, with residents from over 200 households bringing their veggies, herbs, fruit, backyard eggs and more to exchange.

CERES can hardly claim ownership of the concept of swapping backyard produce, of course. As older readers will no doubt recall, the swapping of produce across the backyard fence would have been commonplace fifty or sixty years ago, when the tradition of home food growing was commonplace.

But the backyard veggie garden is making a comeback. Consistent with a ‘DIY’ and collaborative ethos of a small but growing food movement in Australia, a loose network of semi-structured ‘veggie swaps’ is now emerging to help backyard gardeners meet like-minded souls and find a good home for their surplus parsley, kale and pumpkins.

By some estimates there are now over a dozen regular veggie swaps in Melbourne, ranging from the large and public swaps like CERES and the Yarra Urban Harvest which happens once a month on parkland bordering Alexandra Parade, to smaller neighbourhood swaps such as the Bulleen Art and Garden (BAAG) monthly swap, and the Kildonan Fresh Food Swap, also held monthly on Sydney Rd, Coburg.

Veggie swaps are also popping up in other places, such as West Croydon in Adelaide. Bellingen had a veggie swap for a number of years.

And on 23rd June the first veggie swap was held at Sawtell Public School, from 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. As one of the organisers I really didn’t know what to expect – we thought only a few close friends might turn up, with perhaps a few bunches of parsley.

Nick and Juliet - the organisers!
Nick and Juliet – the organisers!

But we – and school principal, Michael Cheers – were very pleasantly surprised. Over 25 people of all ages attending, including students with their parents, but also neighbours and residents from the surrounding streets.

The crowd gathers in anticipation...
The crowd gathers in anticipation…


And we were delighted to welcome Dave Pepper, who travelled all the way from Glenifer, and brought a ute full of ‘naughty pumpkins’ (naughty because they burst out of the compost and rambled all over the garden), along with buckets of sweet limes, mandarins, chokos, sweet potatoes and tumeric.


Other produce included organic bananas from Orara, a wide selection of herbs, many lovingly tied in bundles (thyme, rosemary, parsley, mint, coriander, holy basil, Vietnamese mint and lemon myrtle); comfrey, lemon grass, ginger, rhubarb, packets of rocket and lettuce, chicory and salad burnet. The school exchanged broccoli seedlings, propagated Geraniums, and native Dendrobium kingianum pups.

The produce is on display...
The produce is on display…

And to top it all we even had jars of homemade sauerkraut. Not to mention homemade cakes and cookies, with cups of tea and coffee.

The sun shone brightly as we chatted amongst the thriving school garden nestled amongst the gum trees. The produce was laid out on trestle tables and introduced by those who brought it, and then the ‘swapping’ begun: all present filled their baskets with what they wanted. There was plenty to go round and some to spare.

Chatting in the Sawtell public school kitchen garden...
Chatting in the Sawtell public school kitchen garden…

Everyone enjoyed themselves; and everyone went home to tell a friend about it. The next swap will be on Sunday 21st July, from 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. If you want more information, write to Juliet Thomas, jtinthegarden@gmail.com.

Bootstrapping independent coffee roasting on the Coffs Coast

Amelia Franklin

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 22nd June, 2013

Sugar and tea was said to be the fuel that drove forward the workers in the mills and factories of England, as it led the world into the industrial revolution.

In our time, coffee has replaced milky tea as the beverage of choice for the white collar workers and entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the information technology and communications revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century.

But now, as then, the world is connected. Tea and sugar were produced somewhere, and that somewhere was often on large plantations were the workers were either indentured slaves or paid very little. Either way conditions were poor and the work was harsh.

Coffee is likewise often grown on large plantations, where the conditions are harsh and the pay is poor. Often, children labour in these plantations, picking the ripe red fruit that contains the green coffee beans alongside their parents and siblings.

The coffee industry globally has revenues in excess of $80 billion per annum. Most of the profits wind up in the hands of multinationals like Nestle and speculators on futures markets, while many coffee growers don’t earn enough to feed their children, let alone send them to school.

Amelia Franklin
Amelia Franklin

There is an ethical alternative, and it’s called fair trade coffee. In our region, Amelia Franklin is the embodiment of fair trade principles.

“When I went into coffee, I just wanted to do fair trade and organics, because I didn’t want to impact on anyone else, that was the main objective”, Amelia says. “I didn’t want to make my life and my son’s life good, at the expense of another family. That’s not OK. I’d rather be poor, and not have that knowledge that where the product is coming from is impacting on someone else’s family in another place to make a profit for myself.”

Amelia is a fiercely independent and values-driven young woman who owns and operates her own coffee roasting and grinding business, based in Bellingen. She has struggled every step of the way and overcome major obstacles, building during the course of 10 years an ethical business with significant sales and a staff of four, including herself. And as I will discuss in the second part of her story, her business directly supports the education of children and the equality of women, amongst many other benefits, in the regions where she sources her coffee: Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Sumatra, Ethiopia and Timor Leste.

