Getting Produce To Customers

Creating healthy food for families is a skill that takes time to master. I’m a big believer in continuous improvement, so after many years working at this craft, I find there is so much to learn.

The first product I was proud to share with customers was our Pasture Raised Chickens. I remember thinking at the time I had made it! All I had to do now was hand it over for customers to enjoy and I would be on my way to farming full time.

It was a real shock to learn I wasn’t even halfway there.

The laws, the rules, the regulations, the audits.

‘Is that an approved transport vehicle? Did you get a certificate for that? Was it inspected? Do you have a licence to sell that here? Did you pay all the necessary fees? You might get a fine.’

Don’t get me wrong, safe handling of food is critical in any food operation, but it felt as though I was handling dangerous explosives, not food. I expected regulation services to help guide me towards my goals, but the experience left me believing it would be better for everyone if I just gave up and went away.

I would watch my kids devour and grow strong on our Pasture Raised Chickens and wonder why it was so hard to make this available to others. I mean, people should have the right to choose what food they want to eat, it’s your body after all, right?

I then began to explore farmers markets. They had grown significantly over the past few years and it was very encouraging as a farmer to see a growing customer base care enough about quality food to support these platforms.

I reached out to a few markets to find out how I could join. Some were full and wouldn’t take new farmers - fair enough. Other organisers wouldn’t allow me to bring all the produce I had to offer. ‘You can sell some chickens, but not the pork or beef. We have plenty of that already.’

I can understand the need to balance variety of produce at a market, but what if the beef or pork I’m bringing is better? Shouldn’t the customer decide what produce is wanted at their local market?

Another thing, and i know this opinion will not be popular, I noticed most people who attended farmers markets didn’t really do their food shopping there. A strange thing to say, right? But I really felt it was true. Don’t get me wrong, I will serve anyone who wants to support a local farmer, but the markets I attended seemed more of a social function rather than a place where food shopping for the week or month was being done. A great day out and lots of fun, but as a seller who was only allowed to bring a small portion of his produce, was this going to be a viable option?

The way I approached going direct to customers simply got too complicated. What about selling to retail outlets directly?

I spent a lot of time on the phone just cold calling businesses. Restaurants, butchers, cafe’s, you name it. I was driving all over Melbourne giving out samples. I got to meet many people, some chefs I had even seen on TV. The response was incredible and I could see the quality of my food changing others in the same way it had changed me.

Everyone was very excited … that is util we talked price. This taught me something very important. Many high-end retail outlets, for all the advertising that states otherwise, know very little about how food is actually made/raised/created. In fact, on closer inspection, some were simply customers of large corporate wholesalers and paying cheap wholesale prices. They expected me to compete at the same financial level and I naively shaved off what I could (big mistake) to get the business.

No one is at fault here, I simply want to demonstrate the disconnect inside our food system. I’ve learned my most valuable lessons in life by taking hits like this.

A few went ahead with orders and I started to sell more Pasture Raised Chickens. I now had day old chicks to raise on back order, I built a larger brooder to cater for more birds and slowly but surely a regular supply was going out every two weeks. The only person I engaged with directly was the business owner, who for the most part was more focused on the balance sheet (understandable) and they constantly complained how expensive my product was (I was lucky to break even) and that their customers had little to no interest in my produce and that they were in fact doing me the favour. Interestingly, they also complained why my next delivery was taking so long.

To add insult to injury, one particular retailer had removed my labels. Why would a customer want to know the farmer? What if they go direct to you and I miss out on the business?

Not every experience was bad, but I knew this path was not for me and it wasn’t financially feasible to continue. Most of my working relationships ended on good terms, but some negative calls and emails came through. Turns out my produce had waiting lists and some retail stores were making promises on my behalf as to availability. What were they going to do now? ‘It’s all your fault!’

I was fast learning the business of food - it was big and messy and scary. All I wanted to do was regenerate land by feeding people healthy food. I became dejected with the industry and returned to working off farm to keep things financially balanced for the family.

The seasons turn and the grass grows. My cattle numbers started to increase and they were thriving on our pastures.

What to do with all this amazing pasture raised beef?

I had never sold directly to an abattoir before and now was the opportunity to try. It paid the least, but it’s a lot easier as a producer. No fees, no delivery costs, no butchering costs, no packing, no labelling. But my beautiful pasture raised beef is bundled in with feedlot beef; in fact it gets down graded in price per kilo because it has yellow fat (caused by beta carotene found in grass grown cattle - healthier for cattle and people) and not white fat (found in grain raised cattle). When I questioned why this was bad the response was, ‘It’s not what the market wants.’

The worst part of this model is that it puts me as far away as possible from my customers. In the last two years we have seen wild quail and native birds return to the land because of our holistic farming practices. An incredible result! How will you ever know this happened when you are so far away from the source of your food? No, I want to have customers as close as possible to me. I want you to know it’s because you chose to spend your food budget to support a regenerative farmer to make things like this happen. I imagine a future where land degradation is resolved by sending in the worlds best farmers instead of scientists - this will only happen with a direct connection to the land.

It all hasn’t been doom and gloom. One of our most successful experiences was partnering with a home delivery service. The customer feedback was incredible! The convenience for so many time-poor people was something I had underestimated and it meant customers could easily buy enough produce at once to last a week or a month or more.

All of these models have a place and I have learned a lot from each one. It has helped shape our priorities for serving customers directly and to find new and innovative models that can scale.

We are now planning to licence an on-farm storage facility that will allow us to meet demand - who knows, maybe one day we can expand to have our own retail store and even offer employment.

I sure can dream big and no doubt there are many challenges ahead; nothing worthwhile is ever easy. But anything seems possible when we have our family, our friends and our valued customers together on this journey with us.

Steve ZezosComment