Lockyer Fruit and Veggie Cooperative
This month, we hear the inspiring story of Queensland’s Lockyer Fruit and Veggie Cooperative which is helping to create an Australian-owned processing facility for locally grown produce. This co-op is designed to allow everyday Australians to support our farmers and contribute to ongoing food security. Michael Cavanagh sat down with Colin Dorber, the driving force behind the co-op and a man committed to the future prosperity of the Lockyer Valley region.
Read more about how a new co-op is helping secure Australia’s food chain
Melina [00:00:03] It’s in an area, which claims to grow the most diverse range of vegetables in Australia. However, since 2011 there’s been no local processing plant after the operation that was in the Lockyer Valley in southern Queensland decamped offshore but things are looking up. Hello, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals and welcome to our regular podcast where we take a look at cooperatives in rural Australia at a time when there’s such renewed interest in such enterprises. Joining me is Michael Cavanagh. Michael, the co-operative has been 13 years in the making.
Michael [00:00:42] It certainly has, Melina, the Lockyer Fruit and Veggie Co-operative is located at Whithcott, which is 116 k’s, west of Brisbane, with a population of just under 2,000. It’s a bit of a surprise that such a rich farming region processing part of vegetable and fruit growing, has not had a base in the area. But Col Dorber is determined that that will change. He’s the driving force and what he started around 13 years ago, the co-op is now more than just a dream.
Col [00:01:20] Well firstly it’s actually recognised as the seventh most fertile growing region in the world. It’s blessed with an aquifer, which provides continuous and significant volumes of water. In the 15 odd years I’ve been here, we’ve had two major floods and two major droughts. It’s never run out of water but we also have the benefit of a thing called the Wivenhoe Dam and there is access to piped water for the region. So generally speaking it’s drought-free in terms of growing vegetables, but also it has a huge capacity to grow ten times its current volume. And when we do have floods, for example, it might at maximum be potentially maybe 5% of the agricultural area that floods on any one occasion.
Michael [00:02:13] The area over the years had many sorts of primary production, predominantly horticulture. Presently, what would be the bulk of its agricultural economy at the moment?
Col [00:02:26] Well, vegetables are still a very important part, but only for the fresh market in the main, lettuce, onions, corn, generally, beetroot is now a very modest volume, but is still produced in sufficient quantity, about 3,000 tonnes a year for the fresh market. And there’s a very large market for hay and there’s even a cotton industry market that has started up in the valley. But its real blessing is its capacity to produce large volumes of vegetables, two crops a year, which is unique to the region.
Michael [00:03:04] Now, 13 years ago or thereabouts, the last processing and co-operative in the area closed down, what’s prompted you to turn around when 13 years ago there appeared to be no viable operation?
Col [00:03:20] Well, Golden Circle had been bought by Hines. Hines had encouraged, particularly the beetroot growers, to invest significantly in upgrading, and then they publicly announced their decision to leave. The growers were shattered. At the time I was running an employment company looking after employers and indeed still do. And a couple of the beetroot growers were my clients and they told me the story. I was quite shocked. I’d never known why I’d come to live in the Lockyer Valley and then I realised this was my purpose. And so I called all the beetroot growers together. We had a meeting. Our first decision was to challenge Hines and we negotiated a settlement. Then we were able to use some of that money to fund an international feasibility study for beetroot. And that study came back with findings that showed that there was a demand worldwide for canned products, that economies of scale and technical expertise would be critical to any future and sometimes I look back and wonder why I did it, 13 and a half years is a very long time and I am the last man standing. But I was convicted that we should do something. So we got together, we formed the company. The growers each put in $10,000, nine of them. And we basically have lived on the smell of an oily rag, since then, until about a year ago, when our major investor, who doesn’t want to be publicly identified, put in $400,000. And we appointed the chief financial officer. We got an office in with Whipcott, which is in the foothills of the Toowoomba Mountain Range, and we started moving forward.
Michael [00:05:03] Well, being at Whithcott, 116 ks west of Brisbane, how important is it to have Brisbane so close? Is that your primary market or is that just going to be good for pushing the product elsewhere?
