Lockdowns cause havoc for small food producers

Luke Winder with Bresse chickens at his Tathra Place Free Range farm in NSW. Winder has been forced to freeze thousands ...
Luke Winder with Bresse chickens at his Tathra Place Free Range farm in NSW. Winder has been forced to freeze thousands of ducks while restaurants are in lockdown. Photo: Louise Kennerley

When a state goes into lockdown and restaurants close, there's a domino effect on the small artisan producers whose main customers are chefs. All of a sudden, a farmer will have hundreds of eggs that need a home, or a week's worth of sheep's milk that will soon spoil.

Luke Winder found himself with 6,500 free-range ducks when Sydney's lockdown was called in June. His Tathra Place farm near Taralga in the NSW Southern Tablelands receives 92 per cent of its business from restaurants and hospitality venues in Melbourne and Sydney.

Duck is something that daunts many home cooks, so Winder was forced to freeze 5,000 birds. Now he's hoping that when lockdowns lift, the premium restaurants he usually supplies will drop their aversion to using frozen products, at least for a couple of weeks.

Maremma ducks at Tathra Place Free Range.
Maremma ducks at Tathra Place Free Range.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

"It's still fantastic," says the regenerative farmer. "Let's not waste this. It's literally an award-winning product."

Just a few kilometres from the NSW-Victorian border, Lauren Mathers of Bundarra Berkshires raises 350 pigs on her own regenerative farm, supplying restaurants including Sydney's Firedoor and Hazel in Melbourne.

Chefs seek out Mathers' pork for its superior quality and ethical guarantee. But when Sydney and Melbourne are both in lockdown, the butcher is in a tight spot.

Wessex Saddleback and Tokyo X Pigs at the Tathra Place Free Range family farm.
Wessex Saddleback and Tokyo X Pigs at the Tathra Place Free Range family farm.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

"We're relying on people at home to order from us," she says. "If they're not, the restaurants are closed and retail is flat. Someone's got to buy the meat."

Bundarra launched an online store last year and, in the early stages of the pandemic, it was as busy as the Christmas period. But orders tapered off about 12 months ago and haven't recovered.

COVID-19 lockdowns have rippled up and down the east of Australia over the last six weeks, with more than 15 million people under stay-at-home orders at the peak of the outbreaks.

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Businesses everywhere have been left scrambling, making the call-to-arms of Aussie Artisan Week more relevant than ever before. The celebration of specialist food producers launches on Monday and the message is simple: buy direct and buy local as often you can.

Pepe Saya butter boss and Aussie Artisan Week co-founder Pierre Issa says restaurants are a link between specialist producers and consumers that has been disrupted by lockdowns.

"Now, it's important for Aussie artisans to find ways to take their product to the people directly. Australians need to understand the value proposition of buying artisan products, and the importance that has for our food culture."

Michael and Cressida Cains, founders of Pecora Dairy in Robertson, NSW.
Michael and Cressida Cains, founders of Pecora Dairy in Robertson, NSW. Photo: Lean Timms

Every direct sale puts an extra 35 per cent in the pocket of Mathers at Bundarra Berkshires. Meanwhile,Victoria's Prom Coast Food Collective – a one-stop shop for Gippsland produce – gives 90 cents to farmers from every $1 that consumers spend.

"This is about a fair price for food going to the right people – the people that are making food and growing it in a way that supports the environment," says Sally Ruljancich, who co-founded the collective with fellow farmer Amelia Bright in 2017.

Ruljancich and Bright created Prom Coast Food Collective as a convenient way for consumers to access produce from multiple small farmers in a single transaction online.

Mould-ripened cheese from Pecora Dairy.
Mould-ripened cheese from Pecora Dairy. Photo: Lean Timms

By a stroke of luck, they decided to trial weekly home deliveries before the pandemic, replacing the system of collection points they had previously used. Home delivery is now permanent, allowing more than 50 South Gippsland producers to send their goods to homes all over Melbourne and as far as Bendigo.

But for Prom Country Cheese, part of the group, home orders aren't enough to make up for the 40 per cent of revenue that usually comes from hospitality.

Two Victorian lockdowns in quick succession have left owners Bronwyn and Burke Brandon with four tonnes of award-winning cheese that will soon be past its prime. They can either deep discount a product that takes six months to mature, or watch it spoil. The couple are now unsure how much cheese to produce for next year.

