BETWEEN THE SUPER – and the farmers' markets is the middle ground – on which growers too small to deal with the supermarkets but with harvests too big to move at a once-a-week market stall find a fit with the new corner stores.
Not so many years ago, a farmer with a few pumpkins or lettuces to spare could take them to the big local supermarket. The fruit-and-veg manager would pay cash for the product and everyone, including shoppers, could sense the relationship between local producers and the local supermarket.
A couple of ‘progressive' steps soon put a stop to that. The first was supermarkets creating single distribution hubs – whereby apples grown in the Huon Valley, in southern Tasmania, would be trucked to Devonport, on the island's north coast, before being delivered all the way back to the supermarket in Huonville.
Then, from about 1999, Woolworths, quickly followed by Coles, began insisting that growers who supplied its supermarkets have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program. This system of checking the danger points in a process, developed by NASA to keep rockets in flight, was to be applied to food safety. In the case of the very small blueberry farm my partner was operating, it meant not merely sweeping the floor or checking the thermostat on the cool store, but ticking a box on the Good Manufacturing Practice Audit Checklist to say you had done so.
It was expensive. Initially, Woolworths subsidised a great deal of the training needed to set up the quality-assurance program, but annual auditing cost about a hundred dollars an hour, and even for the smallest grower it took about three hours. And the grower had to pay a share of the travel and accommodation costs of an auditor coming from the mainland.
In 1992, Phillip Andreatta, a grape grower who had been supplying Woolworths for twelve years, found his price being forced down: the supermarket chain would pay him only $22 for a box of grapes that was fetching eight dollars more at Flemington Markets. Andreatta could not simply stop supplying Woolworths – he had invested so much in Woolworths' quality-assurance scheme, he told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time.
In our case, after several years of paying quality-assurance expenses equal to about a third of the value of the fruit Woolworths was buying from us, we simply gave the program away. Our practices remained the same, but we no longer ticked the boxes – and we no longer supplied Woolworths.
Many other small-to-medium growers, who previously may have sold to their local big-chain supermarket, either did not start on the HACCP regimen or discarded it after a few years.
IN 2008, I was chasing a story about why a glut of cauliflowers that was wrecking the budgets of farmers was not translating into lots of cheap cauliflower cheese for consumers. Mike Badcock of Forth, in northern Tasmania, who grows caulis for the fresh market on a large scale, explained that growers allowed twelve weeks to grow a cauli in summer and twenty-six weeks in winter. A series of July days at a balmy 15 to 16 degrees ‘fooled them into ripening faster', he said. The fresh market was paying Badcock half as much per unit as it had at the same time the previous year.
Richard Bovill was a buyer of fresh produce for Woolworths before he led the Fair Dinkum Food Campaign in 2005, when 170 tractors, mostly from Tasmania, rolled into Canberra demanding support for Australian vegetable growers. In the middle of the cauli glut, I asked Bovill where the specials on the vegetable were. He said caulis are not suited to being on special – a national chain needs a long lead time to organise a special, which has to be available nationwide to suit advertising coverage, and cauliflowers need to be picked within three days of maturing. In the days when it was possible to have a state or even more localised special, supermarkets could take advantage of a cauli glut. Then, cauliflowers were cut in the field and fifty or sixty placed in bins that were delivered to the supermarket.
Now, quality-assurance programs specify that cauliflowers must be packed in waxed cardboard cartons, adding the best part of forty cents to the cost of each cauliflower; the leaves have to be trimmed, which cannot be done in the field, so a packing shed and more staff are required. Handling systems and compliance regimens ‘trying to take cost out of the system for the retailers have almost doubled the price of cauliflowers', Bovill said.
‘In a world where we look at efficiency and greenhouse-friendliness, we've gone and loaded ourselves up with waxed cartons and layers of stuff that in a lot of cases has made fresh produce much, much dearer than it used to be. It is the reason smaller shops and wholesalers are often cheaper than the big players – because they can still buy produce the old way.'
The major supermarkets prefer to deal only with larger growers who can supply greater volumes, year-round. I know of one Tasmanian tomato grower who would prefer not to cultivate them in hothouses in winter, but must if he is to maintain supermarket access for the tomatoes grown in summer.