Col [00:05:19] Look, there’s a really fundamental critical issue, and that is that we always determined we would build and be in the Lockyer Valley. We felt that we had an obligation to the community and to the vegetable growers and we’ve had chances to go elsewhere in the past and refused. We’re in the Lockyer Valley and we’re right on the Warrego Highway. It means that we can get to the Port of Brisbane in one hour without a set of traffic lights and it means we can get to the international airport in Toowoomba in 45 minutes without a set of traffic lights. So the economies of transportation, of processing the crop right here in the valley, whether it’s from the Darling Downs, the Lockyer Valley or the Fassifern, it is absolutely fundamental to our future success and we owe this community after 13 years, the commitment to build in this valley because it works for everybody.
Michael [00:06:16] Now you’ve also got the Queensland State Government here. In fact they’ve permitted a co-op to buy shares in a commercial company. What does that actually mean?
Col [00:06:27] Well, I’ve been struggling for a long time trying to work out how to involve the community right across Australia. And some years ago I did some Facebook posts and 65,000 responses came back with the overwhelming theme, we want it to be Australian, Australian-owned, Australian-grown, Australian products processed in Australia. And so I thought, okay, well that’s what we’re going to do. But unfortunately, Facebook changed its policies and I could no longer access that database of 65,000 names. So this might sound odd to your listeners, and people probably think I’m weird, but I prayed about it. And I was convicted to form a co-operative, so I applied to the Queensland Government, very complex, two and a half year process and we are at the point where it was never going to happen. And the man in charge of approving the co-operative rang me up in January this year and said, Colin, I’m retiring in a week’s time, if you don’t get this sorted now, it’s probably never going to happen. And again, a peculiar thing happened, we disclosed to each other during general conversation that we were wardens in Anglican churches and that we had a faith and that seemed to establish some sense that perhaps I could be trusted. And in a mad ten-day period, we did lots of work with our lawyers. We spent $46,000 getting the co-operative with rules and constitution and a disclosure statement and all of that material, which is now publicly available on our website. And right at the last minute, 5 minutes before his retirement time, we received an approval to set the co-operative up. And its purpose is really simple, it’s to invite any member of the Australian community anywhere in this country to take out a membership for $1,000 and $100 a year subscription fee and allow the co-operative to buy shares in the main company, Lockyer Valley Foods and become the major shareholder. So it’s always Australian-owned and the first 20,000 shareholders will fund the build of the factory, which is due to start early next year.
Michael [00:08:50] Those initial members, do they have to be primary producers?
Col [00:08:55] No, in fact, the majority of the members are not. What they have to do is make a commitment. So if you are a grower, you’ve got to commit that subject to proper contractual negotiation, you will supply vegetables to us in the future when we need them. If you’re a member of the public, you’ve simply got to commit to buying $200 worth of our product annually at wholesale prices, and we will have a mechanism whereby anyone in Australia will have a voucher, they’ll be able to go to an appropriate retail outlet and buy their product. And of course by getting it at the wholesale price that’s their benefit and they’ll have the certain knowledge that when they look at the cans or the package that it says 100% Australian-grown, 100% Australian-produced product.
Michael [00:09:46] Now there’s a maximum of 20 shares per member, whether they be a primary producer or as an individual, does that change their voting or is it still one vote per member?
Col [00:09:58] It’s actually 20% of the allocated membership, so obviously grows over time. So for example, in my case as an act of good faith, I bought 12 shares for my children and my grandchildren upfront and it hasn’t changed the fact that as the primary shareholder I have the vote, but each primary member gets a single vote and they can buy ten or 20 or whatever it is ultimately. But it’s the primary member that exercises the vote.
Michael [00:09:11] Because there’s this mix of private and the co-op, where does that leave a grower, for example, who is nearing retirement and feels they want to get out? Does the value of the shares change in any way?
Col [00:10:31] No, the value of the shares will not change because it’s a membership co-operative where you buy your membership and it’s a lifetime purchase. You can sell your membership share back to the co-operative. Most people ask me this question; it’s costing me $1,000. What will I get for that? And my answer is, you will get an obligation to buy product. You will get to be a part of owning an Australian entity and the co-operative as the entity buying shares in the company, Lockyer Valley Foods, which is its number one legally approved objective under its rules, will get dividends and potentially within 3 to 4 years those dividends could be $5 million. Based on the work we’ve done and the dividend calculations that have been done in our long-term financials. Now the co-op can determine how to spend that in the best interests of its own members, so it could give them a dividend. It could arrange scholarships. It could build a community centre. It could put a childcare facility in. It could do anything it likes and I need to make the point. It has a number of other key responsibilities not only to buy shares at the price it negotiates in Lockyer Valley Foods, but also to work with us to develop the contracts for the farmers and growers, to develop the contract with the major retailers. And we’ve had very supportive responses thus far, for example, from the likes of Coles and Woolworths. So the co-operative will be an intimate part of the programme and the company, if it achieves its goal of the co-operative being the major shareholder, will have a very intimate relationship for decades to come.
