Organic produce may have found its way to the supermarket shelves, but there is still a long way to go before it gains mainsteam status, reports Amy Kelly.
IN the three-and-a-half years he has been running the Northey Street Farmers Market in Brisbane, Paul Ziebarth has watched it triple in size.
Not content to provide only fruit and vegetables, he has increased the number of stall holders and the range of products available to make the market a one-stop-shop for visitors.
“We try to provide a whole-of-organic shopping experience,” he says.
“Someone can come in here with a trolley and get all their fruit and vegetables, meat, pantry, dairy – and not have to go anywhere else.
“Three years ago it was just a fruit and vegetable market but now it takes in all things organic.
“Organic consumers want to be organic consumers, they don’t want to be organic vegetarians and still have to eat conventional meat. So we’ve really focused on building the range of stuff that’s available.”
But to continue the growth of the markets, Ziebarth says he has had to think more broadly than just the organic consumer.
“I think the future for organics is that it needs to appeal to a broader range of people other than just the true believers,” he says.
“Statistics will tell you [true believers] are only about three per cent of the population. Once we saturate that market there’s nowhere else to go.
“It’s really difficult trying to convert somebody into being an organic consumer if their heads aren’t there in the first place.”
Ziebarth says one of the keys to growth is re-establishing the connection between growers and consumers. With most city-dwellers no longer having any first-hand contact with agriculture, he believes many visitors to the market come looking for the story behind their food.
AUDIO: Paul Ziebarth on the Northey Street Farmers Market
“Because most of our guys here are farmers, consumers build a connection with them and quite a personal one – they know who they are, they know who their kids are,” he says.
And it keeps the customers coming back, whatever the weather.
“People understand that just because it’s raining, the eggs have still been laid by the chicken, the lettuce has still been harvested,” he says.
“If they don’t come to the markets to buy that stuff, they know that it’s wasted and ruined. They know that if they don’t come this week and the farmer loses all of his eggs, then he might not be here next week.”
It sounds daunting, and it is true that the future of the organic produce industry is not without its challenges. Despite strong growth in demand for organic products generally, sales of organic produce remain suppressed as the still-emerging industry struggles to deal with teething problems on the back of a global economic downturn.
Elaine Murray, from Nature’s Haven Organics, says the downtown in the economy has slowed the growth of the organic vegetable industry.
“Demand for organic product has dropped about 30 per cent according to wholesalers,” she says.
“Many of our wholesalers are becoming more conservative with what they will take because the supermarkets are not pursuing organics as readily.”
Other retailers agree. Carlo Lorenti is the owner of Clayfield Markets Fresh, an award-winning green grocer in Brisbane’s north. He says demand for organics has remained constant over recent years.
“I’d say there are no growth trends in organics within the last five years or so,” he says.
“Cost is still a barrier, but those who want organics don’t whinge as they know the prices will be higher so they’re prepared to pay it. Those people who do buy organic are dedicated followers.”
It’s an assessment which seems to hold true across other market channels.
Food Connect is a local ‘box scheme’ that delivers fresh produce from country growers to a ‘homestead’ in Salisbury.
From there the food is packed into boxes and delivered to designated collection points for city subscribers. Although not strictly organic, a high percentage of their content is, and many of their conventional growers are in the seven-year transition phase to becoming certified organic.
Since it started in 2004 Food Connect has grown from having ‘just a handful’ of subscribers to a steady average of around 1,000 today.
The numbers fluctuate on a week-by-week basis but generally remain constant. Food Connect spokesperson Alison Orr says while they can’t always explain the ups and downs, the market seems to retain a loyal following at its core.
Others in the home delivery business have noticed a similar pattern. The owners of Ripe n Raw Organics and the delivery arm of Coochin Hills Organics both say business is constant, driven by a dedicated posse of subscribers with minor fluctuations either seasonally-driven or sometimes in response to extra publicity.
In each of the above cases, while there is a constant low-level demand, breaking through to new markets is proving challenging.
The idea of eating organically-grown food is not new, but the industry is still very much an emerging one. Many organic growers are smaller operations who struggle to keep pace with the demands of the market and face losing their market share as bigger players enter and begin to regulate prices.
Establishing new supply chains which cater for smaller growers is a challenge the industry is still struggling with, and even gaining organic certification can be a tricky area to navigate, with a number of different bodies competing to gain dominance in a field where there is little government regulation.
Add to these issues the usual challenges of working on the land and the generally low return on fresh food for growers, and you could be forgiven for thinking the future looks challenging.
But Ziebarth is optimistic about the future of Northey Street and other community-run schemes which attract followers beyond the ‘true believers’.
“If we can provide good quality food and a nice environment then people will come and eat organic food just because it’s good, not because it’s organic,” he says.
“The demographics have changed. In the old days the carpark was full of Kombi vans. Now you go out there and it’s mostly Beemers and Audis and it’s become a lot more upmarket I guess.
“A lot of the people who come now come because it’s a good market with good quality food. The fact that it’s organic may be a secondary consideration.”
Northey Street Farmers Market on Google Maps