Martin Meek, director, United Organics, Brisbane Markets, Qld
Tell me about United Organics
United Organics is the only Certified Organic wholesaler at the Brisbane Markets, and we have been operating out of the market since the early nineties. We employ about 30 people and we also export to Singapore and Hong Kong.
What sets your business apart from other wholesalers?
We really push that we are Certified Organic because there are still a lot of people using the term organic without the certification.
We pay to be audited every year to keep our certification up to date and we only deal with growers who can provide their Organic certificates.
We also maintain very personal one-on-one relationships with our growers and customers to ensure that they get the support they need.
What do you specialise in?
We are unusual in that we deal in the entire range of fruit and vegetables whereas many wholesalers these days tend to specialise in specific lines.
Where do you source your produce from?
We source our produce from a broad base of growers comprising mainly smaller growers who specialise in specific lines, as you can do organics on a small scale and still be commercial.
We are also seeing some of the larger conventional farms starting to dabble in some organic lines to dip their toe in the water as they see opportunities grow.
We try to flexible with our specifications and supportive in our buying practices, as we appreciate that without our growers we don't have a business and it is part of our charter to encourage new farmers to the industry.
Who are your customers?
United Organics deals exclusively with independent retailers, including the local IGAs and Foodworks, as well as some of the bigger agents at the Brisbane Market.
Having been in organics since the nineties, are you still seeing much growth in the sector?
I have been in organics for about 30 years.
I started out in retail in the nineties, as one of the original founders of the Flannerys Group, still one of Australia's leading natural organic health food stores and wholefoods market.
There have been many changes in the organic sector and we have certainly seen some impressive growth. Currently the growth in the organic sector is about 15 per cent, with export a little higher, although it is harder to pick as it is going through many more different channels whereas in the past we really had the market to ourselves.
Now I like to call organics mainstream fringe whereas in the early days it was just fringe.
How did you get into the fruit and veg business?
I got into the produce side of organics in 2008 when I sold my share in Flannerys after about 16 years.
At the time, I had been dealing with Ross Cowley from United Organics and his partner Jim Davis.
Jim wanted to retire, and because I had been dealing with these guys for nearly 20 years and knew the business I bought out Jim's share about five years ago now.
What has changed at the market over the years?
The large supermarkets buying direct from some farmers has changed the dynamic at the market.
What this has done is make the market evolve to find better ways to value add to the independent retailers.
What is the best thing about working at the market and in organics?
This may sound a little bit hippy but there is a shared integrity in most people who work in the organics space that I quite enjoy: we all have a similar value set.
In regard to working at the market - it's a great industry, it's interesting, every day is different and I love working with food.
Also, you get the afternoons off, although the 3.30am starts are a high price to pay for the privilege.
What would you change at the market if you could?
I would change the hours.
If you could say something to consumers about organics what would you say?
I would tell consumers that investing in organics is investing in the environment, investing in their health, investing in the future of farming.
It is an investment that pays dividends all the way up the food chain and as advantageous to our soils and our water table.
Organics is just a good investment, and I think as we see more government money invested in sustainable farming practices organics is the future.
What is most challenging about the industry?
The irregularities with supply and demand are challenging; dealing with over and undersupply depending on the season and adverse weather events often make it difficult.
In organics, the challenges are magnified because we tend to have a shorter growing season and we don't have the depth of supply that conventional produce has.
What is the secret to a successful business?
In think being hands-on and having a good strategic plan and executing that plan with a little flexibility contribute to a successful business.
What does the future hold for organics in the fruit and vegetable industry?
We are currently in the transition phase where I think over the next five years we will become less fringe and more mainstream. Organics will become the norm and available in all retail outlets.
We are currently campaigning state by state to have a National Organic Standard adopted into the food code.