AN INNOVATIVE food network designed to increase marketing options for food growers and bring them closer to consumers is about to become a reality on the Southern Downs.
Initiated two years ago, the Southern Queensland Country Regional Food Network will go "live" later this month with the launch of a digital trading site linking growers and buyers.
Growers can receive bids via their mobile phones in the paddock or wherever they are so it's a very portable system
SQCRFN project manager Jules McMurtrie believes the concept has the power to change the way growers market fruit and vegetables and offers them genuine opportunities to develop supply links with buyers from restaurants, retail and growing mining camps.
"Many Southern Downs farmers have relied on the centralised marketing system for years.
"The food network offers them an opportunity to diversify and, in turn, gives them a chance to improve margins and established supply relationships," she said.
Simply speaking, growers - accredited under a system designed to ensure they are genuine farmers as opposed to traders - will list upcoming produce on the trading site so buyers can offer bids through an online portal.
"Growers can receive bids via their mobile phones in the paddock or wherever they are so it's a very portable system," Ms McMurtrie said.
"Meanwhile the produce is still in the paddock or on property.
Ms McMurtrie said the online trading portal had the potential to give the region's fruit and vegetable growers greater control over price and direct access to wide ranging buyers.
From a buyer perspective, she said the appeal was a reduction in food miles, an improvement in freshness with the shorter time-frame from paddock to plate and a chance to support the local economy.
At a practical level, selling through the digital market place will cost just 2.2% commission - well below the standard rates charged through centralised physical markets like Queensland's Rocklea.
"This is a business to business trading system or a business to consumer system," Ms McMurtrie said.
"No matter the size of scale of the businesses of farmers or buyers, there is a place for them in this market."
Ms McMurtrie said the first trial of the online site had happened a fortnight ago with both buyers and sellers responding favourably.
"Of course, we do have some logistics to work out along the lines of transport, but we are confident the system will work," she said.
"What it means is growers can ask a premium for specific products and they can decide at what price they will sell.
"And we are linking growers with buyers in such a way that there is the capacity to completely change the way we trade.
"Already our buyers' demand for fresh food products is exceeding supply so we need more farmers to come on board with the network."
Businesswoman Debbie Smith owns four Foodworks Stores, including one at Allora, and was involved in the initial trial of the digital marketing portal.
She described the food network as an "exciting opportunity" for both agriculture and retailers.
"As an independent grocer, it suits us to buy locally," Mrs Smith said.
"We cut days out of our supply chain, which cuts transport times and costs and means we can deliver a fresher product to our customers.
"We also have a real focus on locally-produced, value-added products and there are a lot of really interesting, quality foods produced in our region and we want to stock those too.
"If what gets picked today is on our shelves tomorrow, that has to be better for customers and, in turn, the saving through transport, packing and commission has to translate to farmers getting a better margin.
"We get a fresher product with a longer shelf life and are assisting local farmers and our communities."
Amiens farmer Dave Evans was one of the Granite Belt vegetable growers involved in the trial of the food network portal.
He said fundamental elements like listing produce on the site was much more straight-forward than he expected and the results were impressive.
"This is an opportunity for growers to diversify their marketing," Mr Evans said.
"I don't think it will ever replace a central marketing system, because that handles so much product, but this digital format offers us another outlet.
"It means we can get our products to the consumer faster and time-delay definitely impacts on quality."
Mr Evans said margins in his industry were "incredibly slim" so any options, which reduced costs were appealing.
"Through this digital system there is an opportunity we could get another 10, 12 and 15% for our produce through cost savings," he said.
"And the inquiry is already there from customers, businesses, restaurants and mine camps wanting fresh food direct from growers.
"We are seeing more and more consumers interested in where their produce comes from.
"They want to buy local and they want to know where it comes from and that information is all there on this trading site.
"Retailers are getting produce straight from farmers: It's fresher and it keeps longer when customers buy it and the farmer has reduced marketing and selling costs and some control over price.
"It has to be a win-win-win situation."