A grower, a beef farmer and the markets make moves to survive during COVID-19

New way: Dylan Abdoo, of produce growing outfit Newcastle Greens, organising vegie packs last Friday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
New way: Dylan Abdoo, of produce growing outfit Newcastle Greens, organising vegie packs last Friday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Before COVID-19 hit Australia hard, Dylan Abdoo and Elle Brown's food garden business was delivering microgreens and top quality vegetables, and even exotic greens, to 85 restaurants a week in Sydney and Newcastle and points in between.

As of this week, they are delivering to two restaurants.

IT'S Tuesday morning and Newcastle City Farmers Market director Kevin Eade is still stressing. Almost every day the rules of engagement change. So far the markets are regarded as "essential" and he hopes it stays that way.

Still, he's under enormous pressure to conduct the markets in the safest way possible. Vendor numbers are down, and the customer numbers are down - about 1600 at Newcastle last Sunday - but there is plenty of fresh produce being sold direct from farmers to the public.

Stressful: Kevin Eade, director of Newcastle City Farmers Market.

Stressful: Kevin Eade, director of Newcastle City Farmers Market.

MEANWHILE, retailer newcomers Steve and Liz Binnie continue to take bold steps towards opening a retail outlet exclusively selling their Hunter Valley grown Wagyu beef. Binnie Beef Warehouse, at 144 Parry Street, in Newcastle West, a building the Binnies have owned for some time with business partners, is set for a soft opening between Saturday, April 4, and Good Friday, April 10.

The Binnies raise Wagyu breeding cattle, with 90 per cent exported to serve the high-end overseas restaurant market. That business has dried up since COVID-19 struck around the globe, and the Binnies are working hard to sell that beef domestically, particularly in the Hunter Region.

The one certainty now is that nothing is certain for primary producers. The goalposts keep moving. Small business people have to adjust quickly, and let their customers know how they can do business with them. Or just head to the sidelines and figure out how to deal with the consequences of standing still.

Wagyu specialists: Steve and Liz Binnie of Binnie Beef Warehouse.

Wagyu specialists: Steve and Liz Binnie of Binnie Beef Warehouse.

FOR Abdoo, it's a daily challenge. He had to let the last of his staff go last week. His partner, Elle Brown is now homeschooling their son, Leroy. Abdoo managed to plant out his Cooranbong farm before he had to dismiss his staff. He's also helping the Morpeth farmer who has been sharing a field with him.

Last Friday, Abdoo offered 40 vegetable boxes (each with 10 products) at $40 a pop to customers who had contacted him through instagram (Abdoo's firm was an early adopter of instagram for showing his freshest lines and taking orders by direct message from chefs). He delivered the boxes to the one-off "farmers market" set up outside Scottie's Fish Cafe in Newcastle East.

This week he changed tact, doing direct delivery himself on Friday of 50 vegetable boxes (at $50 each) - all filled with product picked from his fields on Thursday. It includes a few lines grown exclusively in Auastralia by him, like honey snap peas. Things you'd only see if you were dining at hatted venues like Muse in the Hunter Valley or Quay Restaurant in Sydney.

"It's enough for a family of four to have a vegetable component for the whole week," he says. "It's going to get better. We've got potatoes and onions coming on."

FOR Eade, who has been in the markets game for 21 years (he also manages Gosford and Lake Macquarie farmers markets) the focus is firmly on maintaining the link between grower and consumer.

"The last fortnight, what a strain, getting all the things in place," he says. "But, I gotta say, the customers, at all our markets, the customers have been fantastic. They are adhering to the rules as set down, and I certainly thank them for it. If that continues, there is no reason for us to close."

The Newcastle market will be open this Sunday as usual, from 7am to 1pm.

FOR the Binnies, it's a quick pivot for their beef business. They've created a direct delivery service, offering a selection of five beef packs, that will start next week, as well as donated vouchers and beef to local charitable causes. They bought cargo containers, refrigeration units and a commercial meat grinder, and fit out their new store themselves. They're farmers - they're used to challenges.