The Farms I Don’t Choose and Why I’m a Proud Failure of a Retailer

The Farms I Don’t Choose and Why I’m a Proud Failure of a Retailer

Recently I was having to send a difficult email to a farmer I had visited recently as to why we couldn’t represent his produce in-store. I thought about how tough it is to make that call and how it is that I know whether I have a farm I can believe in 10 minutes into a farm visit nowadays.
I’ve been thinking about that. How to define that knowing and what that difference is that makes me know it’s not right for us or alternatively makes my heart rate increase because I know I’ve found something special.
I thought I’d chat about that this week, why we choose the farms we do, the answer perhaps not as obvious as people would imagine.
It starts with the strength of the farmer’s conviction in his philosophy. If that doesn’t grab me within the first ten minutes, I know it isn’t going to work.
I have a gut instinct for good farms. I know that I can trust it because this has been a long 7 year road for me and I’ve visited so many and often disappointed many because I just can’t make compromises with that ‘intangible thing’ that determines whether I have found something I can believe in or not. How do you define the essence of a farm? It always starts with the farmer, who he or she is and the particular context they have had to deal with, shape, journey in, arrive at and the philosophy that has developed in them as a result.
Those of you who have been with us for years know that we didn’t have lamb for too long because I couldn’t find a farm I could believe in. I knew I was looking for something very particular, like I had found with Keith Harvey for example. I kept saying I wanted to find the equivalent of what Keith was – to beef – to lamb – and if it was going to be true to our need for truly sustainable farming, a relationship and traceability it was going to have to be the Karoo.
That vegetation being the best for lamb grazing as the North West is for cattle.
Every time I searched, all I could find were co-ops bringing in lamb from that area where traceability to an actual farmer was elusive.

I couldn’t settle for that because I’m not here to sell ‘lamb’ for lambs sake or any produce for that matter for the sake of selling food. I’m not that animal. I’m here to find the best farmers I can find and get their produce connected to you and the first thing that is critically important – is the farmer.

Have I found a farmer with a passionate, thorough philosophy of raising animals in a true pastured environment? Does the farmer have a very real and defined philosophy of sustainability that he talks about with conviction? When you find a farmer like that, there is no mistaking it. You spend time with them and you leave feeling inspired, leave feeling like you would walk miles for them, leave feeling so moved at the difference they are making, leave with a feeling of life in your veins , the excitement of finding something you can believe in.
It starts with the strength of the farmer’s conviction in his philosophy. If that doesn’t grab me within the first ten minutes, I know it isn’t going to work.
Years without lamb and holding out for the right farm, ended up with me first having an introductory meeting with Steve and Samantha Venter from Aldersyde Farm in Bryanston and knowing before I had even gotten to the farm that I had found the lamb farm I had been waiting for.
That elusive thing I hold out for is a passion for the farm and the animals that comes through from the farmer. I listen to hear about their love for and understanding of their land.
I listened to Steven describing this deep Karoo farm with a sparkle in his eye, passion and love for the farm he had grown up on and I knew it was going to be everything we wanted. Samantha interrupted him at some point to excitedly speak of the 2 hills affectionately named ‘Mary and Martha’ that you see as you arrive in Tarkastad and Stephen jumped to find a photograph of them and I knew in that instant that this was the farm. He was connecting us to a land he loved, grew up on, has childhood tales from and his Father, the shepherd he had always been, with pride.
Then we made a trip down there and found it – true Karoo bio-diverse veldt reared lamb and we haven’t looked back. Even though standing for this farm has its challenges and means with the distance we have to accept it frozen with the shelf life of lamb being so short.
We make it work because this is the farm and this is the lamb we believe in. So many times, we have been given other options for fresh lambs from delivery systems coming up more frequently and whilst it would help us meet your need for fresh, pink MAP packed lamb – I can’t do it. It connects us to co-ops – not the time old Karoo farming family of the Venters in Tarkastad that I trust implicitly and stand behind because to be on that farm and see true Karoo wild lamb farming like that, is an experience I can never adequately explain, though I try – see my first article on Aldersyde Farm Aldersyde Farm

The farms we end up representing in this store are almost fairy-tale like in how different, rare and exceptional they are. They aren’t commercially viable farms in most instances, in terms of the dominant conventional food system.

