The Casino Food Co-op: Putting people before profits

Putting people before profits

In this month’s podcast we again focus on one of the leading co-operatives in the flood-ravaged Northern Rivers region of NSW – The Casino Food Co-op. Rural journalist Michael Cavanagh sat down with Simon Stahl, CEO of The Casino Food Co-op, the largest farmer-owned meat processing co-op in Australia with over 500 farmer members. Farming is an inherently difficult vocation, but knowing the co-op has got their back has helped members navigate drought, fires, COVID-19 and more recently the devastating floods. Its people-first philosophy allowed them to support their community through this traumatic event.

Discover why The Casino Food Co-op is such an asset to its community, and what the future holds for this forward-thinking co-operative.

Read more about the secret behind The Casino Food Co-op’s success: The power of community.

Simon Stahl

Listen to Episode 17

Episode 17 transcript

Melina [00:00:03] Having operated since 1933, the ups and downs of primary production is something that the Casino Food Co-op has experienced in its various forms. Like many operations in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, what started as a dairy co-op is rebuilding after the massive floods. Hello, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals and welcome to our regular podcast, where we examine various co-operatives in the primary sector. This time, Michael Kavanagh had a look at what is one of the country’s largest meat processors based at Casino.

Michael [00:00:44] These days, the co-op is a highly successful meat processing operation with markets both in Australia and overseas. In fact, it’s Australia’s largest farmer owned meat processing co-op, like many primary industries, whether large or small in the Northern Rivers region the past few years with drought, bushfires, COVID and now having to rebuild as a result of the flood has certainly tested its resilience.

Melina [00:01:12] Michael, it’s not just getting the plants operating at capacity, but how the staff themselves cope, both work-wise and personally.

Michael [00:01:20] This is something that the co-op CEO, Simon Stahl, is very much aware of and says the rebuilding has helped greatly by having such close community ties due to being a co-operative.

Simon [00:01:45] It’s changed quite considerably. The co-operative established in 1933, as you point out, was the basically the fix of failure, a market failure and that market failure was a lot of young cattle calves, bobby calves, predominantly from the dairy industry, as I understand it, were trained off to Sydney and the local farmers, the local producers were basically felt they were held to ransom by the processors and operators of meat works down in Sydney. So they began their own co-operative and the rest is history. I mean the region has changed a lot since then and dairy is not as predominant as it was. And then beef cattle production became quite predominant. And then in maybe the last 20 years there’s been a change to nut industry, particularly macadamias, a lot of sugar still down in the coastal country. So it has diversified a lot and I think the market conditions that actually brought the producers together back in the 1930s, those market conditions have changed somewhat, not only in terms of production systems, but certainly in terms of how they can market their cattle today as opposed to back in the 30s.

Michael [00:02:52] You must be doing something right, though, because, you know, you are the largest farmer owned meat processing co-op in Australia and not just as a co-op, you’re a fairly substantial player in the industry.

Simon [00:03:05] Yes, we are and yes, there’s obviously been a lot of, I would say, very good management and board for the 80 years. You don’t get there by fluke and it’s a credit to everyone involved in the business over that time. I think there are two reasons for it. It certainly is in the DNA of the people up in this part of the world to actually keep a stake, excuse that pun, but keep an interest in their own meat works and control to some degree and the operations, which is significant to the town in terms of employment and follow on. And the second piece is that it’s a little bit unique in that the members aren’t actually compelled to supply us with 100% of their produce as would be say maybe a dairy co-operative. And that means the producer has choice and can go to the sale yards, can go to other abattoirs, and we try to encourage them to support ours of course. It just means the return to the producers, there’s not as much pressure as they would be, I would say, under a dairy model where the producers are supplying 100% of their produce to a factory. So I think there are two reasons that certainly because of the region and the people and the way the business has been run and secondly, the business model is a little bit different.

Michael [00:04:21] That structure though, essentially you’re a co-op, so the involvement community-wise and those that have got shares in the co-op itself, how does that work?