THE TRACTORS ROLLED for the Fair Dinkum Food Campaign belonged to farmers who grow for the frozen-processed-vegetables market, which is by far the biggest horticulture sector in Tasmania. The supermarkets' constraints leave those producers operating on a small but commercial scale looking for other outlets, especially farmers' markets. There are about two hundred registered with the Australian Farmers' Market Association. They are credited with saviour status for niche producers, but this is not really the case.
Our farm is a handful of hectares, yet we grow between six and fourteen tonnes of blueberries a year – far too many, even in the leanest year, to move from a stall in a farmers' market, whatever the attraction of making a retail, rather than wholesale, price. We also grow strawberries and garlic, but there would not be more than a couple of weekends in a year when we could offer even this much variety.
I talked to an organic grower of potatoes who sells two-thirds of his annual crop on the conventional market at conventional prices, because potatoes are oversupplied in organic markets. I asked him if he ever sold his potatoes at the nearest farmers' market, two hours' drive away. ‘It's a day getting ready, a day at the market and a day unpacking – it's just not viable in terms of wages,' he said.
Some farmers' markets are less pure than others about insisting that the stallholder has grown or made the produce – but assuming everyone is playing fair, a farmers' market suits a particular type of grower, and it is not the farmer specialising in large quantities of just a few different crops. John Russell brings a truckload of vegetables to the Burnie Farmers' Market on the first, third and fifth Saturdays of the month. He puts up no price signs, relying just on his Con the Fruiterer spiel, and always he sells out. But his farm near Railton also supplies his own fruit-and-veg shops in Launceston and Railton.
Brett and Simone Connors go to Burnie and Devonport farmers' markets on alternate weekends. They grow ‘just about everything that's on the table', which includes cauliflower, cabbage, pumpkin and potato, and buy in capsicums and strawberries from neighbours. But they do not rely on the market for their income; they also raise cattle and sheep at their farm at Lower Barrington.
Sainsbury's supermarkets in Britain sometimes turn their car parks over to farmers' markets, something Australian supermarkets have not yet emulated, but Delicacy, a small food shop in Launceston, holds a farmers' market in its car park ever other Sunday. The shop is far busier on market mornings than on the days when there's no market, and the synergy works for market stallholders.
Frank Archer told me most of his family's Landfall branded lamb and beef was sold through Delicacy, so in June 2008, they began selling at the farmers' market as well. In six months, sales of lamb increased five-fold and they were selling twelve times as many sausages.
It is a rare thing for a producer to be wholly reliant on a farmers' market for their income. Bruce and Clare Jackson run Yorktown Organics, a market garden near the mouth of the Tamar River, in northern Tasmania. The farm produces a hundred lines, which may be different versions of a single vegetable. Beetroot, for instance, is sold as sprouts, as baby leaves, as baby beets and as mature beetroot.
Bruce Jackson's entire farm is one hectare outside and 0.3 of a hectare under glass. He explained, ‘We grow high-value product – leafy stuff – tat soy, wild rocket, tomatoes, soft fruit, apples, new potatoes. What we do is very diverse; we're not relying on one thing, not reliant on a crop. It would be very hard for a guy who can't see the fence at the other end of his fifty-acre paddock to really understand what I am on about. It's a different mindset.'
Jackson doesn't sell to major supermarkets, nor does he stand behind a stall at a farmers' market. He has a farm-gate shop, and sells directly to restaurants and smaller retailers. He says selling his produce this way prevents him from being forced into lowering prices: unlike the process growers, he is the price-setter.
FORTUNATELY FOR PROFESSIONAL Tasmanian farmers who fall between the super– and the farmers' markets, there are many small, high-end retail outlets in the state for their produce – retailers who have actually been helped by the practices of the big players that exclude or deter small and medium-sized growers. John Price was the owner of the Dover store, in Tasmania's far south, when supermarkets opened in the state in the 1960s. He acted ‘boldly' to meet the challenge: out went the gelignite, drapery, shelves to the ceiling and letting purchases mount up on credit (about 95 per cent of customers paid their bills only once a month). In came trolleys and baskets, shoulder-high shelves and pay-as-you-go.
To meet this latest wave of supermarket domination, smaller stores have concentrated on quality goods, their own cooked fare, a good deli. They carry your bags to the car and know your name – and they buy locally from suppliers and growers who do not produce enough for the big supermarkets.
