How does food really make it from the farm to your plate? What’s probably coming to mind is a giant Coles or Woolworths logo. But as much as they claim to be fresh, or about supporting Australian farmers, it’s becoming harder to ignore stories about farmers being squeezed, and the general limpness of the produce lining many supermarket shelves. Fortunately, a younger generation of farmers are keen to explore new ways of farming, newer and more direct ways of getting your food are emerging. But to survive, they need the support of eaters.
So we thought we’d explore one of the first alternatives that sprang up – one that puts health (both human and environmental) near the top of the list of priorities, alongside profit. We sat down with Murat Keskin who runs Ooooby Sydney, a more sustainable grocery delivery. Ooooby stands for “Out of our own backyards” and also operates in Fresno and New Zealand. We’re lucky enough to get a box of their super-fresh veg delivered to our office every week for our lunch cooklucks. It’s great to see local celebs get behind Ooooby too!
We start at the plate, and work our way back to the part of our food story we don’t normally get to see.
We love that every now and then, there’s something a little unfamiliar that appears in our Ooooby box, and we get to diversify what’s on our plate. What’s the weirdest fruit or vegetable you’ve come across while running Ooooby – and how did you eat it?
In general, I think the weirdest I came across so far is the fruit of the Jabuticaba Tree – also called the Brazilian Tree, for obvious reasons :) We are lucky enough that our Mango grower on the border of NSW/QLD, Cedric, happens to have a few of these trees, so if the weather turns out to be alright we get them in over a week or two in a year. These fruits unlike the norm grow on the trunk of the tree, look a bit like a biggish grape, have thick purple astringent skin, and white or rosy flesh in which you will find one to four large seeds. It kinda is like eating a grape and lychee at the same time – absolutely delish!
In terms of looks, well you know you always have your wonkiest of shapes in all sorts of fruits and vegetable, an eggplant with a nose and human looking face, two carrots attached to one another looking like they’re having the sexiest time of their life; we all have seen those, especially recently with the various promotions of wonky produce. But this produce isn’t different in quality or taste to the so called ‘perfect’ produce and hence should really be valued at the same price.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about the way food is distributed in Australia? It sounds like there are so many more middle men than most people realise!
Yes there are a lot of middle men which can mean a lot of handling and storage over a long period of time before it reaches the customer. However I think the main misconception is how much on the retail dollar actually gets back to the farmer. Let’s start by looking at a traditional 3-link supply chain.The grower sells to a wholesaler who then stores the food before selling to a retailer. You then go and collect the food from the retailer. After taking into account your time and fuel needed to get the food to your home, around 70% of the value of the food is sucked up by the supply chain. As a result, the farmer is typically paid less than 30% of the retail value. This is just enough for a small scale farmer to scrape by. But for a market gardener it doesn’t work at all.
International supply chains are more like 5 links where more than 80% of the value is sucked up by the supply chain and the farmer is being paid less than 20% of the retail value, achieved only by large-scale operations. Plus the food is hardly fresh, often times it has been sitting around in warehouses and treated with artificial methods to make it appear more fresh than it is.
Wow – so given all that, how do you pick your farmers or suppliers?
We prefer to work with growers that are organic, local and small scale. In Sydney and Fresno (US), we work only with growers practicing organic methods, however our New Zealand hubs in Auckland and Christchurch also deal with some conventional growers who are more local and on the journey to more sustainable methods. While Australia and the US already have a well developed organic industry, as well as consumers who have the purchasing power to go after these products, the cost of living in New Zealand is much more expensive and the organic industry is relatively nascent. Hence we are working on a slow transformation into more natural products. We’re showing conventional growers that there is an opportunity for them within the organic market. And we’re educating consumers about the benefits of natural produce while still offering a more affordable conventional option. Baby steps.
Given all the benefits of natural or organic farming – why do you think more farmers don’t farm the way your farmers do?
In terms of organics, I would say it is harder work and higher risk, especially if you don’t already have the knowledge and experience.
It can also be really frustrating to move to the many more losses you can encounter when farming organically. We can currently see the struggle first hand with one of our growers who is going through the certification process. If farming was hard, it just became so much harder. And fact is that the mainstream market of today is still the one buying conventional over organic, so it makes economical sense. Why this is the way it is, is another story.
However, growing organically means a lot more than just looking at the economic benefits – not to say that growing organically does not have economic benefits – it does. Businesses like us, organic grocers, organic farmers markets and market gardeners are proof that this can be a success.
Most importantly though, the love and passion our growers have for not only growing the produce, but also the environment, biodiversity and their soil is impeccable. I think one needs to have this mindset to decide to go fully natural and I believe we are seeing a shift. The amount of farmers which came on board since we started, especially the amount of young growers, is inspiring!
So why not go all organic?
I am afraid that the matter of organic or not is not as black and white as many may think. There is much to consider within the grey area, which so often gets neglected by conventional as well as organic advocates. Nevertheless, while working towards Ooooby’s specific purpose, we must at all times make sure our actions are supportive of a sustainable food system. We see this as one that “provides healthy food to meet current food needs, while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come, with minimal negative impact to the environment; encourages local production and distribution infrastructures; makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all; is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities.” This also happens to be the American Public Health Association’s definition of a sustainable food system.
So true – often there’s a bit of black-and-white “big ag” vs “small producers” rhetoric going on – but what’s something you find you CAN agree on?
I guess we tend to do that with many things, it’s kinda human nature. There are plenty of grey areas, but we should be supportive of the overall outcome rather than purely the scale of the operation. While some big producers may be in it purely for the profit, there are plenty of others who genuinely take pride in feeding people and providing healthy food to their customers.
And as someone who’s trying to change the supply chain – what are the biggest challenges of running Ooooby?
As fellow Co-Founder and CTO Davy once pointed out and I quote:
“Reconciling the values of ‘fair’ and ‘convenient’ in a way that works. We constantly come up against this in various ways, and ultimately what is convenient is not usually fair, and by doing the ‘right’ thing we make it harder for ourselves compared to a regular business, which can be immensely frustrating at times. Running a business that is both ethically conscious and financially viable feels like walking on a knife’s edge at times, if we don’t get it just right we fall off on one side or the other.”
That’s so true! And what about personally – how do feel like you can balance ethics with all the other things we like that might not be great for us?
No one is perfect and no one can be – I understand the desire for a dirty burger every now and then. We don’t need to punish ourselves, but maybe there is a healthier and more sustainable burger option we can go for next time?
I just can hope that consumers hang on to that shift which is currently happening and think more about where their food comes from. I hope that one day we all move towards thinking more critically about this situation we find ourselves in and look at all aspects of food which truly should be considered as the most important thing to our existence. It’s hard to change habits but it’s possible.
And finally – what food marketing BS would you like to call out as someone who has “backstage” insight into how the food system really works?
The perception that supermarket food is coming from the quintessential Aussie small scale farmer!
Love what Ooooby stand for? Get your veggies delivered from Ooooby Sydney with code OOOOBYFM and you’ll also support our work with every box of goodness.
Image credits: Trolley’d, Rogerio Tomazela, Ooooby Sydney