Simon [00:04:35] Look the members themselves elect, for a start; they elect the directors, the seven directors. There’s eight directors now, one independent, but seven are elected from the membership. All eight are elected but the seven are from the membership. So it’s a closed shop, so to speak. They have to come from the membership ranks so that gives obviously the community or the producer members a feeling of belonging. They get to vote for their peers and put them in place. And those seven have a responsibility back to their fellow farmers, to their fellow members. So there’s a real direct connection. And, you know, these seven directors that are moving about their lives in our community and they’re meeting a lot of people all the time, a little bit like, say, councillors on a council, but with a responsibility back to the business first and foremost. But they’re really connected. It’s like being able to shake the hand of the person who’s running the company quite regularly because they’re in the community. So I think that’s not lost and then when there are issues in the community, I mean, the board is very agile, very flexible and actually because they live here, they want to do well for the community and that helps with some of the decisions they make in terms of supporting community.

Michael [00:05:45] No doubt then, since it’s been going since 1933 and embedded in the community, if they’re walking down the street, whether it be, Casino, Lismore or anywhere in that region, no doubt there’s a member that wants to give them their view.

Simon [00:05:59] Absolutely, yes, there is and that’s their right and I suppose that’s the beauty of the model they can. And for most part, a lot of people are very understanding and they sometimes they don’t like some of the answers but we move on. And I think they just really enjoy being able to actually say their piece and then of course they get to come to the annual general meeting. I mean, sometimes there’s quite a few people, particularly there’s some contentious issues around them. But for the most part, there’s a lot of the regular people come to those AGM and they get to voice their opinion.

Michael [00:06:30] Well, it was originally known as the Northern Co-operative Meat Company, then it became known for the Northern Rivers. Now it’s the Casino Food Co-o, does that point to a change in direction about processing? Are you going in a wider sense than just moving beef through?

Simon [00:06:49] Yes, there is a little bit of truth to that. We are extending into the retail ready space, but it is predominantly fresh meat. So we’re still in the meat game per se. So it was more about the Northern Co-operative Meat Company was a mouthful, very hard to shorten, which we did try by saying it was NCMC, but even that was a mouthful. And so we did a little bit of a rebranding exercise and had a look at where the people actually referred to when they referred to the Northern Co-operative Meat Company. What do they say? They say the Casino meatworks or the Casino Co-op. So it was quite easy for us when we sort of said, well, what would the name be that everyone knows? And it’s definitely got something to do with Casino. Meat is an older term nowadays people just use food because it is a food and that’s the right description in our view. So the Casino Food Co-op, co-op is a real principle in our name, very important. And now, you know, we’re more known as the co-op. So the Casino Food Co-op really did fit.

Michael [00:07:47] It seems that co-ops are having a bit of a resurgence. You’ve not only got your own operation, but when you talk about size of co-ops, you have Norco just down the road. You’ve worked closely with them over the years, one of the biggest dairy processors in the country. There’s also growth in the region, in the macadamia area that nut industry that you’re talking about, what is it that you think at the moment that there is this almost newfound love of co-ops?

Simon [00:08:14] I think there’s certainly a desire for businesses to collaborate and collaboration certainly back in the past was around where market failure and strong market failure was. So producers of a particular product or crop or service would obviously get together to give themselves some scale and that still is prevalent. But more importantly, I think people are just looking at what’s going on in the world and saying is there better models, is there better ways to do this? I think we see some corporate failures and through lack of governance, maybe lack of not morality, but maybe lack of a commitment to community. And I think people are saying, well, what other business models are out there that we can support? And co-ops do resonate with a lot of people, a lot of the community, not just because of the market failure, but just because of their DNA to connect to community and actually hear the voice of people.

Michael [00:09:06] Now, that voice of the people and the idea of the co-op and most co-ops, they either have scholarships for young people going through to go back into the rural industry. There’s the building of community facilities and you’ve got, from what I can see, three very targeted aspects, which is very community-minded. The first one, the Co-op Soil Club, where people turn up with buckets of soil and you analyse it. What’s that all about it?

Simon [00:09:33] Well, it’s a bit like that, we’ve had to look at our own sustainability and of course our customers are demanding that we’ve got a sustainability story and I think a lot of farmers do very good in sustainability. However, they don’t get the accolade or the right attention. And we started to talk and one of the river systems that flow through our area, the Richmond, there’s actually got some pollution problems and that’s part of it, is from runoff of soils and degraded soils. So part of our solution is to get to the farming land that’s across this river system and say, let’s have a look at your soil, let’s see if we’ve got good grass cover. And part of that was creating the Soil Club. What it’s morphed and what we are able to do was find funding through the local university, working with the local Southern Cross University to actually get their soil scientists onto the land. Now, a lot of these farmers have been doing good, but they learn a lot more about their soils and then we can find ways to help them improve their soil and what it’s morphed into it’s actually an opportunity for carbon sequestration, which is the buzz words of the moment. And farmers have been doing it for a long time. The cattle are getting a bad rep with methane, but the farmers are sequestering a lot of carbon and there’s a hell of a lot of work we can do in that space. And I think it’s going to rebalance the debate, I think, unfortunately, we seem to have lost to the noisy TikToks of the world and maybe not the science of the world.
Michael [00:10:58] And what’s the River Crystal?

