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Community & Business

9 March, 2021

Change of direction for Ravenshoe farmers

IN June 2019, Mark and Francis Toohey stepped away from 100 years of family tradition of farming cattle and potatoes, to set up their new enterprise, “Buy Avocados Online,” and their timing seems to have been perfect.

Ravenshoe Avocado grower, Mark Toohey of Buy Avocadoes Online and marketing coordinator Nicki Dyson inspect the 240m rows of the farm's 25 year old avocado orchard that has been transformed into an abundant example of syntropic agoroforesty

By Sally Turley

IN June 2019, Mark and Francis Toohey stepped away from 100 years of family tradition of farming cattle and potatoes, to set up their new enterprise, “Buy Avocados Online,” and their timing seems to have been perfect. 

Buy Avocadoes Online delivers 2.7- 4.7 kg satchels of chemical free avocadoes, picked fresh to order from their trees, direct to their customers’ door and includes helpful information on how to manage, eat and store their fruit to maximise the eating experience. 

Their new business has grown exponentially during 2020 and they have accumulated a strong customer support base, many of whom now have regular standing orders for product. 

Believing the established system of getting food to producers served neither the producer nor the customer, the Toohey family couldn't have picked a better time to launch their fledgling online business. 

They, like other growers, had been selling their avocadoes through the Rocky Point packing shed and onto the two major supermarkets via the wholesale markets, but they were frustrated by the inefficiencies and shortcomings of that system. 

Their corporate purchasers demanded blemish free fruit conforming to specific size and weight criteria, which were put on the road for too long, gas ripened and then put into cold storage, resulting in a very hit and miss product for consumers and wastage on farm. 

COVID has changed the way a lot of people shop and the relationship they have with producers. Customers are looking increasingly to food as a source of good nutrition and healthy outcomes and are now actively taking part in making good food choices. 

“We stopped using Glyphosate three years ago and soon after we gambled on our first fully organic orchard. We were already a long way towards an organic operation before the official decision was made,” Mr Toohey said.

At the end of last year, the whole farm was declared “organic in conversion” pending full organic accreditation in the near future. While the business' sales made steady progress throughout the last half of 2019, it was when Mark and Francis made the decision to hire marketing coordinator Nicki Dyson that things really started to take off . 

Nicki jumped onto the business' Facebook page, onto Sell, Swap and Buy sites and any other relevant platforms along the east coast of Australia, and started building the story about the Toohey family, their business and their philosophies about good food and good health. 

This drove traffic onto their website and as more customers tasted their fruit and liked what they tasted, the conversation began in earnest. But it wasn't all plain sailing and the company learned a few operational lessons about delivery of product along the way. 

Even though COVID worked in their favour, producing a new type of customer, hungry for online shopping, organic produce and the opportunity to support Australian farmers and small businesses, their delivery system, Australia Post, chose then to go into meltdown.

They ended up with delayed and lost bags of avocadoes turning up as far away as Perth and sometimes not arriving until they were rotten and unusable. Packages labeled as avocadoes from the outside were often raided en-route leaving customers with none or only part of their order. 

Nicki Dyson was full time online during this initial phase, answering questions, reassuring customers, mitigating disasters and re-sending orders that had gone wrong. Interestingly, Ms Dyson said their customer support only grew during these tricky times. 

She believed that for customers, it was about making that connection with the producer and feeling valued. If they could get the support they needed and the product they were looking for, they didn't want to move to another seller and have to restart that process. 

The mistakes and disasters, mainly externally generated, gave them a chance to prove their credibility and commitment to their customers, who have come back asking what else they can buy from the Toohey family. Mark said that enthusiasm has encouraged them to expand their range. 

They sold $10,000 worth of pumpkins last year, are working on selling honey in biodegradable packaging and are considering a dried banana product in the near future. 

In the meantime, Mr Toohey's commitment to a chemical-free farm and regenerative agriculture has continued to grow and he is in the process of converting his entire 809.5ha of lush farming land into a syntropic agoroforestry system. 

Syntropic farming is about growing fruit, nuts, vegetables and timber together in the same space to replicate the growth that occurs in nature's abundant forests creating a system that generates more energy than has been invested.

It was started by Ernst Gotsch in Brazil, when he used it to restore dry and depleted farm land by planting a combination of species that grow to different heights, maximising the use of sunlight at each strata. 

Mr Toohey has combined eucalypt trees with avocadoes, bananas, ginger plants, turmeric, cassava, pumpkins and tomatoes believing that through the biodiversity of the plants, the soil becomes richer, sequesters carbon and produces plants so packed with nutrition from the rich soil, that no chemicals are required. 

As the orchard grows, it creates its own environment, from the microbial biome (gut bacteria of the orchard), up to the canopy, increasing humidity within the system and sometimes even leading to increased rainfall. 

“It is not okay to sell lesser quality product just because it is organic,” Mr Toohey said. 

“The only way to go organic and combat weeds is by using large amounts of inputs – compost and organic fertilisers, which have to be brought in."

In a wholistic, regenerative syntropic orchard, plants become self-sustaining and protect themselves from pests. 

“Becoming organic makes you lose your economies of scale. You have to earn the right to be an organic farmer and it has made me an advocate for other producers going through the same process.” 

But with customers loving the more intense flavours of their avocadoes and last year's supply selling out a month before the end of the season, there will be no turning back for this ‘reluctant food activist.’   

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