Julian Lee


Daily Organic chats with the inspiring Julian Lee who heads up Food Connect Sydney. A social enterprise that offers farmers a fair deal while giving consumers an opportunity to learn more about who grows their food and how it is grown. There really is no other word to describe this man, the business and his vision than inspiring.. 

JOANNA Julian I'd like to start at the beginning of your journey just to give people a bit of context about who you are. I understand your interest in farming first started with a Permaculture course. Can you tell us just a little bit about that period in your life?

JULIAN Sure. That's going back a little while now. I guess I always liked getting my hands dirty, liked growing plants and I came across this great idea called Permaculture and enrolled in a class and basically went through the learning there and I've got inspired into everything subsequent.

JOANNA And I understand that also led onto an interest in biodynamic and organic farming.

JULIAN Yeah, probably at that time when I did my Permaculture course I bought a bush block up in the Hunter. When other people were buying cars for about the same price I bought this bush block way up in the hills with the idea that I could live there and start a farm and do that sort of thing. And about ten years later I finally did actually make the move to go up to the farm and I started a little commercial market garden. Just a little bit before that I came across the idea of biodynamics and I remembered these two books that I bought and so I got them off the shelf and started reading these and it’s by one of the Australian forefathers of biodynamics and I got so excited and wrapped up in it that I wanted to do the farming up at my place biodynamically.

JOANNA Can you just explain, what is the difference between biodynamic and organic farming?

JULIAN It's a difficult thing to explain succinctly but one of the things for me that I really appreciated, and you do get these in organics, but it’s absolutely at the core of biodynamics, is the idea of closing the loop and really rich observations - noticing that the grass is a bit greener around the fence posts. What is causing that?  Is it actually because the cows wee there and so there’s more nutrition or is it actually that the tractors and things like that aren't compressing it so the soil is not being compacted and the worms and insects are actually enriching soil without any use of fertiliser. You know, just really minute details is what I really appreciated, minute details of the biology and really fantastic ways of growing food based on really close observations of nature.

JOANNA Makes a lot of sense doesn't it, really?  So how did Food Connect come about? 

JULIAN For me Food Connect came about because about eight years ago I was involved in promoting sustainable agriculture for the Western Sydney Councils. There are about 1,000 farms in Sydney, commercial farms, growing most of our commercial produce. There's only about five or six of them that are organic or chemical free. So, it was a big job to actually try and promote sustainable agriculture to these farmers. Most of the farmers, the non-organic ones, think that organics is either just a lie or impossible.

On the other side, at that time, what I was doing was trying to bridge the gap between people wanting to buy organics and the price. So, we established volunteer, not-for-profit bio-sweeps that we bought from the wholesalers and basically slashed the price of organics.

But I never managed to bridge the gap between suppliers and the consumers which is my big dream. Anyway, after about two and a half years of promoting sustainable agriculture to the farmers and having wins I really wanted to be able to look the farmers in the eye and say “I know that personally this is not only possible, but viable." So I went up to my bush block, started the farm and started a small box scheme in Singleton. After two or three years of doing that and speaking to a lot of farmers and trying to suss out if and how small to medium scale farmers can be sustainable and viable.

I was very fortunate to be able to go to Terra Madre the Slow Food movement conference held every two years in Italy where they invite farmers from all around the world, there were 8,000 people there. It was really inspiring but at the same time I came away with the conviction that what I've learned in Australia was happening all around the world which is that; we as consumers, for every dollar we spent at the supermarkets, as little as 5 cents in the dollar can go back to the farmer. So there is a real disconnection between who's growing our food for us, how it's been grown and what we pay and what we need to eat to be healthy.

So, at about that time Robert Pekin from Food Connect in Brisbane was doing a national tour and I got really inspired to start Food Connect in Sydney and to be part of, rather than slogging out as a single farmer trying to make myself viable, I want to be part of actually changing the market system. So, what we do at Food Connect is we pay farmers a fair price, we pay them on time. The consumers, we educate, we raise awareness and obviously the main thing we do is we actually deliver straight into people's homes and to City Cousins - local, seasonal, sustainably grown, fresh produce and groceries. In that way we are bridging the gap between who's growing food and how it's being grown.

JOANNA I've got to say I love it!  We've been getting the boxes over the last few weeks and it's almost like Christmas. You go "What else is in here!"

JULIAN We actually do get a lot of parents saying, because there's flavour, parents saying, Oh, the kids actually want to delve in and see what’s in there and eat fresh fruit and vegetables which they've never wanted to eat before.

JOANNA You do have very good relationships obviously with your farmers around Sydney. You mentioned a couple of the challenges that they face as far as only getting paid a minute amount of money. Are there other challenges that sustainable farmers face that consumers should really know about?

JULIAN Food Connect is very much about local farmers. By local we mean "just up the road". So the majority of our produce comes from within the Sydney Basin. And so Sydney Basin farmers in particular have a challenge around all the development going on. This is some of the best soils in New South Wales but certainly it's some of the best soils closer to Sydney and development means we are concreting over this soil. Now, the thing is, we've got a lot of environmental legislation designed for cities that's affecting our farmers and of course we've got new residents coming in that are now complaining that they are next to a farm, they chose to buy in. But of course it affects the farmers. You know, farmers start very early in the morning to produce the food that we want in our shops in time for us to buy it but the neighbours don't want them to be starting their tractor at 5am in the morning.

But, I really think the key challenge for farmers is that there is a real disconnection between us in the city and the people who grow our food. So these farmers are working very hard to produce fantastic food. They never know if anyone in the city cares or whether it even gets to somebody in the city. We as consumers obviously have the power but if we never even know that there are farmers right on our doorstep let alone the ones further out, then we'll never actually make a conscious choice to buy from organisations that support a world that we are trying to create and also supporting the farmers that we care about.