Simon [00:10:59] River Crystal is an extension of that project. So it’s really apparently the name of the river system around here was crystal because of its clarity in a few areas, let’s say a hundred years ago so that’s tied into the runoff from the land. It’s tied into getting cattle out of the river system. So fencing projects and water projects of the cattle down into the river system and even planting trees, Michael, we went onto a producer’s property over near [00:10:29]coffee camp, [0.4s] not too far from Casino. And in stage one was getting some fencing up and getting the cattle out of the creek and getting a pump to put the water up onto land so the cattle wouldn’t travel through the creek. But it was then identified that it was actually a koala habitat corridor. And so with a partnership with a couple of agencies, including the World Wildlife Fund, together we planted 2,000 trees on that property down near the river system. So there’s a lot of talk about carbon sequestration and the problem on the planet, but there’s just as much discussion going on about ecology and correcting some wrongs of the past and making sure we demonstrate that we are good custodians of the land. So that’s an exciting project, the River Crystal.

Michael [00:12:07] This latest podcast for the Business Councils of Co-ops and Mutuals, I’m Michael Kavanagh, and my guest today is Simon Stahl, who’s the CEO of the Casino Food Co-op. Simon, like everyone in that Northern Rivers Richmond River area, the flood and it’s not just over now, maybe the water has receded and what have you, but in fact, you’re probably now coping with much longer-term issues, the co-op itself and the processing of meat, because you’ve got a large export market as well. How are you coping to keep making certain that everything is on track?

Simon [00:12:47] Look, it has been absolutely challenging, some of the most challenging times in all of our lives in this region. And I guess the initial response or the initial challenge was getting the facilities back up and operating. We were lucky enough not to have direct damage from the floods, but of course, a lot of our workforce lost houses and family members lost houses. So the main focus in the first week or so was to get people back into accommodation where we could and where we could assist. We had lost a fair bit of our workforce and our skilled workforce. Someone had to leave the area because housing wasn’t available. So the main priority is about looking after the people first and foremost, particularly with their and we’re lucky enough that we’ve got our own counseling, in-house counseling services, which is a very unique project for a business like ours, to make sure we look after the people because they’re the most critical thin. The infrastructure is coming good over time, certainly the roads around here, we’re in a good position in that the roads can get to us with the livestock. But now, Michael, it’s all about labour and skills. And I think the country was struggling before and the region was struggling before the floods. And I think it’s compounded the problem and particularly with the lack of housing. So there are a lot of scars, you know, still with a lot of people. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve got the energy. We’re working again collaboratively with our partners in the region to make sure that the businesses and the major stakeholders have a little bit of a say and make sure it doesn’t get lost on government, that there shouldn’t be a bureaucracy, it should be about a win-win for everyone across the region, including business, including those people that have suffered the most. Look, we’re doing our piece internally with our own staff. And secondly, we’re certainly working with the community because we have a responsibility to play in that.

Michael [00:14:35] But in-house counseling service, it’s not a common thing, particularly in community-run organisations or community-involved organisations like the co-op. What prompted something like that?

Simon [00:14:48] It was about five or six years ago leading into one Christmas, and we felt as a management team that, you know, we want to do more to assist our employees and want to do real, tangible things. Coming into Christmas, we said, look, if there’s any staff out there that were feeling a bit of the blues, we’ll pay for some counseling sessions and the only service we could find was actually across in Lismore about 30, 40 minutes away, which for me that wasn’t good enough. We had a wonderful lady operating in our HR, HR professional most of her life, getting towards the more senior years, I won’t give away her age, but more senior years of her career. She went and saw the need and she went and did a search for in counseling, Certificate IV and then became a full-time counselor. And she had seen in the first couple of years around 100 employees and we estimate that 60 of those employees stayed in the business because of the counseling and the service that they got. And just as importantly, so not only is it about firstly, you know, making people a little bit happy in their lives, but it keeps employees, it keeps people in the job for us. But there are other things that we can do that other counseling services can’t do. For example, if they need emergency accommodation, there’s been a break in the family. I can fix those things. It’s not a 1-800 number. You actually ring up our phone number now and you get to see someone in the morning. Someone’s on our side and a little farmhouse that we’ve got and then we’ve got two people there. So I think it adds so much value to our business and so much value to the community, and we’re looking to expand that over the coming years.

