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Violet Town couple reaping benefits of shutdown with online farmers’ market

By Charmayne Allison

When Violet Town’s Kirsten Larsen and Serenity Hill launched Open Food Network in 2012, a pandemic wasn't in their wildest dreams.

And yet, they knew a shock to mainstream food supply chains was coming.

But when it did inevitably arrive, they had an alternative distribution system in place to keep farmers afloat and fresh food on local plates.

Introducing Open Food Network — an online network of farmers, wholesalers and community-run virtual farmers’ markets.

The platform aims to put the power back in farmers’ hands, equipping them to sell their produce at a realistic price, directly to consumers.

This means, to support your local farmers, all you have to do is jump on to the platform, search for your region, and make an order.

Listing more than 800 farmers across Australia — including several in the Shepparton region — the site has taken off overseas, established in 13 countries across the globe including in France, Canada and the United Kingdom.

And with widespread closures of traditional farmers’ markets and restaurants forcing producers to look for alternative distribution networks, the need for the platform is only growing.

“We knew the mainstream food system was incredibly brittle and we shouldn't be relying on imported food,” Ms Larsen said.

“This platform was designed to keep farmers in control of food regardless what happened in supply chains, while encouraging locals to support regional supply networks.”

Partners Ms Larsen and Ms Hill met in 2005 while working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Melbourne.

Both were largely focused on food system research and policy, and soon became frustrated with the state of the agriculture sector.

“I could see people were trying to embrace sustainable agriculture but there was only so much they could do when commodity markets gave farmers such poor returns,” Ms Hill said.

“Kirsten and I saw the potential in exploring alternative markets to get a greater farm gate price to farmers.

“Because where the supermarkets were returning around eight to 10 per cent of the retail price to farmers, some alternatives were managing more like 60 per cent.”

The Open Food Network was built on four key principles — it would be open source, transparent (both in supply chain and the pricing of products), diverse and support networking in the industry.

The couple began searching for the necessary software to launch the project — and discovered it didn’t exist.

Luckily, Ms Larsen had studied computer engineering and software development in the 1990s, so she began building the platform herself.

But over time, they realised their software just wasn’t cutting the mustard.

Luckily, Open Food Network was already attracting overseas interest.

“Our board urged us to get more people involved, so we sent out position descriptions,” Ms Larsen said.

“They went viral. Suddenly we had all these people from around the world saying, ‘this is fantastic, this is what we need, we want to help'.”

These included software developers who pitched in to help transform Open Food Network into the sleek, streamlined site it is today.

While the platform has been embraced globally, the women said they had received slim financial support in Australia, with VicHealth the main source of additional funding.

“We argued for the health sector that it would increase access to fresh fruit and veg,” Ms Hill said.

“But we haven't been successfully getting money from the agriculture sector.

“The agriculture sector's policy in Australia is very focused on export commodity, not interested in local food supply, even though local and regional food supply is critical to a resilient food system.”

As for the future of Open Food Network, the duo has several dreams.

In addition to maintaining a food distribution network, Ms Hill and Ms Larsen hope to use the platform to mentor farmers.

In mid-June, they will be running a webinar for north-east farmers and other potential food enterprises.

“We will be educating them on alternative supply chains, shocks to the system and regenerative agriculture and landscape management,” Ms Hill said.

And there’s one more goal. "We want Open Food Network to one day be available to everyone, everywhere in the world,” Ms Larsen said.

The webinar will be held on Wednesday, June 17 from 6.30 pm to 8.30 pm and can be accessed via: bit.ly/ofn-ne-farmers

To learn more about Open Food Network, visit: openfoodnetwork.org.au