Vegetable farmers, Oliver and Lisa Shorthouse were hospitality professionals for years – Oliver was General Manager of Andrew McConnell’s restaurant group (now known as The Trader House Restaurants ) and Lisa was Andrew’s PA – before they moved to the Dandenong Ranges to establish Ramarro Farm. They grow a diverse range of fresh produce and the industry was the bulk of their business, until March, so we’ve checked in to see how they’re going.
1. How has Ramarro Farm had to change its operation since March this year?
We made the decision early to stop delivering produce to our Melbourne restaurant clients, about a week before restaurants were officially closed. We thought it was the right thing for our family and our employees. We have good friends living in the north of Italy, Oliver met them in his twenties while he was working on their vegetable farm and over the years they’ve become like family. They warned us not to underestimate this virus and so we made the decision to cease wholesale deliveries and open an online store.
At the time 90% of our business came from supplying restaurants. We lost this practically overnight which was scary (we had recently expanded our business to take on more customers before the restrictions were imposed) but we held on to the notion that as long as we could create enough business to pay our bills and keep our employees employed, we would be fine. We used to operate a small market stall at our farm gate on Saturdays. We originally began this initiative because we wanted to create better connections with our community and because we believe people have a right to fresh, chemical-free produce grown locally. We were fortunate enough to have a core group of customers from our farm gate market who happily adapted to our online store. Since then we have been overwhelmed by the response. During the first lockdown we had customers travelling from Brighton, Northcote, Fitzroy, Elwood, all over Melbourne to pick up veg from our farm in the Dandenong Ranges!
We were so impressed with the way many of our friends, clients and ex-colleagues from the hospitality industry adapted to the challenges of take-away, finish-at-home delivery and selling their own veg boxes. With the support from a limited number of wholesale customers alongside our retail customers, we remained hopeful our business would be able to continue.
2. What have you learned about yourself and your community since having to deal with such changes?
We have a four-year-old son, and being parents has taught us that we can’t control everything. The uncertainty of the COVID-19 reality has reinforced this. We prepare for what we can all the while knowing that at any moment our business may be forced to change again. We’re really proud of the way our team has been able to adapt to this new way of doing business and we’re confident if we need to, we can change again. The support of our community and customers from further afield has really kept us going. Our business was becoming a well-oiled machine selling in bulk to restaurants. Selling to the public involves a lot more administration, it’s almost like a whole different business, but the feedback from our customers makes it worth it. Our produce can be challenging at times because we are used to growing an interesting and diverse range for restaurants. At first we worried this would put customers off but it has been a pleasant surprise to see how the community has accepted the challenge. Products such as ice plant, rosa radicchio and shungiku are now firm favourites for many of our customers. Our customers have told us our produce has reinvigorated their love of cooking and that makes us proud of what we do and the effort we put in.
3. How are you and your family?
The first lockdown was actually a rather special time for us. Yes, it was distressing and uncertain but it also forced us to slow down. After our busiest summer season yet we needed to take it easy but we wouldn’t have done that unless we were forced to. Autumn is a beautiful time of year in the Dandenong Ranges and we spent a lot of time outdoors as a family going for bush walks. Although we love Melbourne and often miss it, we felt very grateful we made the decision seven years ago to leave the city for a life closer to nature and we had the added bonus of food security living on a vegetable farm. Our son loved having his parents around more and our whole team discovered a new appreciation for working outdoors.
This second lockdown has been harder personally. Our son misses his friends and the stimulation pre-school offers. It’s winter now and the Dandenong Ranges is one of the rainiest parts of Australia so we are often indoors. The case numbers are worrying and we feel for our staff who are also having to return to online learning with their children or remain home when they’d rather be out fishing. All of us are struggling a little not being able to do the things important for our mental health but we are also keenly aware that we have much to be grateful for: space, nature, meaningful work, a close-knit team and supportive customers.