Michael [00:16:23] Well, you’ve got around about a thousand employees, both part-time and full-time. You’ve mentioned about getting staff coming out of the floods and recovering from that, that thousand and the infrastructure [00:15:41]fit [0.0s] the area has been smashed. How are you coping with that while at the same time you don’t want to lose market share, so you still want to make sure that you’ve got a product.

Simon [00:16:46] Yes, look, if it was ever going to happen, it was probably fortuitous that it was at the moment because as you understand, Michael, our business runs on an agricultural cycle and that’s drought and floods. But with the heavy rains that we’ve had, the only blessing is that all the stock had been held by farmers to restock, which means we haven’t had as many cattle come in for processing, which means we haven’t needed the 4,000 people. Having said that, we’re now into a better second, third year of our livestock rebuilding capacity in terms of cattle, and we’re certainly going to need more people. Second half of this year, particularly going into 2023, what are we going to do with infrastructure? This time last year, we started looking at that thinking 2022 was going to be an increase in numbers. What are we going to do for housing? We built probably the first in Australia at a meatworks onsite accommodation. We put in 60 beds like a worker’s cottage, but I’d like to think it’s a bit smarter than that. But we started to establish that we bought second hand from an auction, some buildings and lucky enough they opened just after the floods, so a bit of good luck. But we’ve got 60 beds there. We’ve got five hectares to the west of town. We’re talking to a couple of businesses about some community housing opportunities. And when I say community housing, I think there’s a real failure in the market between, you know, most houses, even in rural towns now are half a million dollars, you know, where are the houses and the livable areas for 250 to 300 that makes it affordable to people. So we’ve got a commitment to having a look at that. We’ve got enough land around us here. And I think there’s a will of the community, particularly since what’s happened up in the Northern Rivers with the flooding that now is an opportunity that we should take advantage of so the boarders have encouraged me to go and have a look at what opportunities we can do, because it’s going to be the complete package to get a workforce together, but plus a community that we’re very proud to living where people do have housing opportunities, particularly young people.

Michael [00:18:44] My guest today on the Business Councils of Co-ops and Mutuals podcast is Simon Stahl, the CEO of the Casino Food Co-op. I’m Michael Kavanagh, Simon, talking to other co-ops and the more community orientated, smaller operations in the area that have been badly hit by the floods, the one thing they have made comment about is they could react a lot quicker than some of the larger organisations. One of our guests was from the Summerland Credit Union and they got together with the other finance co-ops and smaller operators in the area and were able to just get in on the weekend and do that. How much have you been involved with working with those other businesses and also being able to change maybe the business plan that wasn’t in place until the floods came along?

