As a 25-year old, Matt Azadi would walk down health food aisles wishing he had enough money to fill his basket with certified organic food. It was the impetus for him to find a way to make organic food cheaper and available to everyone regardless of income.
Years later he’s procurement and category manager of Eco-Farms, trekking mountains and crossing rivers to meet with farmers in remote areas of South America to buy grain. Eco-Farms is a wholesaler and manufacturer based in Sydney. It has 350 grocery products certified with Australian Certified Organic – most are sold under the company’s own Absolute Organic label and others are packed under private labels.
Towards price parity
He’s proud they’ve developed products that are close to, and sometimes cheaper, in price to their conventional counterparts and that he’s making certified organic ingredients such as quinoa and chia seeds available to Australian manufacturers.
The company has reduced the costs of their products by cutting out the middlemen and buying direct from growers. The product range is extensive and includes tomato purees, coconut oil, chips, pasta and grains – all sold through health food shops and some supermarkets.
“Eco-Farms wants to look after growers and make sure consumers can buy organic at reasonable prices,” Matt says.
“This was my five-year plan and I think we’ve achieved 80 per cent of what I wanted. At more affordable prices, more people will jump into organics and buy it. We are advocates for organic and organic consumption and we want to supply the community with a good product.”
Grower direct means mutual benefits
Buying direct from farmers, rather than from wholesalers, brings certain ethical and moral obligations in excess of normal commercial transactions. Matt says it’s not about bargaining for better prices – they pay what they’re asked. “I want to respect the farmers so they’re there for me next year when I need their product, so I don’t abuse the negotiation process. Working with growers is our main target.”
Taking a translator with him, Matt goes to farm gates. Doing it this way saves 10–15 per cent of costs on the end product. The farmers might not have international connections but they have a tight-knit community that knows everything. They know what the market is bringing and what it costs to produce a product per hectare. In South America he buys hectares of product, not kilos. He says, “I’ve asked processors to reduce their costs for us because they’re getting a guaranteed job. When you buy direct there’s not a big difference between conventional and certified organic grain [prices].”
This is how Eco-Farms sources most of its grain now. It also sources from Asia and Europe in bulk, which means it has 2000 tonnes of certified organic chia, quinoa, flaxseed and coconut oil available to processors.
Promising to buy x number of hectares of product from farmers puts the pressure on the marketing arm of Eco-Farms back home, which has to work hard to sell the product. Matt says competition helps to keep the prices fair once the products hit shop shelves and they offer volume incentives to retailers to increase throughput.
Is it really organic?
As certified organic farmers, suppliers to Eco-Farms are required to provide results of residue tests; however, when the product arrives on Australian shores each container and batch is tested again. The results are presented to Australian Certified Organic auditors as part of its annual onsite inspections.
Matt says, “Thankfully we don’t have rejections regularly but there have been cases where we’ve sent a whole container back. We do that without negotiation. If we find anything that breaches the Australian Certified Organic Standard, the container gets sent back.”
The next five years
February marked the end of Matt’s last five-year plan and the beginning of another, which includes the launch of an Absolute Organic butter and Napoli pizza range. The brand is on shelves in Malaysia, and going to Taiwan in April and the Middle East in 2016.
“We have a good, humble team and we learn every day. Despite how many mountains, growers and rivers I’ve been to, we are not a bunch of arrogant brand managers.
“We have 100 per cent satisfaction on complaint cases. Being the size we are, we can change quickly. If retailers want us to do something different, we can. Australian Certified Organic is a big part of our business and we deal with them about certification issues daily.”
He thinks the perception that organic is much more expensive than conventional is stopping retailers from stocking it; however, he says now with the availability of Absolute Organic, it’s not such a valid excuse, and as awareness grows about their range, the perception should change over time.
Eco-Farms has also been working tirelessly to build its fruit and vegetable supply; however, sourcing fruit and vegetable suppliers can be much more variable than sourcing grain suppliers because of the weather.
Matt has big plans for the organic industry and is certainly making sure it’s a competitive market. He says, “I’m happy when I go to health food shop cafes and there are students sitting there eating organic. It makes me feel fantastic. I love it. I feel I’ve achieved something.”
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