Making Nature’s Grade

Katy Barfield is one of Australia’s fresh food waste crusaders. After seven years heading up SecondBite, a not-for-profit business distributing surplus fresh food to community programs across Australia (and in doing so providing enough fresh produce to produce six million hearty nutritious meals to people in need annually), she picked up a spade and is pushing a new barrow, with a business aimed at finding a market for produce that is ‘Nature’s Grade’.

Katy Barfield, Spade & Barrow, SecondBite

What was the Genesis of your New Business ‘Spade & Barrow’?
When I was working at SecondBite I became aware of farmers that were unable to sell their produce and were struggling to put food on the plate for themselves. There is a mass exodus of farmers from the land. These farmers are often limited from selling up to 40% of their crop because of imperfections, usually because it doesn’t look glamorous enough for retailers. It still tastes great; there’s nothing wrong with it. It seems crazy to me that there are some 1.1 million hungry people in Australia, yet this perfectly edible produce is going to rot. Add to that the price squeeze on farmers by major retailers, processors etc – something here is clearly broken. I saw this as a prime opportunity to find a way to help these farmers discover a new alternative to sell their produce. It’s led to what I’ve termed ‘Nature’s Grade’ at Spade & Barrow, a new grading of product, which is essentially the produce straight out of the ground, ungraded, in it’s absolutely naked, natural form; just as nature intended it. We’re interested in making the food system work again, as it is currently neither fair nor equitable. We are driven by the need to be sustainable, and we don’t shy away from that.

Cabbage, Spade & BarrowHow did you Test your Theory?
We created a pop-up market to see if the community would go for it. We were able to offer this produce at a price around 20% less than the perfect specimen you might see elsewhere. We found that many people were happy to save one fifth of their total food bill if they were prepared to accept a completely healthy, flavoursome, yet wonky carrot!

In my previous role I’d had some dealings with Aussie Farmers Direct who donated produce and I knew they’d support this concept. I needed help on the logistics side with getting this produce to a central spot and then delivering it to customers. Over the past six months I’ve worked with Aussie Farmers Direct on a trial and, without much effort, secured around 80 customers across Melbourne and Geelong. Aussie Farmers Direct has also provided some financial support to the business to help us grow and take the program beyond the Victorian border.

Do you Personally Select the Produce?
Getting out to the farms and seeing what these farmers are doing is really important to me. It also provides my small team and many of our customers with an opportunity to help out some of these farmers in a hands-on way. We have worked with a farmer called Gavin in Bendigo who has 40 acres of mixed produce and was at real risk of losing his farm. He simply couldn’t afford the labour for harvesting, so we went up there with a few volunteers to help harvest parsnips! This has morphed into what we call our ‘Community Harvest’, which we aim to do with one of our farmers every quarter. Doing this is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work and the joy on our customer’s faces is priceless. We also liaise with local food hubs in regional areas; these social enterprises purchase produce directly from small to medium sized farms. There is a real movement towards a fair and equitable food system happening – it is amazing!

How do you Change Perceptions that Visually Imperfect Food is Still Okay?
My mum lives in Spain and there, as well as in many other European countries, they wholeheartedly embrace food as nature intended. Imperfect looking food is almost sought after – it speaks volumes of its natural origin. At the moment our customers are mainly restaurants, caterers, cafes, schools and TAFEs. I suppose chefs ‘get’ that there is nothing wrong with this food. Hopefully this knowledge will filter down to consumers who can start to make decisions to buy food that has a little bit of personality! My vision is that ‘Nature’s Grade’ produce is embraced by everybody. It is an ethical, environment and economic choice, but it will only really be that if we redistribute power fairly across the food system. I am really keen to do some myth busting around produce, and this is a big one.

Vegetables, Spade & BarrowWho Most Inspires you and Why?
My children, boys aged four and two. When I come home at the end of the day they run to me and they inspire me to be present – to be patient, slow down and enjoy every minute. They also challenge me to try and inspire a better world for them to grow up in. Gavin, the farmer I mentioned, is one of the last farmers standing in that area. When the likes of him go – and that is a real and terrifying possibility within this generation – my kids won’t know what a farm is like. I don’t want my kids to grow up without knowing where their food comes, or without seeing, knowing and understanding the natural environment from whence it came.

What has Been your Proudest Achievement?
Aside from having my children (I’d drop anything for them!), on the professional front it would have to be my work with SecondBite. When I walked out the door of SecondBite for the last time as the CEO, I looked back and took a moment to reflect on how I had developed the organisation. It was the first time I’d really taken stock – I was always looking and moving forward with it. My proudest moment will be when SecondBite doesn’t exist anymore. When that service is no longer needed it means a solution to the current food problem has been found.

What Issue do you Believe is the Most Vital for Australians to get Behind?
When I hear people say that climate change isn’t real, I want to shake them. I am also worried about losing control and access to our own food system. It is the small farmers that keep it local, that aren’t owned by multinationals, that we need to support. This includes supporting those practicing good animal husbandry. Some of the things that are done is this realm are just awful. It is another example of having zero connection. We all need to all connect in a more meaningful way to stem some of this behaviour.

What’s for Dinner Tonight?
My kids are potato mad! Last week I went to Bill Henderson’s farm in Trentham, Victoria, where he grows the most amazing Sebago and Exton variety potatoes that are delicious, light and fluffy. I will be boiling these with a little mint and salt and serving them with sustainably sourced trout, which I will lightly poach, and fresh broccoli from Werribee in Victoria. Yum!

Spade & Barrow supplies ‘Nature’s Grade’ produce to restaurants, cafes, schools, caterers and food service outlets in Melbourne and Geelong, with plans to expand into Queensland and New South Wales. If you are a kitchen interested in becoming a customer, or a farmer (or know of one) that is looking to supply fresh quality produce that might look a bit more natural, contact Spade & Barrow via or call 03 8669 4950.


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