Simon [00:19:36] Yes, look, I think it’s a good point. Again, we were saying earlier, what’s the advantage of the co-op? And I think it’s that connection to the board that’s in the community. So first and foremost, I can ring the chairman at any moment. And we’ve got and because they live in the community, they understand the issue and they are very quick for them to make a decision. So we are agile as that example you gave of the Summerland Credit Union. Immediately post the flood, what became apparent, we offered to supply some meat to some of the evacuation centres in Lismore. And so I was invited to sit around the emergency evacuation centre where they had all the government departments. And let me say that, you know, they all do a fantastic job. What I did observe was that they tend to work in a lot of silos and they do have their own expertise and they then not look after their own patch, but are concerned about their own patch more than maybe working across each other. They asked if we could start to supply some food down to the lower rivers when it became apparent they were going to have to be choppered in and they were completely isolated. And I said, absolutely, we’ve got cold stores. We actually had some fruit and veggies in that our cold stores, ironically, because it was part of an evacuation plan of a grocer in Lismore. So there is some irony in that. So through working with the local police area command, we put that together. We turned our carpark into a helipad. And what we have is a large business, we have logistics, we have forklifts, we have the cold stores. We do know when the phone calls were coming in from different regions and what they were looking for. We live a part of the community, so there were some areas that might have wanted a food drop. There were more looking for just the ice and fuel and to self-sustain themselves. So that’s one part of the agility, I think that we could do. And we did not need any approvals other than a call to the chairman. Yes, it was going to cost us some money. Yes, we might be reimbursed. But that wasn’t the consideration. It was about acting and doing. It didn’t have to go through a lot of red tape to set up a helipad down at the Casino carpark. And I think some of these organisations, they’ll be at SES and others, they’re just wonderful organisations but I’ll bet you they get so bogged down with hierarchy of command, which is necessary because there’s been issues, but it takes away your agility and flexibility and that’s what you need most in a crisis. And I think, Michael, one of the powerful reminders of how a community reacts and fixes a problem, one of the needs coming out of these isolated communities, believe it or not, was baby formula, which no one had thought of. We couldn’t find any baby formula around Casino. We were just talking to a group of army reservists that are coming from Lismore and there was a young lady in that group and we were saying our greatest need is going to be this baby formula. The emergency services were struggling to get it out of Brisbane or Sydney that next morning. She actually had a ute load of baby formula turn up at our site. So this is a member of our community that used her social network to get on to friends, that had a pharmacy, that had a plane, that had a ute and had it the next day before all the organisations in our country had blinked. So the power of community is encapsulated in co-operatives, absolutely, but how do we now empower the community to actually do more and more in times like that because we demonstrate time after time that we can do it, it’s like the boaties of Lismore, the boaties of Coraki running goods. The next day down in fuel, when the SES were not allowed to take fuel and boats or the river was too dangerous for obvious reasons. But these people in the communities, their family, their loved ones, they don’t take the risk. They know what they’re doing. They’ve grown up on the rivers or they know what they’re doing when they’re connecting to get baby food. So I think that just demonstrates that there needs to be a change in thinking and let community actually help manage their own situations because we can.

Michael [00:23:29] How do you balance that in the fact that you’ve got a thousand employees, who’ve got intimate knowledge of different parts of the area and they could tell you or you’ve got a woman that can just turn around and get things moving. How do you balance that because a lot of them would be emotionally scarred, at the same time? They want to work and make sure that they’ve got a job and that the co-op itself keeps going. You must have been really walking a tightrope.

Simon [00:23:55] Yes, we were but it’s amazing how it gives you some energy in the same space. And I guess that’s, you know, maybe I’m blessed with something that I can actually think on the run quite quickly. It’s experience as well. I’m a little bit older than I used to be, so experience gives you that. But those two things I think are at play, firstly, there was a lot of our people who came in and volunteered because they couldn’t do anything and they all felt like the rest of Australia, they wanted to do something. They came in to volunteer their time at our Coles store putting food packs together because they know they were saving their community or providing a service for the community. So they actually felt very proud of what they could do and they felt distracted from the immediate dangers and such great loss. And the second piece is this empowering of people similar to the young lady who got the baby formula that’s been a philosophy in our business for some time. It’s really a bottom up approach to solving our own solutions, because I think we’re a lot more powerful as a group and companies say that, but I think we actually demonstrate that, and that’s why I think we can embrace it so easily if it’s in the DNA and the culture of our company, co-operatives, doesn’t necessarily have to be a co-operative to have that DNA. But I think then you’ve got a certain trust in people when they say, hey, X, Y, Z, you can quickly then make a decision about some risks in your own head, bounce it off someone else who’s in the position, and then you make a decision, then you’re onto it. And I think worst thing that can happen in these situations, you don’t make a decision and then risk assess the best you can and just get on with it.

Michael [00:25:30] In trying to cope with the immediate and look toward the future and you and the board and other employees, has it made you change possibly the direction or the planning over not just getting out of the flood, but has that forced you to think about the direction of the co-op itself in the years to come?

