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PacificEdge | November 24, 2017

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Makers and doers of the alt.food system

Makers and doers of the alt.food system
Russ Grayson

Feeding the Co-operative Commonwealth…

LET me start with a sweeping generalisation: learning derived from practice is more practical, replicable and applicable than learning derived from theory. That’s because theories are boxes, frameworks into which people sometimes try to squeeze the world rather than deriving theory from the reality of practice.

If we want to find an example of the supremacy of practice in the new economy then we needn’t look beyond ex-farmer and social entrepreneur, Robert Pekin. Against the odds, Robert and partner, Emma Kate Rose (EK), have overcome not only the big challenge of starting a new social business in the crowded food industry but on their journey have overcome shorter-term but critical challenges with systems and market-building.

Robert and EK are one of those couples in which two is more. That is, they form a mutually-supporting team whose work is a multiple of their number.

An amused Robert Pekin presents at the Building the New Economy for Australia conference in Brisbane in September 2017.

There are others, too

They are not the only people doing this. There’s CERES Good Food in Melbourne, Ooooby in Sydney and smaller social businesses connecting urban eaters with their regional farmers. But Robert and EK, through Brisbane Food Connect, were the first to pioneer the model of the hybrid-CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that I know of.

Hybrid-CSA? That’s the model linking farmers to urban eaters in a region that has proven most successful in big cities. It drives from the traditional CSA where a group of urban people link with one or more local farmers to pre-pay them to produce the types of food they prefer. That works at small-scale but experience in Sydney has demonstrated that the scale of large cities entails too much travel and time to make it workable, or, in one case, the farmer sold his farm, effectively ending the scheme.

A distribution hub for good food

The hybrid-CSA overcomes this by acting as aggregator of the produce of a number of farmers who deliver their food to a central location from where it is boxed and distributed to members of the scheme. Doing this also creates livelihoods in the new food economy.

The hybrid-CSA markets and distributes produce, relieving farmers of those tasks and offering an alternative supply chain to the supermarkets whose stock can come from anywhere in the world. The hybrid-CSA is the food supply chain of the new economy. It forms part of the new economic and social model we know as the co-operative commonwealth, a model that incorporates not just consumer and worker co-operatives but social business and social enterprise as well.

Emma-Kate Rose at the Building the New Economy for Australia conference.

Creating value for a lot of players

Knowing this, it was good to see both Robert and EK at last week’s Building a New Economy conference in Brisbane, organised by the New Economy Network Australia, that brought together new economists, social entrepreneurs, economic reformers, academics and those applying the new means of technological production to create a fairer, progressive and better economy for Australia.

Thinking about this, I wonder if this quote from the book, Makers, by Cory Doctorow suggests a path to a new economy:

“We will hire the smartest people we can find and put them in small teams. They will go into the field with funding and communications infrastructure—all that stuff we have left over from the era of batteries and film—behind them, capitalsed to find a place to live and work, and a job to do. A business to start.

“Our company isn’t a project that we pull together on, it’s a network of like-minded, cooperating autonomous teams, all of which are empowered to do whatever they want, provided that it returns something to our coffers.

“This company isn’t a company anymore: this company is a network, an approach, a sensibility.

“This thing wasn’t invented. All the parts necessary to make this go were just lying around. It was assembled.

“That’s what an ecosystem is all about, creating value for a lot of players”.

And that has been the work of Robert and EK, too, to create value for a lot of players — the small-scale farmers, those in the alt.food system making Food Connect and its food system fellow-travellers work, and the urban eaters with the foresight and motivation to put something new and edible on our dinner plate.

 

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