Amelia entered the coffee business with no prior experience or mentoring. She even spent a year teaching herself how to roast coffee, after borrowing $20,000 to buy a 5-kilo coffee roaster from Turkey and a grinder; and selling her 1960 FB Holden to purchase a tonne of green beans.

The early days were daunting, even scary. “The whole garden was filled with coffee beans that were burnt or under-roasted”, Amelia recalls. “In that year I thought, What the hell have I done? I’ve screwed up big time, I’ve put myself into a lot of debt, and I don’t even know what I’m doing!”

“There were a lot of tears and fist-pounding on the floor”, she adds with a smile. “But people started to buy my coffee, and I got a couple of big customers in Sydney, and I thought, I must be doing something right.”

Her initial loan came via an equipment finance company, at an extortionate 18% interest rate. Because she had no job, no established business record and no assets, Amelia found herself with little option but to go down that route. It took her four years to clear the initial $20,000 loan, after she had repaid more than double the original amount in interest.

“Going into debt to start a business is not the best way forward”, she reflects ruefully. “It would be good if there were some sort of interest-free loans for start-up businesses”, she adds, pointing out that she has neither the experience or the time to spend long hours writing grant applications, and nor can she afford to employ someone to do that work for her.

Amelia Franklin’s story will be continued. Don’t forget the inaugural Sawtell Veggie Swap this Sunday, 23rd June, from 11.00 am – 2.00 p.m., at Sawtell Public School. Bring your surplus veggies, or just a plate to share!

A vacuum of political leadership on food policy in Australia

Questions for the Federal Government – and the Opposition

A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 8th June, 2013

Two weeks ago the Federal Government launched the National Food Plan White Paper, after nearly three years of preparatory work.

With colleagues at the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Food Alliance (Deakin University) Gene Ethics and the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, I have been going through the White Paper closely, in preparation for a briefing from the office of Minister for Agriculture Joe Ludwig.

So far we’ve come up with 10 pages of observations and over 50 specific questions. We’re not expecting the Minister’s office to address all of these in a 90 minute briefing, of course, but it should give you an idea of the extent of misgiving and disquiet about this Plan felt by the representatives of Australia’s Fair Food movement.

There are two headline targets of this Plan: an increase in Australia’s commodity exports to Asia of 45% by 2025; and an increase in agricultural productivity of 30% by the same date. Just in case the reader doesn’t get the message that this Plan is all about exports and productivity, it is rammed home through relentless repetition. The word ‘export’ and its derivations are mentioned 118 times in the 104 page document. ‘Productivity’ receives no fewer than 80 separate mentions.

The word ‘health’ and its derivations appear even more frequently – 140 times – but don’t be deceived: this plan is not mainly about health, or for that matter environmental sustainability. If we follow the money, nearly $40 million of the $42.8 million in new funding that this Plan represents is focused on growing exports and boosting productivity, with the largest chunk – $28.5 million – to be spent on researching Asian markets.

With the exception of the Community Food Initiatives and Food Literacy programmes ($1.5 million each) – which are welcome and somewhat unexpected inclusions, if symbolic rather than substantive – the whole question of health has been deferred to a National Nutrition Policy, work on which is slated to begin in 2014. Given that the Food Plan was intended to be an integrated, whole-of-government food policy, this is a major disappointment. Quite frankly, it’s a cave-in to big food lobbyists who always pushed for this outcome.

As well as side-stepping our health crisis, the Plan makes very light of climate change as a risk factor, and includes no targets or action plan for reducing the fossil fuel intensity of our food system. This is quite extraordinary, given that the latest data suggest that the Arctic may be ice-free in the summer within one or two years, contrary to the ‘worst-case’ projections of the International Panel on Climate Change that such an occurrence, with all its implications in terms of cascading non-linear feedback loops, would not happen before 2075.

Free trade is held up as the best and only route to happiness and prosperity. Meanwhile this week brought news that Simplot is threatening to close down its Devonport frozen food factory in the face of waves of cheap imports, with major consequences for Tasmanian growers. Ausveg rightly says that the loss of this capacity and with it many growers is a real threat to our food security.

Judging by the Food Plan, the Government is not concerned about such developments; and the Opposition’s only answer is that scrapping the carbon tax will solve all our problems. Such is the dearth of leadership on basic questions of our national security and our children’s future.

Veggie swaps - a growing phenomenon
Veggie swaps – a growing phenomenon

Meanwhile, some positive news on the local front. The first harvest swap in the Coffs Harbour region will take place at Sawtell Primary School on Sunday 23rd June, from 11.00 a.m. – 2. 00 p.m. If you have armfuls of surplus cabbage or kale, this is your chance to spread the love! (but keep the caterpillars at home!) If you want to attend, please contact Juliet Thomas, jtinthegarden@gmail.com