Simon [00:25:54] Certainly around resilience and thinking broader issues of electricity security, you know, we see what’s happening globally. We were impacted by geopolitics in terms of suspension from the China market. And then there’s geopolitics at play with now the gas and the oil crises across the world and the costs of that having. So it certainly has made us more aware of what can go wrong and electricity, power security, one thing we noticed with the floods is the biggest problem for a lot of businesses was no access to power for a couple of weeks, maybe months. So what does that mean? I can’t afford to be without power for a couple of weeks. Certainly we’ve got some projects now around renewable energy, around bio energy at the site that I think has got a lot more, let’s say we’re accelerating the investigation into that project because of what’s happened post floods and having a look as a result of the floods to seeing what else could interrupt our business. I think certainly the housing crisis has really focused our energy on that space. I think we’ve got an opportunity, but an obligation as well to really have a look at that housing crisis. And really, we’ve had, we’ve played with it, we’ve had a little look at it, but now we can get serious about it. Absolutely, I think that’s changed our direction and sharpened our focus. And in terms of our people, I think what it proved to us is the particularly the counseling services. We’re excited to double down because we’ve seen what a result. And I must add when the evacuation centre was right here at Casino, our counselors went over to that and they were the first on ground and were talking and counseling with people that were not even employees or associated directly with the co-op before any state agency, before anyone else, we can do it. There’s an obligation to do it. It’s the right thing. But also it’s our company and our people are so proud of what we’re able to do. And I think that augurs well for the business.

Michael [00:27:50] Well, in the middle of all of this, recovering from the flood and there’s been other traumas such as COVID and then the bushfires earlier, you’ve got that, export wise, you’ve had to cope with the changing situation with China and so you headed off to Europe. What was the idea behind that?

Simon [00:28:08] There was a couple of reasons for the Europe trip. One, we do our insurance annually out of London in Lloyd’s of London. And there were a couple of incidents in Australia a couple of years ago that made insurance all but impossible for us. So that was first part. Second part was we’ve got a free trade agreement, as you are aware, with Britain, which will since they’ve separated from the EU and Brexit and that hopefully comes into operation later this year that’s really exciting opportunity for the red meat industry in Australia. So we were just doing a bit of scouting that hasn’t come into act yet, but we’re hoping before the end of the year it will. And thirdly, there was a food fair over in Europe, over in Germany, and they still are the providers of the most advanced technology in processing and a lot of the processing sector. We haven’t been there for a few years for obvious reasons, so it was really good to just see what’s the newest, what are the trends and give us some ideas. And we went across with a couple of colleagues, some operations people, our innovation manager, and just to have a look and see and get a bit of a refresh on what are some of the projects we can do. A lot of the project focus was abound and there’s a catchcry anyone can do a job in our place, as you know, Michael, it’s been a quite a heavy lifting industry for some time with the labour shortages and skill shortages. It really has sharpened our focus on making sure anyone can come in and do a job, making it a lighter load, making the easier job. So that was an exciting trip and it was good to get away and see what’s happening in the world, but also good to get home.

Michael [00:29:41] How much also did that kind of lift your spirits and help you in the sense that we’re not just here to recover, but there’s the growth of possible trade into Europe because of the free trade agreement and Britain’s attitude now over Brexit that’s a plus for you then dealing with technology in Germany. Did that also just give you that bit more of an impetus to say to your own staff, look, it’s not just recovering from the floods, but these are the things that we can be doing in the future.

Simon [00:30:09] Yes, look, it’s a good point, it certainly did do that for me and it certainly did do that for the staff and to come back and give them a report on what we’re seeing and to hand over to them some projects and say, look, this is all this equipment. I want you guys to go on trial. So, yes, they’re now looking forward rather than back. And I think I’ve always been in the company. The chair have always been half glass full, Michael, so you know, you get a knock here and it’s a very Aussie like attitude and we say, well okay that’s hurt us a bit over there, but look over there, that’s an opportunity. And I think that’s endemic in not only co-operatives, I think, it’s an Australian thing myself, it’s a human nature because if the alternative is actually not worth looking at really, looking backwards or being negative, you won’t get out of bed of a morning. So the Europe trip certainly did it for me and certainly did it for the staff when we showed them some of the opportunities we saw.

Michael [00:31:00] I’m Michael Kavanagh, and this is the Business Councils of Co-ops and Mutuals podcast. My guest, Simon Stahl, CEO of Casino Food Co-op, one of the operations that is still coping with the flooding in the area and making sure that they get very involved, not just with their own industry, but the community itself. Simon, out of this, I’ve also noticed a greater interest of people about what co-ops do when they’ve seen what the co-op has done in the areas that have been hit. Are you finding not just co-ops, such as financial institutions and other businesses and government agencies are taking a bit of a different look at co-ops post these traumas that you’ve gone through?

