Robert Pekin, Food Connect

posted on: Thursday, 14 November 2013

Rob Pekin (great shirt!) getting amongst the fruit and veg at Food Connect

Robert Pekin, creator of legendary Food Connect, stands out a mile. Not only is he about 7 feet tall with a booming voice, and a fondness for fabulous patterned shirts, he runs his organization from the brightest building an industrial landscape has ever seen.
Let me paint a picture here: among scores of factories in Salisbury, the Food Connect warehouse is covered in huge handmade mosaic lettering running along the entire side of the building. It’s so unexpected and awesome.

I’m a huge fan of Food Connect because they provide a real alternative to the 'thawed out' fruit and vegetables you find in the supermarket. They also work to create a real connection between the local farmers and the people who get this produce delivered in the city, and they have the most fun newsletters and photography in the business! Interestingly, like so many of the people who have implemented the most positive and exciting ideas, the success has come of the back of crushingly bleak times. And in his former life as a Victorian dairy farmer, Robert Pekin lost it all. 

Below is an extract from our chat. It was so inspiring to meet you Rob!

After you lost your dairy farm you took yourself into the Tasmanian wilderness for six months.  Why? 
I was really angry and was basically on the run. I had $90K in debts and my marriage had broken down. I went basically insane, mad. I needed a lot of solitude to think about why I had gotten into this mess. Why was I doing what I had been conditioned to do, as part of this system, when it just didn’t work? 

What do you do there?
I carried a pack with all my belongings and about a quarter of it was books. I had Bucky’s Critical Path, Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. I read these books and looked for answers. I also met an Aboriginal man and learned about Aboriginal ways from him: how to ask the mountains if we should walk on them and listening to the signs all around us. Aboriginal people don’t look where they are walking, they just let their feet fall on whatever they've walked on and curl around it. As I got more into the nature around me I grew a second skin. I started out sleeping in a tent, then I moved to being outside on my sleeping bag, after a while I could just fall asleep out anywhere. Animals, goannas, mosquitos would all surround me and in the end it didn’t bother me. I learned a lot. 

What was the turning point for going back?
When I left the farm I was not in a fit state to finalise the situation there. Running away, in the end, actually saved me from declaring bankruptcy. Through all the walking I began to lose my anger and I realized I needed to take responsibility for the mess I had gotten into and the decisions I had made including the price I had paid for the farm. They were all my decisions. After this time I was able to go back to the farm with a plan to make things right. I called the bank manager and said I would pay everything I owed back, it would take time, but everyone would get paid.

How did you move to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of farming?
A turning point was meeting this German guy in Tasmania who mentioned an interesting system at a farm near Hobart, so I went there and farmers were getting a fair price and people were happy to buy from them. It was one of the first organised CSAs. I decided this was what I wanted to do. I started looking for a farm in the area and knocked on a lot of doors. I knocked on the door of this older farmer and explained what I was interested in and asked if there was any land available. He asked me, 'Is this some sort of Marxist thing?!' But he was a great guy and he said yes and let me use a paddock. That was the start of my first CSA.

There’s a lot of talk about supermarkets and the driving down of prices which ultimately cripples small producers. However, for people who have very limited funds, how do you afford food outside the supermarkets?
You can always eat less, but better. However, the first thing I would say would be to look at your overall spending. Are you spending on alcohol or in other places where you can move funds from? I would join a buyers group. They help support farmers, but also bring the prices down by removing some of the middle men - the inefficiencies in the system. We have a very inefficient food and distribution system that we need to fully re-design. There are a lot of pricing fallacies and many parts of the system we don’t see, but pay for. 

I love Food Connect’s communications. The Farmletter, the food miles on Facebook, the photos of the farmers are all really fun and engaging: is that a priority?
Yes, communication is a big part of the CSA model. It’s about knowing all of the people involved at both ends. It holds us accountable to each other and why we are building this system.

You are surrounded by lots of great produce, what do products do you personally like?
I love microbreweries! I love wine, but I only drink those with a cork in them. I can’t stand the aluminum screw tops. I want to open a bar that sells only corked wine and call it Corked! 

Who do you look to for inspiration?
Bucky (Buckminster Fuller) of course. Graeme Wood from Wotif because he has used his own money to fund good quality journalism. Mike Carengie is a venture capitalist with a good philosophy. Silver Chef have great staff culture, values and structure. I’m also interested in Elinir Ostrom who won the Nobel Peace prize by disproving another winner of the Nobel Prize! I also think Brisbane has a great youth scene, with people like Cat Green. I’ve noticed a lot of young people now have been giving up big corporate jobs in favour of something they are really interested in. A lot of our staff have found us.

What is next for the Food Connect Foundation?
The food system needs to be reinvented. I’m passionate about extreme food injustice. The current model is based on cheapness: cheap petrol, all the way down to cheap labour and at the end of the line the farmers get screwed. We want to be involved in incubating programs, getting others to flourish, creating food hubs and a whole new holistic system that works better. We want to help others succeed in building amazing solutions. The true root of the word competition is doing better so everyone does better.

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