That’s why they are gems and why this journey is as challenging as it is, yet one I would choose over and again and walk over more nails for if need be.
Because I don’t give a donkey about being a great retailer.
I have a store – but no interest in retail, I get challenged on this declaration so many times but I mean it. Just because I am selling produce in a store – in a shopping centre – does not make me a retailer. I get told, often by old school boys club ‘retailers’ (got to love them) that I am not a retailer and they don’t understand why I take it as a compliment and would take being called a successful retailer as a grave insult to my character at this point.
Telling me that I suck at retailing delights me, it tells me I’m in the right place with my integrity and authenticity and inability to manipulate and deceive all intact.
Back to farming and the example of our relationship with the Venters of Tarkastad, we have a relationship with that family and farm that has meant nights spent with the family around their kitchen table getting to understand who they are and what their challenges are.
It’s like that for every farmer we have engaged with. I have never started a relationship with any of our farmers and not left deeply moved and with a friendship first before we get off to the business of getting their food to you.
So unprofessional, so un retail-like. So not sensible, utterly stupid in terms of old school measurement – how do you recover the cost of all that travel? I don’t.
How many times I’ve been looked at like an utter bimbo for my non- financial sense answer, I feel rocks, I know in some place that at some point and one day, somewhere it counts that although my visits to the farms make no financial sense, in some day, place and time, the fact that I make the effort for the farmer and for my customers and my own peace of mind, will be worth something.
I have to believe in the farmer first and a farmer with a sturdy philosophy of farming animals in as natural a setting as he can, has an unmistakable passion of purpose – that comes through first – and when you meet it, you can be sure that it translates through everything they do on the farm.
I feel that about Tom Breytenbach from Brennaissance Beef, Charlie Crowther from Glen Oakes, Barry Sergeant from Beatrix Mountain Goats, Mandy from Mooberry, the chicken farmer I met in the Cradle doing her eggs, Merryn from Aloe Dale, Dimitri from Gourmet Greek, Grant Warren from Preston Farms, Nigel and his Free Range chickens, the CTOrganics family, the Venters from Tarkastad, Shadrach and Kingdom from Chartwell Veggie Patch – these are all farmers whose philosophy I trust first and foremost.
The moment I can’t feel a farmer’s philosophy and passion for sustainable farming, we can’t go anywhere and I never talk about those farms that I can’t adequately represent. Sometimes I leave just knowing that the timing just isn’t right yet, that the farmer has logistics and a context to overcome for a time before he or she is at a point where they are ready for the demands of the very conscious consumer who will be asking all the hard questions. Those are our customers and our community. As impossible as we are, we are loyal to the point of lunacy to farmers we trust.
There are many good farmers who are trying to make their context work who are at different stages of the journey. I have learnt to never judge a farmer unless you have walked a kilometre in their well-worn boots. Their context is hard. Their lives are hard. The reality of making ends meet is hard before you get into being a sustainable one and take a risk on your belief when you don’t have a large enough market to sustain you and you live and work on faith and passion alone. I’m always stymied when people say absurd things like ‘organic food is just a money making racket’ – wow – if you only knew how much that isn’t true in this country – I haven’t met anybody making large money out of organic food yet – rather I have met people who have sacrificed much – way more than anybody without passion would – in order to stay ‘vas’ on a journey that doesn’t make any great business sense yet – yet your heart and soul won’t let go because you know access to this nourishment is the greatest sense you know. A different language, a different logic, it’s different sense where we measure the impact we have on life through our actions and the legacy of change we want to leave.

When good farmers have found something they believe in, they are relentless and determined to do things their way and you see their philosophy of animal, land and soil care and doing things right permeate every single aspect of the farm.

