July 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Soiled goods

By John Birmingham
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The dimpled orange, bursting with sweetness, that you cut for your breakfast this morning had been dying from the moment it was plucked from its twig. Human hands might have grabbed it from the branch, or perhaps a giant mechanical harvester shook the whole tree like a small, localised earthquake. But whatever the method of harvest, the fruit began losing nutrients, flavour and texture at that very moment. To preserve the little golden orb from the ravages of entropy, it was probably sprayed with a weak solution of sodium hypochlorite (liquid laundry bleach), and depending on how far it journeyed before reaching your hands, it may have sat in cold storage for weeks, travelling by road and rail from an orchard on the far side of the world, to a seaport in Florida, or Chile, into the hold of a cargo ship, before entering the logistics chain for whichever wholesaler supplied the supermarket, corner shop or local fruit-and-veggie place where you reached out and plucked it for the last time.

Not only had your orange, and your bananas, your sweet potatoes, your celery and strawberries and asparagus all been deteriorating from the moment they were harvested, their carbon footprints had also been growing at an alarming rate, as ever more petrol and coal was burned to bring them to you in a pleasing state. At every stage in their journey, as they drew further and further away from the farm where they were grown, costs began to accumulate in layers around them until they landed in your shopping basket, swollen with the percentage of every middleman and facilitator who played a role in their delivery. One of the smallest cuts went to the farmer who actually grew your food.

The contradictions inherent in that long, winding, inequitable and slightly crazy way of feeding people provided the motive power for a small group of food crusaders in south-east Queensland to try something new. Or rather, old. In a drab-looking, iron-roofed warehouse hidden away in one of Brisbane’s anonymous southern suburbs, surrounded by furniture wholesalers, abandoned lumber yards and small factories, the macro-evangelists of Food Connect sit like a small piece of viral code in the enormously bloated operating system of the city’s food-distribution networks.

“We’re just trying to give farmers a place where they can get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” says Robert Pekin, not so much the boss of this heroically non-hierarchical outfit as perhaps its conspirator-in-chief. “We’ve got to break the stranglehold that Coles and Woolies have on our food. They make out that they’re doing us all a favour, and they’re oh-so-cheap, but they’re not. They add up to 800% in mark-up from the farm gate, where we add a maximum of 100%.”

The first thing you notice on arrival at Food Connect HQ is not the pallets of root vegetables or the massive stacks of recycled cardboard boxes. It’s the small, chaotic fort constructed of children’s toys and old cushions, where workers can safely corral their kids while they attend to the business of getting organic produce from small, family farms into the hands of the network’s 2000 subscribers as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The business is not run for profit. Its guiding principles are more communal and … well, it has to be said … hippie-ish. Costs are kept low by using a lot of second-hand equipment. Fix ’n’ mend is a constant mantra. The 40 employees elect the board, the company pays a living wage, and rather than fattening the returns for shareholders or executives, any surplus funds might find their way into a ‘land trust’ to pay for the purchase of good acreage, near the city, which can be farmed forever.

It’s that question of proximity, rather than simply just sourcing organic produce from anywhere, which sets Food Connect apart. All of the network’s farmers can be found within five hours of Brisbane, collapsing the costs of those huge logistics chains involved in supplying the major supermarkets.

“And rather than picking only the prettiest looking carrots or potatoes,” says Pekin, “we take them all, the whole paddock, because it’s wasteful not to when you look at everything that went into growing that paddock full of food.”

It does mean, of course, that when your box of fruit and veg is delivered by Food Connect, your sweet potato may look a little gnarled. There might be an unsightly spot or two on the apples. And you’re going to have to get used to washing the mud and … let’s call it nature’s fertiliser, from anything that was dug up from the earth. And you can’t pick and choose. Food Connect’s customers order by the box and they take whatever comes in that box, meaning that if they have never cooked with some of the more obscure vegetables, their recipe-hunting skills are going to get a workout.

Pekin grins as he holds aloft a rather confronting spud, all knotted and twisted and covered in clumps of black soil because that’s what “real food looks like”. While it’s not for everyone, there is a philosophy at work here that rejects the idea of city folk becoming so alienated from the actual source of their daily nourishment that the reality of its creation – a world of mud, grubs and manure – is horrifying to them.

In the interests of research I bought a box and although the apples were smaller and much rougher than I was used to, they were also much sweeter. The sweet potatoes were a startlingly richer shade of orange, with a depth of flavour that left their plumper, less gnarled cousins at Woolies tasting watery and bland. And the mushrooms may have been the finest I’ve ever tasted outside of a top-flight restaurant.

The mystery brie, however, isn’t going to be giving the dairymen of Nangis, or even King Island, a shake-up any time soon.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

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