Each Saturday morning my phone vibrates next to my bed with a dorky digital jingle alarm going off. My fumbling hand reaches out, desperately searching for the snooze button. I kiss my sleeping beauty good morning, then roll out of bed to brew a stove top coffee in the old metal pot. I wake my two daughters, who are often deep in child dream land. They could happily sleep for a few more hours but annoying Dad wakes them for work. They’re pretty good about it actually, they know Saturday deliveries are important to me, they also know at drop off number 2 they're almost guaranteed to be sharing a croissant. We eat breakfast in the dark, even though it’s too early to be hungry. I slam down that boiling hot coffee and we load up the frozen food from the large chest freezer. We then head down a few country roads to the Real Egg farm in our sleepy town of Yandoit whilst listening to the Fresh Produce market report on ABC 774 radio. The eggs are stored in a refrigerated shipping container with what seems like vacuum sealed doors, those that are a struggle to open when you’re half asleep. With eggs and meat in the van we drive to Captains Creek Organic farm to grab the veg boxes from the cool room. On hot mornings, it’s nice to feel the freezing temperature of the climate controlled room. The boxes are loaded up, the kids try to help load but often can’t lift the heavy produce. We leave the farm just as the sun rises over the eastern skyline of the Pinot and Chardonnay vineyard.
On our way south through the back roads, we pass a beautiful rural backdrop of wide open paddocks filled with sheep and cattle grazing on the morning dew covered grass. In late Summer and Autumn the low morning sun delicately touches the paddocks, light tan in colour, and dry from lack of rain and cracked soil. At the end of a long road we stop heading south and make our first easterly turn, without fail we all get blinded by the eastern sunlight and instantly flip down the visors. Like a hungry trout, I strike the window squirter in an effort to wash my dusty, dirty and bug covered windscreen, which suddenly appears more putrid now that I’m driving directly into the sunlight. Water on the screen just makes things worse and I squirt litres of water until I no longer feel like I need to physically kick the windscreen out to see the road in front of me.
Before we reach the highway, we pass fields of volcanic soil covered in lush green acres of potatoes that have been irrigated all summer, but are unfortunately and headed for the local factory to make shit processed foods that undoubtedly make people unhealthy. There isn’t much traffic on the roads, but once we hit the highway towards Melbourne we’re passed by many 18 wheeler semi-trailers of supermarket trucks headed the opposite direction for all the usual suspects; Woolworths, Aldi, Coles, Foodworks and IGA. Many trucks that are full of food that’s really not doing many favours regarding our nation’s health. These massive trucks make my delivery van seem so insignificant in the scheme of things. I try to count them as I drive to town, but always lose my place by the time I reach the West Gate bridge. It’s always in double figures. Seems funny that I’m heading to the city and the city is delivering food to where the food is grown. It’s a funny system when you can’t buy local produce in a country supermarket, instead it’s come from thousands of miles away.
Despite food politics, veg delivery day is always a treat. The people make it special. I love the conversations, the stories about how the ingredients of the veg box have been used in cooking and how much the freshness is appreciated. It’s encouraging to hear how much the regular customers love this system, the value for money and the fact that it’s grown in a natural manner, it’s organic principles ensuring people are eating food that fits into a logical natural approach. Important for human and ecological health.
The last season was a bit tough, we just didn’t get the numbers. And this is a problem I thought I’d share. Not because I’m fishing for sympathy but because from a business and resource sense it’s becoming less viable and ends up a bit wasteful. Allow me to explain the system. Rod the farmer grows the veg and has been doing it for 30 years, so he has a pretty good idea of how much food he needs to sow each Spring. Even with his experienced estimate there's always a risk of planting more than you can sell. He does his best and subsequently rows and rows of beautiful vegetables are planted, then nurtured for months until the first delivery in January.
Each week the website is open for customers’ orders, a manifest is collated and the veg is picked and packed on Fridays to be delivered on Saturdays. It’s a really basic system, no long-term sign ups, just order when you need it. We have tried a subscription process but people just kept forgetting to pick up the veg they automatically paid for, which is cool for free money but doesn’t fit into my view of food waste because the box they had ordered never got picked up. And yes, we looked into smaller boxes, they just don’t offer the variety and practicality. We suggest to customers they share a box or gift away excess produce instead.
