Farmers find innovative ways to feed seeding staff

Dorothy Henderson and Shannon SmithCountryman
Sonja Johnson at her South Stirling property.
Camera IconSonja Johnson at her South Stirling property. Credit: Laurie Benson

As primary producers in WA undertake their normal seasonal activities, such as shearing, calving or preparation for seeding, they are also dealing with unexpected hurdles thrown in their way by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the coronavirus upends food supply systems and restricts movement globally, even farmers who may have considered themselves blessed by the isolated nature of their workplaces are now finding themselves directly affected.

When restrictions were placed on the items including flour, toilet paper, meat, and frozen vegetables, producers who shopped weekly, fortnightly or even monthly, found their usually sensible buying practices impossible.

South Stirling farmer Sonja Johnson said farmers could have a lot of people to feed normally, let alone at this time of the year.

Usually they buy enough to last them, and the staff, for many days to limit the number of trips into town.

Now, Ms Johnson said she is forced to make her more than 40 minute each way drive to Albany several times a week to keep people fed and her farm running.

“A normal shop would involve us buying 12 litres of milk and that will do us for a week,” she said.

“We like to bulk buy our green vegetables and have enough for us to get us through for a week or 10 days.”

Ms Johnson said other people in the district were feeding eight people or more, putting in crops and calving, and were having to run to town every couple of days to get enough food.

She called on supermarkets to consider the people working hard to keep up food production, and keep farms running in a time when it is more important than ever.

She said people could potentially show their address, their farming ABN or use their rewards card information to show how they normally shop.

Meanwhile, in the Esperance region, farmers faced with the same situation have dealt with it in different ways.

Some have placed orders with South Coast Food Service, an Esperance-based wholesaler which made its first delivery to towns in the Esperance Port Zone last week.

Farmers can order online, and then collect deliveries from their nearest town — including Scaddan, Grass Patch and Salmon Gums, Munglinup, Jerramungup and Ravensthorpe, Cascade and Condingup.

In a move likely to bring good cheer to the region’s farmers, the delivery service will also transport Lucky Bay Brewing beers.

Grass Patch farmer Dan Sanderson.
Camera IconGrass Patch farmer Dan Sanderson. Credit: Rosie Henderson

Grass Patch farmer Natalie Bowman, who instigated the delivery service, said she had just collected her first order from her mailbox, dropped off by a neighbour.

“Seeding hasn’t started for us as yet, so we haven’t had any major issues with food supplies as it is just the two of us at home and we have our own meat,” she said.

“It is only fresh fruit and veg that we are really after.”

Mrs Bowman said many farmers were trying to isolate themselves and their staff as much as possible to keep everyone healthy ahead of seeding.

“In our community we have decided to get together and organise a truckie to do a delivery run to Grass Patch each week,” she said.

“Individual farming businesses will do online or phone ordering from various places around town and I will collate the pick-up list and send the truckie to collect for us.

“Woolworths continues to be a challenge, with no online shopping options, but we are more than happy to support all of our smaller local retailers for our supplies.”

Mrs Bowman said the South Coast Food Delivery service supplied “pretty much all of the basics”, including fresh milk, fruit and vegetables.

She said as seeding cranked up, there would be six people on farm, and with family members considered vulnerable to the COVID-19 impacts, and French backpackers in the mix, the on-farm community was well aware of the risks of not self-isolating.

“Like everyone on farms, we are happy to be here and out of the mainstream,” Mrs Bowman said.

Howick farmer Michelle Fowler said she had not had to use the delivery service yet, but she probably would.

Mrs Fowler said she was disappointed Woolworths had discontinued their online ordering service, at a time when it seemed like it was most needed.

“Like everyone else, the restrictions on amounts have affected us; traditionally we would only shop or put orders in once a fortnight,” she said.

“But we are old, so old habits die hard: we always have long life milk, powdered milk, canned cream, our own eggs and dried yeast for bread.”

Further north in WA’s Mid West, the Feed a Farmer Midwest WA Facebook page was started to deal with the problem.

The Facebook page said it was created to provide “support for farmers of the Midwest WA to source the grocery supplies they need during seeding, as current shortages and restrictions have been making this difficult due to the coronavirus outbreak”.

Grass Patch farmer Daniel Sanderson said his community dealt with the issue of supplies and self-isolation by having one family member as the “nominated shopper”.

Mr Sanderson said the family was grateful for the support provided by the Pink Lake IGA, which was taking phone orders, and for the instigation of the South Coast Food Service delivery, which was being expanded to include bread from Brumby’s.

“I am disappointed by the response to Woolworths and Bunnings at a time like this: they are putting families and their staff at risk by not taking phone orders,” he said.

He applauded the efforts of businesses in Esperance which had taken steps to make sure farmers could get the items they needed at a busy time of year.

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