When Rob Pekin started his social enterprise business some 14 years ago, it was clear to him what change he was looking to make in the industry.
“Basically I was looking to address everything that I didn’t like about my experience as a dairy farmer. Those concerns were fresh for me and I knew what I didn’t like. That was the drive,” Pekin says.
That drive led him to create Food Connect – a business that connects local farmers directly to consumers.
You don’t have to be a farmer yourself to know that the people growing our food do it tough. Between the fluctuating demand for seasonal products, severe weather events such as drought and floods affecting annual crops, and grocery businesses driving prices to eye-watering lows – the vital work can be trying to say the least.
Pekin’s “why” was about changing what he could in that list, and he was starting with the local market.
“There were a couple of key principles that were core to the business in the beginning, and they are still important now,” Pekin says.
“The first thing was not having anything to do with market-based pricing.”
Pekin’s talking about those eye-wateringly low prices we see in the supermarkets when big grocery chains have price wars across their fresh produce lines ($1 per litre milk anyone?).
Instead, Food Connect would look to pay farmers the true ecological cost of their product, taking into account everything that it takes for a farm operate or function – including paying wages, holiday pay, costs of training ie. land management practices, and more basic operational costs that farmers have to encounter. That’s how they would set their prices.
“The second principle was about farmers knowing where their products were going – who was eating them,” Pekin says.
“As a dairy farmer, that void in my life was really big. I had no idea where my product was going or what it was being turned into, which made it difficult to stay passionate.
“And the third principle was that Food Connect would operate like a cooperative, meaning that farmers would have an opportunity to participate in the Food Connect business through transparent practices that allow them to understand pricing and business operations to effectively manage crops and supply levels and associated costs.”
Embedding sustainability from day dot
Pekin, having seen the impact of farming on people and the planet first hand, says sustainability was a core focus for the Food Connect business from the get go.
“The food industry has broad impacts – a lot of them negative. It’s a huge consumer and polluter of water, contributes large amounts of waste, and is associated with land clearing and climate change,” Pekin says.
“With Food Connect, we look at preventative action rather than addressing the symptoms. So we’re looking at the root cause of environmental issues and use a holistic framework to lower our impact.”
Pekin says that the business follows a triple bottom line framework to ensure that sustainability is baked into the business – covering people, planet and profits.
For small business owners that are wondering how they can take a similar approach in their businesses, Pekin says there’s inspiration everywhere, you just need to know where to look.
“There’s so much out there, just look at what you read and what you see on TV, and try to find a value-based alignment for your business,” he says.
“So you might watch ABC’s War on Waste and think, ok, how can I lower the waste output from my business? Or maybe you have an association with a certain disability and want to create a more inclusive future for people living with disability.
“I spoke to someone who runs a lawn mower business recently and they asked how they could be socially responsible. In their case it was starting with the supply chain of their product.
“When you give people agency to look into what they could get excited about, they’ll never look back. More doors will open. It becomes a smorgasbord of opportunities for change.”
Taking time to reset
While Food Connect has seen huge growth in 2020 (the business’s operations quadrupled thanks to local support and an uptake in food delivery demand), Pekin says now they’re looking to decelerate.
“We’re using the next 12 months to restump the business. Look at our fundamentals. Take some time to look carefully at every aspect of our business,” he says.
“There’s not much point being a circular economy business if you’re not being circular internally – I’m talking about equality, diversity, women’s rights etc. The two go hand in hand.
“We’re using this opportunity to take a reset. It’s time for operation refresh.”