Michael [00:12:40] I’m Michael Cavanagh, this is the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals podcast where we look at the primary sector and co-operatives. And my guest today is Col Dorber who is the managing director and very much the driving force of Lockyer Valley Foods. Col, the region itself a long, long tradition in horticulture and possibly well-known for things such as pineapples, beetroot and to a lesser extent, corn and tomato, now, that really stopped several years ago until you came back into the sector. Are you looking at those traditional crops for production by the co-op?
Col [00:13:23] Well, the exciting news, by the way, the co-ops name is the Lockyer Fruit and Veggie Co-operative that’s the name that the government chose for us. But the bottom line is that we have pineapple shareholders in Lockyer Valley Foods and we have beetroot shareholders. And more importantly, we are going to be growing and producing very large volumes of tomatoes packed, canned in all sorts of descriptions. We’re going to be processing 30,000 tonnes of beetroot a year and we have pledged to both processed pineapples here in the Lockyer Valley. And when this is operational, build a replica in or around Bundaberg for fruit processing, particularly pineapples. And as you will be aware, on the south of Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, pineapple growers are being shut down in droves. Our commitment is to economically be able to process pineapples for them and restore that can of Australian pineapples to the marketplace alongside the can of Australian beetroot. And we are going to be juicing, powder, canning, freezing and fresh product of as many different products as the market will buy.
Michael [00:14:41] The powder one interests me. I noticed it’s in the area of carrots and beetroot, what’s the idea of that?
Col [00:14:49] Well, there are two things, firstly, the scientific and medical research proves that, particularly in this case, beetroot powder has significant health benefits. So to test this out, our major shareholder and myself, we’ve stepped into a separate venture. We’ve leased a little factory at a place called Crowley Vale in the middle of the Lockyer Valley. We will be processing beetroot into powder within nine months of this day. In fact, we’ve just been out, put in a bid for $100,000 worth of equipment. We’ve got a three-year lease on the land; there is a little adventure that we’ve engaged in to prove the value of beetroot powder especially and probably carrot powder simultaneously because of the massive health benefit and because of this number one reason. When you grow a crop right now, the market demands certain standards, which frequently means that 25% of your crop is not viable for the fresh market. We will buy 100% of what the grower grows. We will buy 100% of the product and turn it all into powder. We will be able to buy in the stage two process the leaves and the stalks. So really, it’s potentially worth about $30 million a year in new revenue in the Lockyer Valley, the Fassifern on the Darling Downs just to say to the existing growers, no more rubbish, no more waste. We will use 100% of product and what we don’t put through the factory we will put into our biofuel plant.
Michael [00:16:27] Now you’ve got the canning, particularly for the pineapples, and then you’re also looking at other markets and the actual end product such as the powder, canned pineapple, the image of that has fallen away over the years, why do you think you can turn the consumer around to be accepting your canned pineapple?
Col [00:16:49] Probably for the same reason we can also do it for beetroot. Historically, there’s been virtually no marketing of canned pineapples or canned beetroot, and yet we know from the research that the Australian marketplace wants that product. Simple example I won’t name the entity that does it, but a very large hamburger type place did a little marketing project about three years ago and they added beetroot to their hamburgers and they told me that just that single act alone led to an 11% increase in demand over that year’s Australia Day period for hamburgers with beetroot and any responsible Australian knows a hamburger is no good without beetroot. So we know the markets, so we know that we can sell the canned beetroot, it’s still in the marketplace now. We know that pineapples, Australian pineapples are loved. And the only reason that they’re not at my place is I have nowhere to process them. So it’s the simple act of the chicken and the egg, provide a processing facility, economically, we can match any price of any overseas importer of these products and Australians will buy it.
Michael [00:18:06] Now we’ve got a population of around about 1,800 people and with the co-op that you’re looking at and building and the processing plant and getting those vegetables in, there’s got to be a need for a large amount of expertise. How will you cater for that?