Simon [00:31:47] Yes, I do, I do get that sense, Michael and I think it probably started with a lot of the work that the BCCM has done over the last, well, I think we’ve been members five or six years or so, and there’s been a lot of connection to politicians that right or wrong didn’t understand co-operatives or didn’t even know about co-operatives. And so there’s been a lot of work, particularly by Melina, to expose our sector to the people and the legislators, both at state and federal. So I think that was already turning. I think the message to the general public has still got a long way to go. But I certainly think particularly in our region because we are so co-op heavy, I think people have stood up and said, gee, they did react, they did get moving and they did do some good things. So I think we haven’t been so good at telling our own stories. You know, we’ve never really done podcasts or social media very well. So I think it’s an important part that we do play because we have got some really good stories. I think we prefer to just sort of knuckle down, get on with it rather than talking about it. But I do see that it’s a really important part to play because if we can influence government to see our way of thinking, if we can influence the community to come on board because we have got a good model, we are committed to our communities in a very deeper at a very deeper level than a lot of other organisations, and I think it’s a good thing for our communities.

Michael [00:33:09] You’ve got a membership, I think what is over 500 farmer members as a result of all of this, are you also finding producers are making approaches to the co-op, wanting to know more about it and therefore if it is possible to become members?

Simon [00:33:26] Yes, look, we’ve had a lot of producers actually all over the country who want a co-op in their own back yard. But of course, it’s not as easy as just starting a co-op, there’s got to be a failure of market, like I say, to really draw people. But yes, look, a lot of producers love the model. They really do want to see a co-operative survive and thrive. They are part of the profit share equation. So, you know, that is not about the philosophy, it’s got to be commercial as well that’s got to be supportive of their own businesses. So, look, we are doing a lot of that. We are seeing a lot of membership drive, particularly around Soil Club and River Crystal. Like I say, farmers are very, very good custodians of the land. There may be one or two that are not as good with that is in any walk of life. But to demonstrate that, to be able to work with them, farmers are seeing that as a real positive and looking to join for sure.

Michael [00:34:15] That working with farmers, the co-op goes in and not only just takes the product from the farmers, you also get involved with basically their business operation, not telling them how to do it, but providing advice, which makes a better quid for them.

Simon [00:34:31] Absolutely, it’s about facilitating their productivity. If you have a look around the stresses that the farmers have been under for some time, whether it be the droughts or the fires, you know, we can support them. I mean, I’ve got a farmer board, a farmer chairman that says what can you do to help out my members? And we can help with, you know, especially the smaller holdings around our region, smaller farm holdings that have maybe off-farm income and they’ve got jobs and they don’t have time for us and maybe some fencing or some spraying. I mean, there’s a gap in the market there that we can help fulfill and we’re starting to have a look at those plans. So just to help them be more productive, again, they can market their product anywhere. But I’d like to think that they reward us with and if we get the right commercial price, they will sell into us. But if their businesses are thriving, ours will thrive and the community will be better.

Michael [00:35:20] That demand for protein both domestically and in Asia, we’re seeing the growth of and niche cattle, Wagyu and matching up the black cattle are still doing very, very well indeed. Are you also going out to the farmers and talking to them about that market change that possibly there is an area for Wagyu in some areas or go down the black cattle path even to a greater extent and providing that sort of advice?

Simon [00:35:48] No, we’re not going down to that degree yet. We would certainly help looking at breed conditions for the environment across the north coastal grasses, exempt. If farmers again wanted some help or assistance in that area. I think for us, the story going forward certainly about the sustainability picture. And if you could imagine, we were accredited for the best in the world at River Crystal or carbon sequestration, whatever that is going to be something to be very proud of in the first instance because the community’s demanding that. But secondly, it absolutely adds value to a branded product. So I think it’s more about the story. Certainly the meat has to eat well, certainly the product has to be top class. I think we do that well as a matter of course, in most instances, it’s now about completing the story. You know, the people who are wearing leather products across the world or actually buying some of these products are looking for the sustainability piece, and we’re heavily involved in that. Now farmers are taking up the challenge, so I think it’s more about that space rather than the genetics so from our perspective, over the next 5 to 10 years.

Michael [00:36:54] We’ve seen meat producing areas market, whether it be the Northern Rivers or the Riverina, where it’s lamb, that sort of thing. Your trip to Europe, did you notice too that there is a greater interest in the environmental sustainability side of production and therefore that’s something that the Casino Food Co-op should push as well in their marketing?