Free-range sheep at Pecora Dairy in Robertson.
Free-range sheep at Pecora Dairy in Robertson. Photo: Supplied

"As a farm producer, we've got milk to process regardless of what orders we get," says Burke Brandon. "We set up production 12 months in advance with our breeding."

Winder of Tathra Place agrees. "We can't just flick the lights off and send the staff home like restaurants can. Primary producers can't turn the tap off."

Meanwhile at Pecora Dairy in the NSW Southern Highlands, farmer Michael Cains says multiple sales channels for his sheep's milk cheese helps to smooth the bumps of lockdowns. Pecora is also surviving by collaborating with other brands such as Pepe Saya to offer home-delivery boxes.

"We're not worried by lockdowns anymore," says Cains. "Come what may, we know we have a more resilient business."

While artisan businesses continue to adapt, Cains says it's also time for consumers to also shift their behaviour in greater numbers."

"If people really want to support farmers and artisans the best way to do that is to go online, and buy something from the business directly. Or visit a really good cheesemonger or deli and seek out Australian brands. It makes such a huge difference."

Groceries to buy direct

These days almost any food you can think of is produced in NSW and Victoria. Here are some essentials to get you started with buying local.

VICTORIA

Eggs

Order 12 Good Eggs online (12goodeggs.farm) or visit the Honest Eggs website for a list of stockists (honesteggs.com.au).

Meat

Order direct from Cherry Tree Organics for beef and lamb (cherrytreeorganics.com.au) or Bundarra Berkshires for pork (bundarraberkshires.com.au). Look for Milawa, Bannockburn and other Victorian chicken producers at independent butchers.

Salt

Mount Zero create pink lake salt in partnership with Wimmera traditional owners, Barengi Gadjin Land Council (mountzero.com.au).

Olive oil

Victoria is full of groves. Try Grampians Estate, Nullamunjie, Cape Schanck and Highlands Estate. Buy From The Bush has even more (buyfromthebush.com.au).

Flour

Go for grains grown on the Mornington Peninsula by Tuerong (tuerongfarm.com.au) or flour from leading miller Laucke in central Victoria (laucke.com.au).

Condiments

Skip the multinational brands and try Mayver's peanut butter at the supermarket or order Jam Lady's jam (jamladyjam.com.au), Tumami savoury spread (stali.com.au) or Bomb Ass chilli oil (hdfoods.com.au).

Milk and yoghurt

Can be tricky to order direct, but look for brands such as Gippsland Jersey, Schulz Organic and Demeter at the supermarket.

One-stop shop

Prom Coast Food Collective lets you shop for fresh food from dozens of farmers in South Gippsland for home delivery (openfoodnetwork.org.au/prom-coast-food-co-op/shop).

NSW

Eggs

Happy grass-fed hens enjoy the true meaning of free range at Holbrook Paddock Eggs near Albury. Visit the holbrookpaddockeggs.com.au for a wide range of stockists.

Meat

Order beef, chicken and pork from Tathra Place Free Range's subscription box (tathraplacefreerange.com). Farmgate to Plate offers a one-stop-shop with information on each farmer (farmgatetoplate.net.au) and Feather and Bone deliver ethically-sourced NSW meat across Sydney (featherandbone.com.au).

Salt

The Olsson clan has been producing sea salt since 1948 and the company is still 100 per cent family-owned. Visit olssons.com.au to buy table salt, flakes and lemon zest rubs.

Olive oil

Try Pukara Estate from the Hunter, Alto in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range or head to Buy From The Bush for more options (buyfromthebush.com.au).

Flour

High quality organic white, wholemeal, spelt and rye flours from Gunnedah's Demeter Farm Mill can be bought online at Honest to Goodness (goodness.com.au).

Condiments

Skip the multinational brands and order the Sydney "mate's pack" from condiment-making pals Lulu's Remedy and Hotluck (hotluck.club). Includes kimchi hot sauce, chilli oil and a spicy tomato-barbecue collaboration.

Milk and yoghurt

Can be tricky to order direct, but look for brands such as The Little Big Dairy Co and Riverina Fresh, plus farmer cooperative-owned Norco at the supermarket.

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