In 2009, after an initial survey of farm practices, Food Connect formed a group to rate our farmers by means of a peer-assessment system. The assessment group is formed of Food Connect staff, several farmers, City Cousins and subscribers and their mission is to work out a system to evaluate our farmers on an ecologically holistic foundation. The Participatory Farmer Assessment (PFA) group will assess our farms in several areas, initially focusing on the safety and nutrition of food and the use of synthetics. This process will strengthen the original intentions of the organic movement whilst importantly opening the door for small local farmers to be included.
While we are waiting for the PFA group to visit and assess each farm, we have given our farmers an initial rating based on certificates and information supplied to Food Connect by our farmers about their farming practices and the knowledge that we have gained during farm tours over the past years.
The four areas we have identified for assessment are:
- Safety and nutrition of food (and farmer)
- Landscape & environment
- Use of resources
- Values and ethics
Farmers will be rated AA, A, B and C in each of the four areas above. In the first area that we will turn our attention to, the ‘safety and nutrition of food & farmers’, the meaning of the grades is:
AA Organic plus; exemplary farmers in all facets
A Mixture of organically certified and uncertified farmers
B No use of chemical sprays directly on the crop and no use of prohibited chemicals
C Farmers not used by Food Connect but in transition to our standards
The produce we will use will come from the AA, A and B farmers whilst the C farmers will be encouraged to meet our standards as soon as they can.
Since beginning this project we have had many encouraging calls from around Australia supporting our quest and some questioning why. This is because we are stepping into uncharted territory, which is very challenging but also very exciting. The project will open up a Pandora’s box of issues that the agricultural industry has been struggling with for years.
The bigger picture of farming is really about culture not industry. Food Connect is passionate about ensuring that diverse and ecological farming systems are preserved and encouraged.
Ecological farming is more about principles and values, not rules and regulations. Food Connect wants to build a model where farmers and consumers equally participate in grappling with those principles and values. This includes defining the consequences for behaviours or actions that are not aligned with this system.
We view our subscribers as ‘co-producers’ rather than consumers. We see Food Connect not as a retailer but an organisation that facilitates a trading relationship between farmers and subscribers. This involves eyeballing the producers of our food, visiting their homes, watching their plants grow, participating in the highs and lows of the seasons, celebrating their harvests and understanding their challenges.
To date, there has been no dialogue regarding the decline in the number of organic farms in Australia. In 2001 there were 1859, and in 2006 there were 1691. This is due to pressure on small farmers to become ‘big’ as a result of the industrialisation of the organic movement. The downside of this is the lack of opportunities for small, highly diverse farmers in finding an accessible market, ostensibly removing any way for them to be part of the original vision of organic pioneers. With the PFA, we hope to reverse this situation.
We have a great team working on the project, people with wonderful knowledge, and a variety of backgrounds and perspectives (subscribers, City Cousins, farmers, Food Connect staff and a ecological farming movement representatives). We have already held an initial meeting with Brendan Hoare, one of our program mentors. Brendan is a driving force behind Organic Farm Nz, which works with a peer assessed, farmer to farmer verification system, and sharing Brendan’s experiences gave us a lot of insight into how our own PFA might work.