- Cath Blakey from Flame Tree Community Food Co-operative
- Emma Huber from Sandygoodwich
- Sarah Anderson from Popes Produce
- Mahlah Grey from The Pines Dairy
- Ann Burbrook from Fair Food Forager
- Joe Carter from Kiama Community Garden
- Karen TavernSmith from Food Fairness Illawarra
- Callum Champagne from Green Connect
- Nick Gill from Social Sciences, UOW
- Tass Schmidt and Fiona Weir Walmsley from Kiama Farmers’ Market
- Sophie Wright-Pedersen from Cook Chill Chat
- Costa Georgiadis from Gardening Australia
Each speaker was sent the following 5 questions. While Cath didn’t follow the script exactly, the speech notes provide a good reflection on how much has grown in the Illawarra since we established in 2010.
Who are you, what does your organisation do, and how does what you do contribute to a fairer food system (in the Illawarra)?
Flame Tree Community Food Co-operative is a community-owned business in Thirroul that focuses on selling organic, locally grown produce. It’s food that’s good for you, good for the farmers that grow it and good for the planet. Plus it tastes great!
We opened a retail shop in Thirroul in 2010 and everyone and anyone is welcome to shop there. We currently have about 500 households that are members and effectively co-owners of the co-op. Each members pays $25 a year for their household, and in return they get a 10% discount every time they shop.
Most of what we sell at the co-op are the same basic products you’ll see in a supermarket. The difference is that it’s probably fresher, it’s probably grown nearby and it comes in bulk rather than in plastic packaging with big name branding.
We do also often stock produce that a lot of people might think is unusual – things like seaweed dulse flakes, quinoa, amaranth, pawta or golden beetroot – but it’s not a place where you have to completely change your diet. It’s not alternative food, it’s just more choice.
One of the keys ways we operate is to buy in bulk but sell at any quantity. Buying in bulk means we get produce cheaper than the packaged stuff and we pass that saving on to our members. Bulk buying also means our shoppers can choose as much or as little as they like.
Alongside that, we strive to minimise waste when it comes to packaging. For example, we buy in 20kg sacks of rice, beans or muesli, and you just buy the amount you need. We charge for paper bags which encourages people to bring their own containers and reuse their own bags.
For local growers the co-op is a reliable and low-risk retail outlet. If it rains, or there are gale force winds, a farmers market might have small crowds or even have to close temporarily but having a permanent home means we’re always open so the growers always get paid for their produce.
We’re also happy to take a range of produce, as and when it comes. We’ll get big deliveries twice a week from someone like Dapto Community Farm, but someone like Popes Produce in Woonona just supplies us with mixed salad and Farmers by Choice just supplies us with honey in the summer. We don’t dictate to suppliers. We just work with them as they work with the seasons.
What’s one thing that’s going well for your service?
We’re really fortunate to be part of a fantastic community that makes our business run and thrive.
When we started, Dapto Community Farm and Glenbernie Orchard were the only local places we could get fresh produce from. Now we get fresh produce from six local producers and, in the last year, we’ve tripled our delivery of fresh produce:
- Mahbrook Organics was set up by two brothers at Albion Park. They’re certified organic and have six big beautiful greenhouses so, despite the frost of Albion Park, they have an extended growing season for tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and other summer vegetables.
- Farmers By Choice is made up of former Flame Tree directors who got so obsessed with fair food that they decided to set up their own urban farm in Bulli. We now trade their honey.
- Moonacres Farm is a stunning organic farm in Fitzroy Falls. Because it’s on top of the escarpment, their growing season is different to the one down here on the coastal plain. For example, it means they grow wonderful broccoli while we struggle to get any from our other local growers.
- Glenbernie Orchard at Darkes Forest, near Helensburgh, has expanded their range beyond apples and now includes things like apple cider and apple cider vinegar.
- Popes Produce is a backyard in Woonona that’s a thriving market garden, supplying us with gorgeous bouquets of salad greens, herbs and edible flowers.
- And we still get a lot of produce from the Dapto Community Farm, whose range and quality has improved greatly
What’s the one area where there’s opportunity to improve?
We don’t have the ability to make large investments in things that could help the store run better and more efficiently. For example, we’d love to have a nice new cool room to keep our produce in, but as we’re a not-for-profit business it’s hard to generate enough capital for that kind of thing.
What is the one conversation you’d like to have with the folks here today?
What’s your favourite eating season? Right now the mulberries are abundant, but their so lush, soft and juicy that they’re easily swashed in transportation, so the only why to buy them is through a Green Connect veggie box. Otherwise, you’ve got to be in the know of where there is a local tree that you can forage. For me, I’m looking forward to the summer-time when it’s peach harvest time at Glenbernie Orchard, the only remaining commercial orchard in the Illawarra. Eating seasonally can be a wonderful way to enjoy the changing year, and celebrate eating fresh produce when it’s at it’s best.
How can we find out more?
Come for a visit!
We know that if you’re used to a supermarket then the coop is a different way of shopping. But its most of the same kinds of food, just better.
The co-op is a little community and everyone is there to help so just ask questions. If you can’t find something, just ask.
If you want to know where something comes from, just ask. If you don’t know what something is, ask.If you’re keen, we welcome all new members. It’s just $25 dollars a year per household which gets you 10% discount off everything, every time you shop. And if you’re really excited, get in touch to arrange a volunteer induction. The co-op is run mainly by volunteers so any time you can give will help it thrive – you also get 25% off your shopping if you volunteer.
But the best thing is to come in, have a look and get involved in our local food.