Col [00:18:24] Well, firstly the Brisbane region of course has a large volume of highly skilled people, but so does Toowoomba, which is 8 minutes from the factory site. And the skills we’re looking for are going to be semi and high-level skills. We’re not going to need basic labouring skills and we know that that population exists. I’ll use a simple example. My personal view is that the person we’re going to appoint to run the cannery, for want of a better description, on a 50-hectare block of land with a $20 million build cost and $60 million of equipment for stage one already works in this industry sector, somewhere in the world. She is probably female. I have found in my life I’m 70 that females are often just that bit more fastidious about details and a little less ego driven than many of us men, no offence gentlemen, but fundamentally that one person somewhere in the world today is there and we’re going to dangle the care of Toowoomba in their face. It is a beautiful city. It has every facility, the best private schools. It’s got everything. But we know already from the enquiries we’re getting that the first 150 people for stage one are already here. Aside from that person, we are confident that ultimately the full 500 plus jobs we will need over the next four years will be drawn from the Toowoomba, Darling Downs, Lockyer Valley Fassifern, Scenic Rim areas and indeed people will move. This is a beautiful valley to live in, I literally today am settling on my house at Helidon, which is not far from Whipcott. And I know that you can buy a beautiful home with land for less than $500,000 in the Lockyer Valley. They will all come when there’s employment and schools. We’ve got three private schools in the valley already, large ones.
Michael [00:20:32] You’ve got the pineapples, you’ve got the beetroot. Now with corn, you’re actually looking there, possibly more at the export market and into Asia. So what we have to do to get into that market and convince the primary producers in the area that corn is the way to go?
Col [00:20:53] Well, I think, look, the export issue is not on the table just yet. There’s so much demand for these products here in Australia, including corn. And a large volume of corn currently goes from the Lockyer Valley to places like Bathurst in New South Wales because there are only two major cannery facilities in the country, one at Bathurst, which is Simplot and one in Victoria, which is SPC. And the reality and there’s room for all of them and all of us, so we are confident that we don’t need to worry too much about corn for the export market because we can fill the local market. And we know that well, we believe, we’ve never asked and face-to-face to the growers now that export large volumes of corn out of the valley into other parts of Australia are going to struggle to drive past a facility that can process it into whatever form they want it, including canned quite easily and economically. So we do believe that we will be able to either grow the corn with the existing growers or get growers currently committed elsewhere to come and be part of us so that we are feeding the Australian marketplace first. I’ve got to say, and I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but COVID has been a bit of a blessing to us because it’s made us all as a community realise between that and the transport problems driven by the external wars that have led to massive fuel price increases that Australia can’t afford to import everything it needs and may not be able to afford it if prices keep going up. So we believe we can actually substitute the existing import market with our Australian products before we need to export.
Michael [00:22:44] My guest today is Col Dorber, who’s managing director of what’s known as Lockyer Valley Foods or the Lockyer Valley Co-operative. And I’m Michael Kavanaugh and this is the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals podcast where we look at the primary sector and co-operatives. Col, you’ve talked about the Australian product, there’s obviously membership, there are shareholders. How do you ensure because you’re marrying that private equity with the co-operative ethos as well? How do you make sure that anyone buying those shares is Australian?
Col [00:23:21] Well, we’re not saying they have to be Australian as in nationality. We’re saying they need to live in Australia and be part of Australia so there’s no test. If you apply for a membership share in the co-operative and there are memberships that’s very important and you pay your thousand dollars and your money came or is in Australian dollars from Australia, we don’t further test, but we do know that the marketplace fundamentally at that level is Australian citizens. In relation to the company proper, essentially whoever puts their hand up to invest has to be entertained that’s why I and the proponent who formed the co-operative with a focus that its number one obligation to buy shares in the company. Now, I don’t sit on the co-op board. I could have, but what I’ve done is we have a policeman, a lawyer, industrial relations specialist, a nurse, a property representative out of New South Wales, and a man who owns a couple of patisseries and is involved very much in the charity sector. So we’ve got a very diverse board there and I act as an advisor to them. On my board Lockyer Valley Foods, we have an accountant, we have a nurse, we have me, we have our project manager, Lester Underdown who has been with me for eight years and has designed this whole project and we’re about to appoint two more people to that board, both female, one with marketing expertise and one with legal expertise. But the way we are focused, it’s all about Australia first and our board philosophy is local, regional, state, national and only look overseas for something if you can’t get it in Australia.
