HOW do farmers get a price signal that rewards good environmental management? A new internet initiative, My Farm Shop, is attempting to do just that.
Just launched on a trial basis, My Farm Shop aims to bring together producers and customers who are jointly dedicated to achieving the "triple bottom line" of environmental, economic and social sustainability.
"The way the system currently works, farmers often see things as a choice between good environmental management or poverty," said a partner in the business, Sue Ogilvie.
"There's a sense that systemically, the whole system is headed off a cliff. We wanted to do something that will help identify the market signals that help farmers meet the triple bottom line."
The intent of My Farm Shop is to support farmers at what they do best - farm - and give them an alternative route for the marketing and distribution of their produce to a wide audience, at minimal cost.
The partners in the venture see it as an alternative to farmers' markets, or an outlet for farmers who take extra steps in animal welfare or environmental management, but who end up selling their stock through conventional outlets for want of an alternative.
The business is a collaboration between Ms Ogilvie and partner Danny O'Brien, former technology specialists who have now dedicated their time and skills to supporting regenerative farming systems; and Michael and Elizabeth Croft of Mountain Creek Farm.
As well as direct-selling beef, pork, lamb and honey from the Crofts' ACT farm, Mr Croft is a seasoned campaigner for alternative food systems. He is president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and an active participant in the Slow Food movement.
The new sales platform is considered by the partners as being in an experimental or "discovery" stage, but they aim to build on the lessons it delivers to ultimately help make a large, positive impact on farm management.
There are already a sizeable number of farmers managing their land towards progressively great environmental health, and more ethical treatment of animals, Mr Croft said.
And there are growing numbers of consumers prepared to pay a significant premium to support them. "When people buy meat, they would also like to buy better landscape function and a more secure future for their kids," Ms Ogilvie said.
The trick is building a profitable pipeline between them.
Farmers markets already provide a supply chain, but physical markets demand that the farmer excel in farming and marketing - two attributes not always found in the same person or partnership.
Farming all week, and then travelling often long distances to sell at a market at the weekend, is also a recipe for burnout, Ms Ogilvie noted.
Crafting a low-cost supply chain remains the venture's biggest challenge.
My Farm Shop will initially only sell meat products to residents in the ACT, while the partners stress-test the system for a wider rollout to State capitals, with a wider range of products.
Slaughter will be handled by Milton Abattoir on the NSW South Coast. Orders will be batched and frozen, to extend the delivery window.
Until the system scales up, deliveries will be made door-to-door. Later, the partners expect to create drop-off points, like schools or other well-visited locations, which they will visit with delivery vans at set times.
Validating the claims behind the food will be one of My Farm Shop's hardest tasks.
A farm that joins the initiative will need to demonstrate that it maintains strong animal ethics standards, and that its management of livestock is leading to more biodiverse pastures, improved topsoil and better water infiltration.
However, Ms Ogilvie noted that one of the challenges of the model is establishing just what to measure.
She is working on that challenge in another role, as a researcher with the Fenner School of the Environment at Australian National University, where she is investigating relationships between environmental performance and enterprise profitability.
Mr Croft commented that any certification system depends on trust.
"We'll be genuinely open, transparent and accountable. We'll say to people, if you want to verify us, come and check us out - come on the truck and visit farmers with us. If you don't trust us, don't buy from us."
The partners don't expect My Farm Shop to change the farming landscape, but hope that it provides some direction.
"Who knows what it will accomplish?" said Ms Ogilvie. "But what it should do is provide some market signals."
* Visit www.myfarmshop.com.au