JOANNA So I guess from a consumer point of view, things that they could do is to obviously buy their produce from organisations such as yours as well as Farmers Markets. I suppose one question for a consumer at a Farmers Market is, what kind of questions should they be asking farmers to ascertain if they're a good sustainable farmer that follows ethical kind of procedures? Do you have any hints or tips around that?

JULIAN It’s a complex question but I guess finding out whether the person you are speaking to is actually the farmer or works at the farm. If they are certified organic then they should be able to show a certificate and then you've got some assurance that somebody else has been looking to see what they are doing and meeting certain standards.

But I think that it’s also completely legitimate to buy from farmers that are 'in transition' or are chemical free. We don't want to set the bar so high that these other 1,000 farmers in Sydney never actually even think to convert to organic and sustainable farming techniques. So you might want to also ask them, what do they do to control pests on their farm? What do they do to fertilise on their farm? Which are very practical things, what do they do to harvest? How do they store their food? How do they harvest the food? Where do they get their seedlings from? Really is about provenance. And, this is the really big thing that the mainstream markets aren’t giving us, as consumers, access to. It is not in their interest for us to REALLY know who's growing our food and how it's being grown. That's the wonderful thing about Farmers Markets and organisations like Food Connect but also the best way is to grow it yourself. You know yourself then what's gone into it.

JOANNA It's a case of what you don't know you don't know, and people need to ask their farmer questions but again, what kind of questions? If you could ask everyone to make three small changes, with how they shop and purchase products so that we can all accumulatively have a more positive impact, what would be three tips you would give shoppers?

JULIAN The first thing I would say is, remember that this is no small thing. Where you choose to buy, is where you vote for the world you want, three meals a day and every single time it's a choice for the world you want. So, in buying from organisations that do meet your values for changing the world, you can stop buying from organisations that don't meet your values you’re changing the world.

I guess I'd be saying it takes a little bit of work but figure out what sort of organisation is it that you are buying from?  Who is it that supplies them?  I guess, look at whether or not they are local. Are they ethical and sustainable - environmentally sustainable?  Just do a little bit of background research on that to decide, do you want to buy from this organisation or this brand?  There are plenty of organisations out there that can help you with that. Greenpeace put out a true food guide if you want avoid doing it. Buying from Food Connect means that you know it’s local, you know it’s fair, you know it’s in season and you know it’s sustainable. So, there are all sorts of organisations that you can buy from that will do that leg work for you.

JOANNA So what’s the future hold for Food Connect and for yourself. Australia-wide expansion?

JULIAN There are versions of us all around Australia, all over. So there are options for people in most of the capital cities in Australia and in some of the smaller places as well. One of my personal visions is to see that all 1,000 farmers in Sydney are organic and that everybody in Sydney can access it and afford it. It seems a great injustice to me that not everyone can afford fresh, nutritious food but also fresh nutritious food that hasn't been grown with chemicals.

JOANNA It's funny with your last comment there. Through our journey it's been a case of "What's more important than your health?"  You sacrifice certain things in your life in order to be able to afford organic food and everything else so I think that's the sort of question you need to get into people's head - what is the price that you put on your health?  What is more important than eating organically sustainable produce?

JULIAN You know it’s priorities. These pain points are really priorities. It's about what you are prioritising?  Are you prioritising your health now or paying for it later?  For most people eating more fresh food and veg, chemical or not is a good thing compared to the processed foods.

Also Food Connect is a social enterprise and what that means is that we have the motivations and the heart of a not-for-profit but we deliver those outcomes through a trading model and so we have the independence of income by selling things. So we think that also gives the ability to act quicker and we are not beholden to the government or the grant givers. At Food Connect all our profits go back to delivering on these outcomes which really means that as a social enterprise the bigger the profits the bigger the outcomes we can achieve in the world.

So what are the outcomes we are trying to achieve? Really, we want to improve the viability and ability to expand of local sustainable farmers. And, we also want to increase the awareness of and the consumption of local sustainable food. We obviously want to have an impact – a reduced environmental impact. We also want to bring communities together which is where our City Cousin program comes from. But probably one of the things that people might not know that much about is about the viability of farmers. Farmers around the world are more often than not price takers and not price makers. That means, because they are isolated, often working alone, and because the markets are so big relative to them they basically have to accept whatever conditions are thrown at them. Part of what that means is that they don't get paid for their work sometimes. If for some reason somebody just doesn't want to pay for it they actually can't protest very much. Because there are very few places that they can sell to and if they get black banned that's it! So they are in a very tenuous position. Being a social enterprise at Food Connect we feel that it is very important to treat the farmers with respect so we pay them a fair price. For every dollar you spend, at least 44 cents goes back to them. But more importantly we've just had a recent survey done of our Sydney farmers and they've said that because we've simply paid them on time they've had the confidence to bring on more workers, to buy the crucial bits of equipment that they need, to expand their farm and sleep well at night. I think that that’s a real, you know … thank you to all the people out there that are buying boxes from Food Connect because every box you've bought has made a difference simply because we're showing those farmers that their work is important and just paying them on time.

It's crazy, I don't think it has to be this way. At Food Connect no profits go back to shareholders. It's all been invested into making farmers more viable, educating and increasing consumption of the right food, producing a viable income.

JOANNA That seems unreal. I mean here are people that work their butts off to feed us and in a lot of or some cases they are not getting paid or getting paid a pittance. That just seems so backwards. It really does. So, thank you and congratulations.

JULIAN It's all of us working together.