Michael [00:25:13] You’ve got to be known as Lockyer Valley Foods, the complete name is Lockyer Valley Fruit and Vegetable Processing Co-op we’ve seen. Over the last three years. And it’s probably been related to partly COVID and also a lot of the natural disasters and Lockyer Valley certainly hasn’t been untouched by some of those disasters. It’s at an opportune moment at co-ops, are people showing more interest in co-ops than when you started this project?
Col [00:25:43] Well, I’ve always believed in the principle of the co-operative. Part of my life involved 15 years in the New South Wales timber industry, three years in the wool industry, and 13 years as a serving police officer in New South Wales. So I’ve been exposed to a world where the existence of co-operatives is generally accepted, here in Australia we’re a bit blind to them. But when you look worldwide, they are fantastically successful and I’m trying hard that this co-operative will be successful. I just need to correct the naming. The co-operative is Lockyer Valley Fruit and Veggie Co-operative, registered under the Cooperatives Act, the national law. The company is the Lockyer Valley Fruit and Vegetable Processing Company Ltd, an unlisted public company, trading as Lockyer Valley Foods. It’s a real mouthful, but Lockyer Valley Foods is the words that matter most but the co-operative, Lockyer Valley Fruit and Veggie Co-operative, I am hoping is the key to our future. If it doesn’t work, it won’t be for lack of trying. It just needs Australians to say $1,000, I can take that risk.
Michael [00:26:53] We’ve been looking at the traditional foods of pineapple, beetroot, and I smile whenever I think of beetroot because I love beetroot. But you could guarantee if I was eating a beetroot sandwich, I’d be silly enough to have a white shirt on and the beetroot would end up dribbling down the front of that shirt. Pineapple is also really full of juice. You’ve got the tomatoes, the corn, traditionally, people know them hamburgers or in a sandwich or even barbecuing. But the pineapples in particular, you’re kind of going a little bit up-market there too much because you are looking at kind of drinks that possibly would appeal to the younger generation, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Col [00:27:34] We intend to aim at every market where there is a product that can be produced here in Australia and be sold to that marketplace not only at a profit but for the benefit of employment here in this country. I can tell you I’ve always thought pineapples were a premium product. I came from England when I was 13. I wouldn’t know what a pineapple was if I fell over it. And indeed I was handed a passion fruit ice cream at the Sydney airport terminal the day we landed and it made me sick because I didn’t know what a passion fruit was. But I can give you the best beetroot sandwich in the world. When I was a young police officer, I had children and not much money. I walked into a great delicatessen one day and I said, what can I have for $2 as a sandwich out there? I was in full uniform, gun on my hip, the whole bit. And this very sweet, great lady said to me, for $2, I will give you a peanut butter sandwich. And I looked at her and she said, what else would you want? I said, what about if it was on a crust with butter and peanut butter and what’s that? And I pointed to beetroot. And she made me a peanut butter and beetroot sandwich. I’ve been eating them ever since. If your listeners could see me, they wouldn’t know I was 70 years old, I reckon I look 50 because I eat peanut butter and beetroot sandwiches and I don’t wear a white shirt when I’m eating them.
Michael [00:28:51] You reckon that recipe would make Master Chef?
Col [00:28:53] I doubt it. Most people are appalled at it. But I’ve had a few people taste it and we’re putting it as a recipe on our next Lockyer Valley Foods newsletter because I love it and I’m just a very strange person, I suspect. But really, you’ve got to try it before you knock it off. And what’s wrong with peanut butter and beetroot sandwiches, it sells Australian peanut butter and it sells Australian beetroot and Australian bread. It’s got to be a winner.
Michael [00:29:20] Col, you’ve got all that product that’s coming in your corn, the beetroot, the pineapple, and you’re also looking at the fresh tomato market. The other aspect is a cannery in that it’s fairly high tech, a lot of maintenance and a product in itself. How are you going to make sure that you can have that supplied so that you can can the product that’s being harvested?