Simon [00:37:19] Absolutely, yes and the hunger for that out of Europe has been there for quite some time, I think, ever since they had the Chernobyl disaster, they’ve tried to reposition their continent and the demand out of Europe is absolutely for that sustainability story. But they want to demonstrate it and not just talk too. There’s a lot of pressure on some of the cattle producing areas of the world, the deforestation of the Amazon, etc. so a lot of countries have got a lot of problems, I think, we’re better than a lot of countries. But we can certainly improve a lot more. You know, we can do a lot more to improve our sustainability and that’s what I’m excited about. And I think the premium paid at the end of the day will certainly be there.

Michael [00:38:03] Now, Simon, there you are in Europe, standing there with some potential buyers from England or in the German case, more of the technology. Did you tell them how to do a barbecue and what sort of Australian meat they should be using?

Simon [00:38:19] Yes, you know, certainly we do like to brag about our meat over there. They’re very protective of their farmers as well. Well, so you’ve got to be a little bit careful, especially if it was one of the chefs holding a knife. So we have a little bit of fun. We certainly enjoyed their beer over there, but we did tell them too that our beer and wine was better than theirs, maybe not the French champagne, but that’s for another day.

Michael [00:38:41] Simon is the CEO of the Casino Food Co-op, you’ve obviously got a lot of optimism in yourself and with the rest of your staff getting out of the floods and the future of the Co-op itself.

Simon [00:38:53] Yes, I have you know, look like I say, I wouldn’t get out of bed if I didn’t have the optimism. And it drives me every day. And it is part of my job, it’s part of to be looking forward for the people and hopefully inspiring them to say yes, we’ve had a couple of hits there over the last few years, but jeez, we’re tougher than that, if we’re doing it better than everyone else by 5% or 10%, we’ll be all right in the long run. More importantly, Michael, we can we can actually look at ourselves as a company and see people and say, jeez, we’re proud of that. Do you know what we did in the floods and we helped clean out all our mates’ houses and we packed all those foods, jeez the company got us involved. All I did was facilitate. They actually did it. They’ve got the energy and if they’re proud and they look going through their career, really proud of who they are and part of their community, well, then I’ve come a long way to supporting the company and doing my job.

Michael [00:39:48] Simon Stahl, CEO of the Casino Food Co-op, to finish on the note then, Simon, and thanks very much for your time. This is always the argument when you are barbecuing up that steak, whether it be from the Casino Food Co-op or somewhere else, are you the type that continually turns your piece of steak on the barbecue. Or do you like one hit and then turn it over and do the hit the other side.

Simon [00:40:11] Yes, the latter one, the one hit, turn it over, the other hit and then turn off the hot plate and let it sit and a little bit soft in the middle and it’s perfect. Starting it at room temperature, so I’m very simple.

Michael [00:40:25] Simon, thanks for your time.

Simon [00:40:27] Good on you, Michael, thank you.

Melina [00:40:31] CEO of Casino Food Co-op, Simon Stahl. There are so many aspects of work needed to ensure a full recovery, no doubt boosted by its many years as a co-op. Michael, Simon has his tips on cooking steak, how do you tackle a good piece of meat when at the barbecue?

Michael [00:40:49] I’m a big fan of just quickly searing both sides and then putting it on the plate so there’s blood still running around the plate. But talking about food, Melina, the next podcast, we go from the Northern Rivers region and flood recovery to heading north of the border and to one of the most productive horticulture regions in Australia. And I’ve got to ask you, you’ve asked me about how I do a barbecue, how does the idea of a sandwich and the two ingredients are beetroot and peanut butter sound to you?

Melina [00:41:26] I have to be honest, not great, I really can’t see the link between those ingredients, but, you know, I’m open to suggestion.

Michael [00:41:33] Well, we’ll find out more about that in the next podcast.

Melina [00:41:37] I hope you enjoyed this latest episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers. If you’d like to know anything about setting up or running a successful agricultural co-operative, you can find out everything you need to know at the co-op farming website that’s www.coopfarming.coop that’s right, coop for co-operative. Please share this with your mates. If you enjoyed this story, we really do want to get the great stories of farming cooperation out there. And remember, in a troubled world, with all of the challenges but also the opportunities we have, we really are better together. I’m Melina Morrison, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of Meet the Co-op Farmers.

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