Among the earlier adapters was Hill Street Grocer, formerly a corner shop in West Hobart, which a decade ago morphed into a high-end food store specialising in fresh produce. There is only a small space devoted to fresh produce, but the turnover is much greater than the area suggests, and three or four people are employed to constantly replenish the display. In summer, Hill Street boasts that more than three-quarters of its fresh produce is Tasmanian.
Another type of retailer helping small producers are the hunters and collectors, such as Jonathan Cooper of the All Organic Farm, whose main outlet is a stall at Salamanca Market on a Saturday. Cooper doesn't have a farm, but collects produce from a couple of dozen local organic producers, as well as mainland growers and organic wholesalers, and sells it on. It means farmers are not giving up precious time to stand behind a market stall, and customers have a wide range of produce to choose from.
The gut feeling of these growers and retailers occupying the middle ground was not the same as the conclusion reached by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission's inquiry into the competitiveness of retail prices for standard groceries. The inquiry focused on whether a lack of competition was the reason for concerns that the gap between what's paid to farmers and what's paid at the checkout was widening at the expense of the farmers, and whether it threatened the viability of small, family-run supermarkets and small greengrocers, butchers, bakers and delis.
Rather than finding excessive mark-ups on goods, the ACCC blamed increases in food prices on drought, weather catastrophes, an international commodities boom, and increases in petrol and fertiliser costs. It found that only a third of Australians did all their meat and fish shopping at the supermarket – a third went to some smaller shops as well as the supermarket, and a quarter did all their shopping at smaller shops.
Research commissioned by Meat & Livestock Australia and presented to the inquiry found that in the past seven years there had been a marked increase in the amount of money Australians spent on fresh food – up 42 per cent for meat, 38 per cent for fruit and 37 per cent for vegetables. This was not because prices for fresh food had shot up, but because more people were cooking at home and looking for seasonal food produced locally. The research found much of the additional spend went to independent retailers.
The federal government's immediate response to the ACCC inquiry was to set up the website GroceryChoice, which was to compare the price of a basket of groceries at major supermarkets and independents. Then the consumer organisation Choice was to take over the website, and provide a more useful service: a consumer would be able to bring up a couple of supermarkets in their area, enter their shopping list and compare the prices. Just six days before the Choice website was to be launched, the Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, Craig Emerson, pulled the plug on the project. In a submission to the Senate Economics References Committee Inquiry into the GroceryChoice website, Choice said it still was ‘not clear why the decision to terminate the project was taken and firmly believes that it was the wrong decision'. It said some major supermarkets did not co-operate, but also the ‘lack of political will to seek legislative and non-legislative solutions had a detrimental impact on the ability of Choice to deliver the website the public wanted'. This leaves the introduction of unit pricing as the only outcome of the ACCC inquiry.
In southern Tasmania, independent stores fared poorly in the ACCC survey, and were consistently more expensive than Coles or Woolworths, the only majors in the island state. But to get on to GroceryChoice's radar, an independent had to have more than a hundred square metres of floor space. In Western Australia, independents of this size make up a third of supermarkets; in Tasmania, there are only two – 5 per cent of the market – and the we-try-harder small retailers did not make the cut.
Another survey, PriceWatch, comes out of Labor MP Duncan Kerr's Hobart electorate of Denison. It compares a basket of specified items at specified Woolworths and Coles stores in the electorate, and in 2007, for the first time, surveyed small independents as well. It found the smaller shops were cheaper for five of eight fresh items, and overall – figures that ‘completely dispel the myth that shopping at small grocers is always more expensive', said Kerr's office. A year later the PriceWatch survey of twenty-two stores showed a difference of $18 between the cheapest and most expensive baskets – both extremes coming from independents.
What's more, choosing the family-run supermarkets, greengrocers, butchers, bakers and delis ranged between the super– and micro-retailers also supports the growers and producers who occupy the middle ground between the twenty-hectare paddock and a garden.
For us, the ability to sell to smaller, specialised shops, and to the market stalls that collect from a number of growers, has meant we sell our entire crop, at good prices, without needing to tick boxes and pay someone to make sure we've done so under a quality-assurance program – nor to take time out in the middle of managing pickers and packers during a busy harvest to set up shop at a farmers' market.