Col [00:29:49] That is a terrific question because we’ve had 13 years to get it right. We have been able to identify across the world a whole range of high-level technology. We’re not going to use anything untested, but we’ve been able to bring together worldwide technology in the canning industry. And we know from the design that we cannot only can virtually every product and by the way, especially tomatoes, tell you a little story about that in a sec, if I may. But the reality is it’s worldwide expertise, world-class technology, and for the first time being brought together in one place, we were going to go to America to look at plants over there. And we got a lovely letter, which I still have, saying to us; we’ve looked at your business case and your plan. Don’t come over because we want to do what you’re going to do. We can’t show you anything that you’re not already looking at. Same in China, I’ve been there a couple of times and we’re stealing “the world’s best technology” and integrating it to make it work. And we’re doing something intelligent. We’re building it using a principle of operating efficiency so that it can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we know that we can do it at a competitive price. Just let me give you the tomato paste example, if I may. Right now, tomato paste is brought into this country by the millions of cans, little cans, medium-sized cans. Most of it’s Italian, of course, we can and will produce a tomato paste of equal or better quality, and we can sell that can of tomato paste wholesale at a price currently cheaper than the price they landed in this country from overseas. And in every instance, in every instance we can because of technology and skill and a 24/7 operation produce canned products competitively with anything from overseas.
Michael [00:31:56] Col is my guest today on the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals podcast. He’s the managing director of Lockyer Valley Foods, which is setting up a co-operative, which will also be involved in the private sector as well. And looking at everything from pineapples, beetroot, corn, tomatoes and getting that very rich horticultural area of Lockyer Valley being utilised to the best, Col, any canning operation has massive power demands and we’re also going into more and more green energy and being able to turn around waste as well. How are you going to handle that sort of demand from the consumer?
Col [00:32:47] Again, because we’ve had 13 years to get it right, our development application that’s just been filed with the Lockyer Valley Regional Council and the Queensland Government directly confronts that issue by saying, one, we will recycle 100% of the water we use and two, we will have our own steam powered power facility on site. We will be off the grid by stage three of this project and we will use waste. So for example, we’ve estimated that there’s about 150,000 tonnes of green waste, including restaurant waste that can cost effectively be brought to our factory and be used to create a biofuel. Our intention has always been, and technology will be based upon minimal use of external electricity supply and a complete recycling model. And we built this factory design in such a way that things like maintenance are simple because we’ve actually sat Lester Underdown who is truly an eccentric genius has designed a factory made up of six buildings and 240 car parking spaces anyone can see all this on our website, Lockyer Valley Foods. And in practical terms, he’s made it user friendly. And, you know, one of the traditional problems in canneries across the world has been maintenance. They’ve had to shut down sometimes up to a week at a time. All of those issues have been out there, for example, where you’d normally have one processing line, we will have two, where they have integrated lines; we have them separately so that if one line is broken, you go to the next line. With our target is a 95% operational efficiency rate, which basically means running virtually all the time. So our pledge is absolutely unequivocal, we will be producing our own power. We intend to have our own gas-powered fleet of trucks using the gas, the methane gas that we produce on site. We’d like a million cars to pop in and connect a little hose to that but so we would use that methane tomorrow.
Michael [00:35:04] Well, we’ve seen the issue of energy costs, and you’ve been looking at natural gas as well with the spectre of energy becoming even more and more expensive, do you think that you will be at that point where you’ll be totally self-sufficient?
Col [00:35:22] We think we’ll get to the point where we’ll be exporting energy. And the same question that’s been asked of me many times about how can you compete against things like the value of the American dollar? Our mathematics show us that we can match every imported price, even if the Australian dollar became the equal of the American dollar. It’s just technology, skill and a proper design and the fact that we have access within 100 kilometres of the factory to so much product and we don’t have to steal anybody else’s. Anyone who doesn’t want to sell to us won’t need to because there is so much underutilised agricultural land, particularly here in the Lockyer Valley. And one of our future goals is our own land bank. I notice that Simplot in New South Wales has just announced an expansion, including a land bank. Well, I have been talking land bank for a decade and our intention is to address the ageing population of farmers and growers by saying to them either sell us your land or lease it to us and we’ll continue to give you an income ad infinitum whilst we are guaranteed access to your land to grow to our standards, the product we need. And there are things like potatoes, beans, broccoli, there is nothing that we can’t process.
Michael [00:36:51] Col Dorber is my guest today. He is the CEO and managing director of Lockyer Valley Foods. And I’m Michael Kavanaugh with the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals. You’ve got the encouragement from major supermarkets to grow the vegetables you’ve got growers in the area very well-established. Co-ops also often do things such as being involved in providing agronomists to provide that sort of expertise and advice. Will this be also doing that sort of thing as well?
