From paddock to plate

Transforming a defunct abattoir into the hub for a meat co-operative on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula

Interview by Michael Cavanagh

Satisfying everyone involved from paddock to plate is the driving force behind the move to take over a defunct abattoir and transform it into the hub for a meat co-operative on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula – The Fleurieu Community Co-operative.

Located 55 kilometres from Adelaide and with a population of around 6,500, the town of Strathalbyn is known not just for its picturesque scenery, but also for its production of top-quality beef, pork and sheep, which also provide high-quality wool.

This ability to process meat locally was in jeopardy when the abattoir closed. For many years it had been a family-run operation, but was later owned and decommissioned by a large commercial group. The farmer who then purchased the land was not interested in the abattoir, which led to a push to run it as a co-operative.

Grant Baker is the visionary behind this initiative and brings with him decades of advertising and marketing experience in Australia and overseas. The Managing Director of Adelaide-based PKF Accelerate, Mr Baker was initially asked by the Regional Development Association to carry out a feasibility study to investigate how to get the abattoir up and running again.

After the potential for a co-op became clear, Grant managed to unite farmers and other stakeholders from right across the food chain in pursuit of a common purpose. “Very quickly we realized that the role that it actually played in the community was far larger. The impact that it had of its closing was being felt exponentially across the area, not just from the farming community, but from the demand side as well,” explained Mr Baker, “from restaurants and other businesses – we just saw it as such a key element that the community was missing out on that we took it up quite aggressively.”

Grant decided to bring on board David Parsons, a regular user of the abattoir who had previously spent several decades working overseas in international trade before returning to his roots where his family had farmed for around 140 years. “What we’re looking at now is an organisation that will help us meet the needs of our consumers. And we can work together over the long term,” Mr Parsons noted. “We can have products that the consumers actually demand, right across the board – from wholesaling to retailing on the plate.”

Both a private business model and a co-operative were possible options, but for Grant Baker it was about more than just business. “One of the key considerations was the concept of paddock to plate. The sustainability and food production in South Australia has always been very high on the agenda”, Mr Baker said. “There is no facility in South Australia that allows paddock to plate because they are all the large commercial abattoirs … it would be about profits, whereas with a community and co-operative model it was actually about securing the future of the actual community for the farmers.”

This strong sense of community has resulted in not just primary producers having a share in the co-op, but also cafés, smallgoods producers and even hauliers who are involved in transporting the food from the paddock through to the final product.

Those wanting to become members pay a $100 joining fee, and then purchase a minimum of 100 shares at $1 each. No-one is allowed more than 20% of the total shares, and each member has only one vote regardless of their equity. New members have to be approved by the board and members are required to use the facility at least once per 18 months. “We do this to ensure that it's in the best interest of the community. It's not someone in Singapore that's deciding that this could be a nice idea to make money, but rather those people that are actively involved in the community and the program.”

The development of a “brand” is also something which David Parsons believes will help showcase the primary produce of the Fleurieu Peninsula. “I've been talking to other producers. We have a particular style of lamb that is demanded by restaurants and butchers. We could work with other farmers on the peninsula so that we can get a common product. This would add to the whole process and I believe we're going to do a lot more of that as technology changes.”

Once the co-op is up and running, you could find yourself sitting in a restaurant or cafe enjoying fare that was processed by the abattoir, handled by a smallgoods merchant or butcher, and delivered by a transport company – with each being a shareholder in the co-op. The paddock to plate philosophy of the co-op means the animals are treated well, businesses receive fair payment, local communities are supported and the consumer enjoys a high-quality product. At the end of the day, everybody wins – which is exactly what co-operatives are all about.

Listen to our interview with The Fleurieu Community Co-operative's Michael and David on our Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast.

Visit The Fleurieu Community Co-operative website.

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