To market: Grower Bill Henderson has high hopes for his spuds.
To market: Grower Bill Henderson has high hopes for his spuds. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Roslyn Grundy

Potatoes grow easily in the fertile red volcanic soil around Trentham, Daylesford and Ballarat. The problem is selling them.

Bill Henderson's family has been farming the gently undulating property at Tylden in central Victoria for three generations - but he says the number of spud farmers in his district has dwindled to a few.

"It doesn't matter whether it's spuds or practically any kind of farming that you do, you can't really make any money out of it." Since 2012, when frozen foods giant McCain Foods dropped Henderson's contract, he's been forced to sell his crop on the open market. It hasn't been easy.

But the arrival of Spade & Barrow may offer some hope.

Founded by charismatic Englishwoman Katy Barfield in November 2012, the social enterprise aims to keep family farmers on their land by buying produce direct at a fair price and selling to businesses at less than wholesale.

The same week news broke that the federal government had decided not to offer a lifeline to Shepparton cannery SPC Ardmona, Barfield visited Goulburn Valley growers to see whether Spade & Barrow could help.

So far, about 100 schools, kindergartens, restaurants and bars have signed up - among them Iberian-inspired bar-restaurant Bomba, social enterprise food business StrEAT and St Ali, with cafes in South Melbourne and Carlton North. Most have learnt of it by word of mouth.

Bomba chef Andrew Fisk gets most of his fresh produce through Spade & Barrow - staples such as onions, garlic and carrots, and seasonal fruit such as stone fruit, apples and pears.

"I think it's really important to look after the local farmers," he says. "It reduces food miles so we're not wasting a lot of money on transport; the farmers get a fair price, we get a better price and the customer gets a product that's fresh and local … It makes sense on a heap of levels."

Having already established food rescue group SecondBite, Barfield is acutely aware of the issue of food waste. Supermarket buyers, who control up to 60 per cent of Australia's fresh food market, reject more than 320,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables every year because they're too big, too small, misshapen or the wrong colour. Spade & Barrow buys fruit and vegetables of all shapes and sizes, which it sells under the name Nature's Grade, reasoning "not every carrot can be a supermodel".

Rob Auger, food services manager at StrEAT, says if they're making cauliflower and cheese croquettes, it doesn't matter whether some of the caulis start off 150 grams smaller than regular supermarket specimens - they're going to be cut up anyway.

Barfield has bold plans for Spade & Barrow. Eventually, she hopes to supply Australian-grown produce to prisons, hospitals and other institutions funded by the public purse, replicating the business model in other states.

But her aim isn't simply to run an all-Australian wholesale fruit and veg business. "We want to disrupt the food system because it's broken. We want to do that by offering farmers a fair farmgate price for the majority of their crop, not just for the 60 per cent of their crop that looks aesthetically perfect."