Col [00:37:29] When I wrote the objectives for the co-operative, which were ultimately adopted by the Queensland Government, it includes the co-operative funding to agronomists to work exclusively for the benefit of growers in the Lockyer Valley, the Darling Downs and the rest of the region, to give them that expertise at no cost to them to help grow and better manage in our own little powder plant that I mentioned earlier. We’ve just retained an agronomist to come and do the big test of all our soils to tell us what the nutrients are and how to best plant our product. It’s fundamental that if we’re to have a lifelong relationship with growers and farmers and the broader community, we have to underwrite what’s needed to make it work environmentally. So not only are we having agronomists, we’re committed to a schools programme. If you grew up in Queensland, I’m a Pommy, I never knew this, but if you grew up in Queensland, apparently part of your life involves going to the Golden Circle factory at North Gate. Well, we’re determined to make a part of life and we’ve designed that it’s 100% safe for schoolchildren and tourists to come to the cannery and indeed to buy a product on site and to have picnics and do all of those things. We intend to put a childcare facility on site so that our workers don’t have to stress about what’s happening at home while also at work with us. It’s a whole virtue signaling narrative from day one has been this is to be a community project and community owned. And the good news for a lot of people who are sick of hearing this from me is that once it’s built and operational, thank the Lord, I will be able to retire.
Michael [00:39:12] Before you retire, Col, you mentioned in the newsletter and that culinary delight that you have grown up on that’s the peanut butter and beetroot. Are you also getting in the expertise of chefs and saying, look, we want to come up with some other recipes that will make beetroot more attractive to a lot of people, apart from putting it on either a hamburger or white bread, the tomatoes fresh, would you be looking at a little bit of out of the square recipes involving pineapples and beetroot may be combined?
Col [00:39:46] I know I haven’t sent you the full business case, but I’m astounded at your knowledge and foresight. We absolutely will have a facility, it’s already designed in the factory to be involved in product production of every kind and the powder plant is the first initiative. On our board, our nurse on the board is also a fanatical chef or cook, and indeed she’s been making me savoury meats for decades now and in containers 12, 15 containers at a time to feed me. But we absolutely believe that there are products not yet discovered and whether it’s powder, whether it’s juice, whether it’s out of our potato plant, which will make French fries, we want to get into that marketplace as well. There are a million opportunities in the Valley. We have an award winning cheese producer already, small family concern. There are products now that you can buy that are unique. We’re absolutely committed to not being blind to anything. It’s a community project and yes, we already have access to a chef independently. And indeed, our launch of our factory occurred in and last year at the Whipcott Pub and present there was a very famous, very well-known chef. I don’t have permission to use his name this morning, but he is the appointed food representative of the Lockyer Valley through the Regional Council and I’ll find out if you are allowed to use his name. But he’s all about local product and at our launch we had a very unique beetroot additive that was put with our meal.
Michael [00:41:24] Col Dorber is the managing director of Lockyer Valley Foods. It’s kind of got to that point where I suppose we’ve got to think about heading off and having something to eat. I don’t know whether I love the peanut butter, I love my beetroot. I don’t know whether you’ve convinced me yet, but I’m sure that anyone listening to this podcast and if they contacted you and said, listen, I’ve got this outrageous recipe for using some of the products, you’d be willing to take a listen.
Col [00:41:52] Absolutely, they can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or they can simply go on to Facebook, to our Facebook page or to our website, we will respond and we will try it. And I’ll be the personal taster, if you like, because when I finish this discussion with you, I’m going to actually have peanut butter and beetroot on a bread roll.
Michael [00:42:15] Now, do you get the crunchy peanut butter or the smooth?
Col [00:42:18] I like the smooth best of all but I don’t care, if it’s beetroot, it works.
Michael [00:42:35] Col Dorber, the person behind the Lockyer Fruit and Veggie Co-operative, which is located at Whipcott in southern Queensland, now Melina, do you enjoy a beetroot sandwich? Although like me, do you live in fear that the beetroot will spill out of the bun on just the day you’re wearing a white shirt?
Melina [00:42:54] Michael that takes me back to a kid and having those white bread sandwiches with delicious beetroot. I’ve always loved it, accidents aside but I’m going to love it even more if I know that beetroot is coming from a co-op.
Michael [00:43:05] Well, Melina going from the fruit bowl in southern Queensland, we’re heading across the continent in our next podcast to Western Australia and looking at a seafood co-op that has been running successfully for decades going into Asia, the US and other markets. So at the next podcast, get ready to tuck into a plate of fresh seafood.
Melina [00:43:29] 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 co-operation 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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