AN ONLINE food network is hoping to shift the balance of power away from Australia's supermarket duopoly but needs $100,000 from a crowd-funded project to launch the scheme nation-wide.
Serenity Hill, a co-founder of the Open Food Network
(www.openfoodnetwork.org.au), said the project received start-up funding from VicHealth to help to get the idea off the ground but organisers now hoped to raise an ambitious $100,000 via crowd-funding to see the online software concept launched nationally next year.
Ms Hill said the crux of the concept aimed to offer farmers a differentiated marketplace by connecting them with customers and retailers in addition to cutting out the middleman to ensure the profits returned to the farm-gate.
"It's about providing a platform somewhere in the middle of a wholesaler and farmers' market," she said.
"We could see the gap where farmers didn't necessarily want to take control of the whole chain themselves and saw the value of working with an independent and ethical middleman.
"So what we tried to build was a transparent supply chain which supported retailers and wholesalers but made sure it was transparent - and that consumers and farmers were getting a good deal too."
The software is at a trial stage at the moment, with five regional food hubs in Victoria using the online platform.
This includes the South East Food Hub (through which 10 farmers in Melbourne's south-east are selling to consumer buying groups) as well as one in Mildura.
But the idea now is to build scale, with Ms Hill likening the platform to eBay.
She said Open Food Network ultimately wanted to offer Australian producers, retailers and consumers a way connect to market and source food.
"One of the biggest benefits is that people can read about the farm their food comes from," she said.
While similar platforms have been set up before, Open Food Network's point of difference is that it offers the chance for individual farmers, producers groups, retailers and wholesalers to create an online "shop".
About 200 people have helped to raise about $20,000, with the tipping point for the crowd-funding set at $25,000.
"We are very happy with the money raised so far," Ms Hill said.
"But we need to get to $25,000 to help us to launch a limited public service in October.
"We thought crowd-funding was a new way to raise money and a good way to promote what we are doing too."
For a $200 donation to the cause, farmers can set up their own shop, or $50 will get producers a profile linked to the Open Food Network map.
"It's helping to get those early adopters on board," she said.
"People are seeing the real value of the idea."
So far the cause had received strong support.
"We have really tapped into that growing uneasiness over the huge concentration of power in the supermarket sector," Ms Hill said.
Kirsten Larsen, another co-founder of the network, agreed, adding the food supply system had major issues.
"The supermarkets and other 'big guys' are offering a raw deal and little bargaining power to both farmers and end customers," Ms Larsen said.
VicHealth chief executive officer Jerril Rechter, who also helped to get the idea off the ground, said the notion of using technology to open the doors to fresh and affordable food for everyone was the way of the future.
"Digital technology has opened our world up to more options," Ms Rechter said.
"We don't have to rely on big corporations to source our food for us any longer.
"By connecting consumers with the growers and supporting local businesses, it's better for the environment, our community and our farmers.
"We would love to see this idea grow to reach all Australians and we know it will make a big difference."
Direct market a boon for producers
A FREE-RANGE pig farm at Eganstown is reaping rewards from marketing its products online.
Tammi Jonas and her husband Stuart (pictured with children Oscar, Antigone and Atticus) established Jonai Farms in 2011, just outside Daylesford, giving up their jobs in the city to pursue a life on the land.
They sell ethically raised pork and bacon through online channels such as Facebook and Twitter and have established a butcher shop on their property.
"We were never interested in selling through retailers," Ms Jonas said.
"We wanted direct contact with our customers and we didn't want to lose any margin through a long supply chain."
The family have been involved with the Open Food Network trial from outset and say they are confident it will expand nationally.
"The main benefit for us is that it offers a direct connection with customers, gives consumers faith in the food system and increases profits because we aren't selling at wholesale prices," Ms Jonas said.
"And that two-way connection between the farmer and customer is fabulous."
Ms Jonas said the platform would be invaluable for small producers who did not possess a knowledge of how to market food.
She said she expected the crowd-funded project to be received well because organisers had demonstrated a clear vision from the beginning of what they wanted to achieve with the idea.
"We are actually using crowd-funding at the moment to build an on-farm curing room so we can make salami," she said.
"It's a great idea to promote what you are doing."