SILVER LINING: Jason Huggins is a member of the Southern Queensland Country Regional Food Network and is keen to start selling his fresh produce via the online marketing portal.
SILVER LINING: Jason Huggins is a member of the Southern Queensland Country Regional Food Network and is keen to start selling his fresh produce via the online marketing portal. Linda Mantova

Online market for growers

FELTON vegetable grower Jason Huggins looks forward to selling his first fresh produce via the online marketing portal which is an integral part of the new Southern Queensland Country Regional Food Network (SQCRFN).

Mr Huggins and his wife, Vicki, grow garlic, celery, silverbeet, beetroot, kale, capsicum, onions and both green and red cabbage, on their 40-hectare property on Hodgson Creek, and are one of the SQCRFN's most northern members.

They normally sell their vegetables through markets in Brisbane and Sydney, as well as Mr Organic in Toowoomba, and will continue to do so, but now have an opportunity to also sell direct to such customers as cafes, restaurants and retailers via the Regional Food Network.

It is breaking new ground and these are pioneering people however it is still in its infancy. Teaching farmers on the ground how to use the digital market place is our number one priority. We need to spend one-on-one time with farmers to teach them how to use the portal.

As a certified organic farmer, Mr Huggins said one of the major benefits to being a part of the RFN was the shortening of the supply chain.

"It allows the consumer to get closer to the producer as people generally want to know more about their food now - where it comes from and who grows it," he said.

"The good thing is that it (RFN) provides verification so people know it is locally grown. People want to know the story behind their food.

"It is also great to have a local regional food brand which consumers can relate to."

As a second-generation vegetable producer, growing up in a traditional farming family in the Lockyer Valley, Mr Huggins and his wife moved to Felton in 2002, and said growing the produce wasn't as hard as selling and marketing it.

"If we can shorten the supply chain, and cut out the middle men, consumers can access fresh produce a lot sooner," he said.

Under the RFN concept, in some cases, produce can be served up in restaurants and put on shelves of produce stores the same day it has been picked on Southern Downs farms.

"I'm very much in favour of the concept however there are a few logistics still to be worked out," Mr Huggins said.

They supplied some produce for the launch of the concept and brand in Toowoomba last month, and at the launch, Southern Queensland Country Tourism (SQCT) chief executive officer Mary-Clare Power said the establishment of SQCRFN would increase the availability and visibility of fresh produce within this region.

"Through its online trading portal, the SQCRFN facilitates direct local trading between farmers and customers, such as restaurateurs and retailers, as a complement to the central market system, increasing the availability and visibility of local fresh produce within our region," Ms Power said.

"The new Seasonal Feast food brand, revealed for the first time at the launch, will also allow consumers to recognise and preference the freshest local seasonal food and produce from Southern Queensland Country."

SQCT regional tourism development officer Jules McMurtrie said a project like this had never been undertaken before.

"It is breaking new ground and these are pioneering people however it is still in its infancy," Ms McMurtrie said.

"Teaching farmers on the ground how to use the digital market place is our number one priority," she said.

"We need to spend one-on-one time with farmers to teach them how to use the portal."

In order to do that, the SQCRFN this week employed Lance MacManus as its member liaison officer.

Mr MacManus is keen to hear from fresh food producers in the region.

"It is very much a process of change and these things don't happen overnight," Mr MacManus said.

"However it is a viable alternative and a really easy approach to selling their fresh produce," he said.

"It has taken a lot of hard work over the last 2½ years to get to this point."

There are currently 40 financial members of the SQCRFN.

There are several categories of membership, with varying benefits available, including the ability to trade via the online portal, access to the production profile of the region, and ability to use the official SQCRFN branding. The system behind the SQCRFN was designed by Rose Wright, director of Regional Food Systems (RFS) and uses the RFS Digital Trading Platform to facilitate trading between members.

RFS helps regional Australians create paddock-to-plate trading relationships, helping farmers, local food retailers, restaurants and cafés to trade and distribute food efficiently, without sending it to the city first.

Southern Queensland Country's food and wine experiences were identified as a priority area in Tourism and Events Queensland's (TEQ) South-East Queensland Country Tourism Opportunity Plan (TOP) in 2009.

From this, the SQC Regional Food and Wine Development Plan was created, which led to the establishment of the Southern Queensland Country Regional Food Network (SQCRFN).

The vision of the group is that by 2020, the communities of the Southern Queensland Country (SQC) region will share an identity based on sustainable food and wine production and healthy consumption.

For more information, visit www.regionalfoodsystems. com.au, http://www.southernqueenslandcountry.com.au or email jules@sqct.com.au.



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