Our system that we’ve applied for the last five seasons means less waste than the risky alternative of selling at markets where you pick a bunch of produce and head to a market with the risk of not selling it all. At the end of the day the excess produce can sometimes end up as compost as it doesn’t keep really well, and is then difficult to find commercial options to sell excess. It also doesn’t keep that well on a farmers-market table on display all day in the heat, so it’s not as fresh by the end of the day. The online ordering system means we only pick what the customers want. The rest keeps growing happily in the soil until it’s needed. But there’s a problem with that system too. There is always risk, the risk of waste.
Over the last two seasons, support for the veg boxes has dwindled. Less orders results in good vegetables going to seed or rotting out in the fields. I'll use one veg as an example. If we don’t get enough orders for broccoli during those crucial few weeks that a particular staggered planting of broccoli is ready, then it just flowers and goes to seed, a wasted resource. Rod does a pretty good job of estimating what we need, and tries to find alternative buyers, but the reality is every now and then we have an excess of produce especially when we don’t get enough orders. From a financial aspect, no small business survives when profits don’t exceed the outlays of any type, time, effort, financials and even emotions.
I love the veg box system for many reasons. I feel like I’m actively doing my bit to change the broken food system, I’m walking the walk, not just talking the talk, Rod’s been doing it for over 30 years, that’s inspirational.
I love hearing how much the produce is appreciated. I love getting gifts of home-made relish, sourdough bread and the excited looks of amazement on the faces of fist time customers that can’t believe how much organic food there is for only $55 clams. But my enthusiasm is waning. I’m finding it more and more difficult to get out of bed so early on a Saturday morning when, to be honest I could be spending the weekend with my family and partner. For half a year, every year, I can’t go away and do fun things on weekends, and that sucks sometimes, especially when you get a case of FOMO looking at your mates on some weekend adventure you can’t go on. FOMO sucks.
Personally speaking, I work during the week in an office, so like most people my weekends are precious. An 8-hour delivery shift on a Saturday is not most people’s idea of a perfect weekend. Not trying to be a pity party, it’s been my choice to run this business, but I’m sure you get the point I’m making. I feel some level of guilt with the thought of shutting it down, because there is a small, dedicated group of folks that really do love it weekly delivery. But I just don’t know if it’s viable anymore, and that’s disappointing on a few levels. Firstly, when I started this business there wasn’t much on offer for people that wanted to see a change in the food system, it was a great outlet for people to support a better future. With less orders over the years it seems like there are less people that want to make change or maybe there are more options available, whatever the case is, either way, we’re just getting less support. That’s ok, no one can make another person make certain choices, that’s an individuals choice. So, what do I do? I’ve printed posters, handed out flyers, asked for word of mouth help and used my social media outlets to encourage more clients. But it’s just not working. I know other people in this industry that also struggle, and they do everything, the growing, logistics and marketing. We have about 8-9 weeks remaining for this season, we have the capacity to pack many more boxes each week than we are but each week we get a measly 30 or so boxes ordered. I haven’t decided yet which is the best course of action, but a Saturday sleep in is starting to look pretty enticing.
And don’t think I don’t appreciate the support over the years. There’s a reason why I’m still delivering on Saturdays other than the pocket money. It’s you guys that appreciate the produce in the city where the options for real food, good food aren’t always amazing. And where organic food is ridiculously expensive when it doesn’t need to be, as evident with our dirty veg boxes. Anyway, just thought I’d share a little personal side of where your food comes from and some of the challenges that exist that you may not be aware of. It’s a reality that we often forget as food consumers. That other humans are impacted by the choices we make. No one is perfect and I’m not having a go, just sharing as I often do…. probably too much.
There is a delivery this Saturday and next (25TH), then I'm having a weekend off. Sorry! I'll be returning on SAT 8TH. Hopefully I'll see the season out until May, but if things keep going the way they are, I think I might reluctantly pull the pin.