So I think what I wanted to share with you is how important this aspect is for me. I don’t go anywhere near looking at pricing or logistics until I feel right about the farmer. That being my primary consideration before anything else. It’s very unscientific, I’m sure many have written me off as not much business-like but that’s what it is for me. I work on my gut and heart first.
Making head sense of numbers, logistics and ironing out practical problems is the easy part we can always find solutions for, evolve with – but getting the feel right for the right farm, that’s the x factor for me, where it all begins or ends.
Is this a famer who has a philosophy for farming that inspires me – that I can learn from, that I can trust?
If I arrive at a farm and I can’t hear the philosophy and the conversation is about price happens too early and I can’t see evidence of the farmer’s passion and philosophy permeating the farm, I know that I won’t be able to represent it because I can only connect you to farmers I passionately believe in.
I can’t make decisions about finding things that are convenient or priced right – that part comes later when the relationship is set but by following my gut here, I believe I have found some of the most rock sturdy experienced sustainable farmers in the country and it’s them I wake up to serve every day, the calling they rise to serve every day, the love, care and concern they put into natural farming, the short cuts they won’t take, the efficiencies they won’t make and the call they make to stay true to farming in alignment with their own philosophy which is connected to farming well and in a responsible manner.
There are many mid-way farmers who are wanting to get to a place but have to work out of an existing context in order to survive. There are so many, many shades of grey when it comes to how much a farmer can do that vary with every single farm. Depending on what they inherited, depending on where they are financially, depending on how close they are to an appreciative market that can support them, dependent on what they can do on the particular context of the farm and it’s topography and geography, dependent on what debt and investment they have to cover and so much more.
So many mid-way farmers whose journeys and decisions will help usher them further forward once this consumer base grows but can’t make the leap in entirety yet because there aren’t enough of us – willing to pay the right price to step out of the volumes based cost efficiency model – that this food can never be – yet and that we never want it to be.
When it comes to who I am and what I want for the store, if that passion and philosophy isn’t there and I don’t get a feeling of joy and excitement and belief in my belly, I need to walk away because I know I will not be able to write about them to you with meaning or feel like I’m connecting you to something magical and significant. I always hope it means ‘yet’ because once something in the farmer’s context changes, he will alter and perhaps come out of his trials with a strong philosophy and we can re-connect .
I never know, I just know that until that time, I can only sell from farmers that I could write poetry about because it moves me so much.
At this point in time while this business might be a challenging one done this way because it means we always have to overcome the limits of my inflexibility in this regard, this is how it is for me and I think why it is that I believe that I am selling produce from the best farmers in the country.
I think to judge me on the size of our store or the breadth of our range would be to miss the point. We’re selling deep here not broad.
Heaven knows if I became a bit broader in my standards the retail aspect of this business would make more sense. I’d have more to sell with relaxed standards and I could have a broader range. I can’t do that though and stay here as I never set out to be a successful retailer.
I can’t motivate from that place, I can’t motivate from a need to make money or be more efficient – I can’t even attempt to because I was never in that place and never arrived here from this place – I am no retailer. I don’t think like one, I don’t want to think like one, I don’t want to ever have to dilute what I believe in in order to behave like one – I can’t learn from retailers as there road is one I do not want to follow. I don’t want to be compared to them and I am never going to compare to them.
That doesn’t mean I don’t need money and I don’t need this business to be sustainable – of course I do – of course that is the grand experiment happening here – can I do this differently and keep it financially viable? It doesn’t mean I don’t need to do that, it just means that I can’t find energy and motivation based on making money. It doesn’t excite me or move me, and if I had R10 left to my name, I can guarantee you it wouldn’t change.

Some people are motivated by making money, I don’t find that motivating, I find making a difference motivating and that’s where I get my core energy from. Making money for money sake is a survivalist game and has no real meaning for me.

