As many Australians prepare to self-isolate or reduce their movements amid the coronavirus pandemic, and with essentials such as milk, bread, mince and toilet paper selling out — it’s creating an opening for small, local businesses.
- Customers are turning to local business to source essentials, such as milk, bread and meat, with supermarket shelves stripped of supplies
- One butcher in Scone, NSW, says he’s pumped out a record number of sausages, which are easy to freeze, in the past week
- Urban farmers have also been approached for supplies, which has resulted in a lesson in seasonal produce
In the New South Wales Hunter Valley, local producers are finding themselves in hot demand — and they’re hoping it will help counteract an economic downturn.
Jason and Annie Chesworth run Hunter Belle, a dairy company in the Upper Hunter that supplies fresh milk and cheese to local stores as well as their own cafe in Muswellbrook, run by Mr Chesworth’s parents.
This week, Mr Chesworth has been working around the clock, bottling 5,000 litres of milk a day at his factory in Scone, as supermarkets increasingly run out of the essentials.
“I’ve got the pasteuriser going non-stop at the moment.”
Yesterday, as Coles announced a limit of two bottles of milk per customer, Mr Chesworth fielded dozens of calls from people asking to buy his milk.
He said, as a small business owner, he was more agile and able to meet an increase in demand compared to many larger brands.
“People are struggling to get their milk from their normal avenues,” he said.
“Big corporates are so big, a lot of them don’t realise their problems until they’re wrapped up in them and, by that point, it’s too late to try to get extra product out.
“We’re lucky — we know our farming family who we get our milk from very well … we’re the only two people between the cow and the consumer, so we can just keep going. We’ve got plenty of capacity.”
Your questions on coronavirus answered
- Am I eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement from Centrelink ?
- What are the rules on self-isolation and what are the penalties?
- What do the new shutdown measures mean for me?
A report this week from Rabobank shows slowing imports from countries such as China are likely to hurt the Australian export dairy industry.
But at a local level, small companies like the Chesworths’ are benefitting, as shoppers find themselves forced to return to old-fashioned routines of visiting individual stores such as butchers and bakeries.
Scone butcher David Luck says he’s been producing the equivalent of nearly 2 beasts’ worth of sausages and mince each day this week to cater for demand amid the coronavirus pandemic. (ABC Upper Hunter: Michael Pritchard)
Nearby in Scone, butcher David Luck is pumping out record volumes of sausages — up to 400 kilograms a day.
“We’ve had, quite possibly, the turnover of a week in a matter of days,” Mr Luck said.
“It’s [a lot] when you think about, a body of beef that comes into the store weighs about 200kg.”
While other cuts of meat were selling at a normal rate, it’s the cheaper, easy-to-freeze mince items that were stockpiling favourites.
Mr Luck said he believed the initial rush was an indicator of “panic buying”. But now, customers were “buying bulk quantities just to try and make sure they’ve got it”.
“It is going to come down to how much people are willing to pay because, ultimately, we are going to need to pay more to acquire that product.”
Mr Luck’s regular supplier had been inundated and had closed to orders.
“We’ve had to source out of Sydney, Brisbane, anywhere and everywhere, you name it. And that impacts on price as well,” he said.
But he said, so far, that had not slowed sales down. He had just made another big order and was urging customers not to panic.
A lesson in seasonal produce
Melissa Fogarty, an educator who runs an urban farm at Medowie, north of Newcastle, said she had been fielding calls asking if she was reopening after a tough, dry summer to supply the local community with produce.
“We have had more people contact us about what we have available because our local supermarket is running very low, and also a lot of people are not keen to go to the supermarket for various reasons,” Ms Fogarty said.
It’s led to an awakening for many callers accustomed to buying whatever produce they wanted year-round.
“We’ve had a lot of requests for things like broccoli and they’re just not ready yet,” she said.
“But we’ve said to people, crops that grow much faster, like bok choy — they’re coming. Snowpeas — they’re coming.
“[People are learning] things don’t grow in 24 hours — it takes a minimum of five weeks for a radish to grow, 60 to 90 days for broccoli or carrots.”
Ms Fogarty said it was causing people to question their reliance on mass food production.
“People now can see that sometimes having only two or three supply chains for food is not really the safest and most community beneficial way to receive your food — and so looking outside at alternative sources is a good idea.”
Hopes the demand will continue
The Reserve Bank of Australia has said COVID-19 may leave the nation’s economy in the doldrums for months, if not years, to come.
Jason Chesworth doesn’t mince his words on the mood around the pandemic’s impact on his family business.
“We were really, really scared before [this week] about what a potential lockdown might mean for our business,” he said.
“We run things pretty close to the line; I’ve got some big debts.”
But he said the support from locals had been “unbelievable”.
“We plan on helping as many people in the Hunter as we can in the coming weeks get their hands on some dairy, even if it means we have to deliver it to them ourselves,” Mr Chesworth said.
“We really bust our backsides to run these businesses and do our best to employ local people.
“At times like these, we just hope it doesn’t hinder us too much and we don’t end up losing our livelihoods out of it.
“Hopefully, this is a sign — if we can get the milk out to the people, we might be able to get some sales and keep our head above water.”
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
- Coronavirus is changing how we work. Online scammers are taking advantage
- Scott Morrison’s coronavirus stimulus package shows he has finally learnt to love deficits