For the last two years young Aussie farmer Andre Henry has been taking on the big players in the retail world and helping his parents bring new life to their traditional tomato and mixed cropping farm.
Today, Glencoe Farms is selling fresh tomatoes and tomato-based products direct to consumers – at farmers markets, in stores and online. And Andre walked us through all the steps involved:
1. Identifying the problem
A then 25-year-old engineer, Andre Henry returned to the family farm in north-west Victoria in 2014 to help out his parents, Tony and Rowena. But he quickly discovered there was one important obstacle to securing the future of their 312 hectare property – and that was prices.
“I went back with the aim of making some efficiencies on the farm. Then I realised that we don’t have an issue with what we grow, but we do have an issue with what we get paid for what we grow,” Andre said.
“Tomato prices are the same as they were 26 years ago. If you’re getting paid the same in real terms as you were in 1986, you’ve got to find a way to keep the business moving forward and sustainable.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong with our food system, and it’s not fair. So we need to try and change that.”
2. Finding the right solutions
For Andre the way to bring about change was obvious – reconnect directly with the consumer and add value to their tomato growing enterprise.
He started by selling fresh fruit at farmers markets with the aim of getting a premium price for their good quality fruit. But there was one big drawback.
“It’s very, very seasonal because all of our tomatoes are outdoors. So we only have fruit for approximately a six-week period each year,” Andre said.
The answer to that problem came from his customers, who were asking about sauces and other tomato-based products.
Andre employed a food scientist who initially developed six pasta sauces and passatas. Today their product range has expanded to also include a variety of pastas and vegan jerkies.
3. Standing out from the crowd
Before launching their own products, Andre said their fruit was leaving the farm to be mixed with salt, sugar, preservatives and thickeners like cornflour.
“Our point of difference is that all of our sauces are gluten and preservative free, and are exceptionally low in both sugar and salt. They are made with tomatoes grown on our farm, as well as other quality Australian grown ingredients,” he said.
“We’re really proud of the produce that leaves our farm and we want to be really proud of the food that goes on the table.”
The Henry’s have also forged a deeper connection with their customers by naming each of their sauces after members of their family – like Uncle Tony's Chilli & Olive Pasta Sauce and Auntie Rene's Garden Vegetable Primavera.
“We’re trying to redevelop that emotional connection between the city and the country,” Andre explained.
“A lot of people in the city now don’t have that country cousin. If we can be that connection, that’s a good thing. People can actually understand what goes into producing the food on their table.”
4. Marketing your products
According to Andre, marketing is really a full-time job in its own right.
“I went back to the farm thinking I could do a value-add, but then I realised that basically if you’re farming full time, you don’t really get a chance to do marketing. There isn’t enough time in the day to do it all,” he added.
Undeterred, Andre took to cold-calling retail outlets, and building his presence at farmers markets and online.
Glencoe Farm products are now on the shelves in 25 stores in Victoria, and are also sold by the family at 11 farmers markets every month.
And Andre is now spending a lot of his time on improving their online store.
“I made our first website myself and it was just basically so that we could have a website. We didn’t even have an online store, just the background of the farm,” he said.
“Now we have an online store and we’ve got it secure. But I’m still learning SEO and marketing and ad words and social media and all that sort of stuff.
“It’s a slow build, but hopefully we will do it in a sustainable way as well.”
5. Giving it a go
“Whether it’s farming or some other business, if you’re not trying to move forward then you are really moving backwards. You’ve got to have a crack,” Andre said.
“So far the signs are good for us and we’re continuing to try.
“I have a target to grow sales by 20% a quarter which is a really big challenge that I’ve set for myself. But even if it all stops, at least we’ll know.”
6. Looking to the future
Andre is now planning to include Durum wheat in their cropping mix. The wheat will be milled and used for their pasta range.
He also wants to reach a point where the processing of their products, currently undertaken by a small-scale manufacturer offsite, can be brought back in-house.
And, if everything goes according to plan, Andre sees a day when their retail business can be the equivalent of the farming business.
“So, if in a drought the farm can’t grow anything aside from a small batch of tomatoes to do our sauces, our future would be secure in the retail business. If we can’t remove climatic variation, we can do something to remove the risk of it to our business.
“We love our farm and we want to secure its future and not have to be a price taker – that’s our dream, that’s probably the dream of every farmer really.”