I’m on a different road, a lesser trodden path, trying to prove that there is a way to maintain integrity and create a new model of doing business focused on the new values of collaboration over competition, quality over quantity, trust over control, meaning over manipulation, community over independent success, empowerment over exploitation, heart- over – head. Which is not what the typical retailer does. It might not be clever in the logic, reason and linear way of thinking – but I think it is wise in the language of heart, who sees things differently. When head and heart work together, something special happens and this is our grand experiment.
So I am not a retailer and I cannot learn from the way other ‘retailers’ have done it. What I’m doing here is different and its success needs to be measured by very different parameters – not volumes, not glossy bells and whistles, not bricks and mortar – but on the quality and authenticity of who we are and who we stand behind and the quality of what we have and whether we make a difference to people and are doing something to heal this planet. And we do.
While I’m on this topic of why I am dismal failure of a retailer and why I wear this label proudly, I need to address this utterly absurd issue we have with The Gourmet Greek yoghurt.
The Gourmet Greek yoghurt comes in a 1kg tub. We take the full 1 litre tub. If you buy that tub from us, it is filled right to the top with 1 litre of yoghurt.
Other retailers are skimming off 200ml from the tub and selling 800ml in a 1 litre tub. It is the same size tub on initial appearance as ours – but unless you look closely, it isn’t immediately apparent that there is air between the top level of the yoghurt and the lid –the air is where the missing 200ml isn’t!

This makes our price for the yoghurt seem higher than other stores when it fact when you do the conversion – our price comes out cheaper.

It’s a fiddly perception game good ‘retailers’ play and because I’m not a ‘good’ retailer, I can’t do it.
Apparently it’s very clever and a ‘retail’ thing. Like skimming of 20g of mince out of a 500g pack to make the price look better, knowing that you aren’t going to miss 20g. Clever. Like making you pay an odd R1.5k in effect for 30g of micro-herbs conveniently packed for you in a way that utterly exploits you but not in a place you’ll notice. That’s retail.
Apparently this is very successful and clever and I find it utterly- tonsil. I don’t think it’s clever, I think its simply manipulative and a game any old clown could play really. I think selling authenticity and not manipulating people is a more noble pursuit, although tougher, yes, it’s harder.
I am not prepared to fix the perception problem by playing the same twit game and skimming off 200ml’s to fix the price perception. Why? Because the air at the top of the tub where the missing 200ml is – reduces the shelf life considerably.
I don’t see the point. I can’t see that 800ml is a more convenient volume of yoghurt to deal with. That makes no sense to me. If we presume that most people buying the yoghurt are doing so for a family of 4 – 800ml is 4 servings of 200ml and 1 litre is either 5 of 200ml or 4 of 250ml. Most people are going to have at least a cup at a time so why on earth would 800ml work better than 1 litre?
It doesn’t, it’s just that ‘good’ retailers play games with perception points like that. They know that you won’t notice the missing 200ml – you see the large tub and you think it’s around 1 litre and the price looks more accessible to you, you feel better about it, you aren’t noticing the missing 200ml’s.
You don’t see that our tub is full to the top either so we look more expensive by not taking a smaller volume and then we look like expensive chops when actually when you compare using the real figures – we are cheaper.
So we’re fed up with this silly perception game – I am not going to reduce the volume in ours to 800ml because I don’t think that air at the top benefits anybody, the air reduces the shelf life so unless you tell me that you all want 800ml and not a litre which is a volume that makes sense to me – we are going to keep it that way and just better educate people that our tub has an extra 200ml’s.
For the month of June, we are going to have a special price on the 1 litre Gourmet Greek yoghurt and market awareness of why our size is different to the equivalent people think they are seeing in the 800ml which they are in fact not.
We will be giving you the extra 200ml for free – bringing the price back down to what everybody is paying for 800ml but with the extra 200ml remaining which I’m not going to take out. Because I’m not a’good’ retailer.
I can’t tell you how rewarding that felt to once again just chat off the cuff with you. I will never be able to stop and this natter will continue in the ‘what’s on my mind’ sections reminiscent of the old no edited newsletters I used to ramble on.
For those of you who find this chatter important, thank you, for your years of reading, for the ongoing dialogue and for being there.
This journey is evolving, thank you for always being there.
Debbie Logan

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