A large public forum was held in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley on May 16 to officially launch a community cooperative that local people hope will become an example for the rest of the country.
The launch came almost a year since Heinz announced it would shut down its tomato processing plant in the nearby town of Girgarre. The closure left 146 workers without a job and affected about 600 people whose livelihoods depended on the factory.
Given Heinz’s refusal to help the local community deal with the devastating impact of the factory closure, the community decided to take an alternative route. They formed the Goulburn Valley Food Cooperative (GVFC) whose first project is to establish a food hub in the Goulburn Valley, including a tomato processing facility.
One of the speakers at the meeting was Dr Tony Webb, a Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Supply Chain Management at University of Western Sydney and founding member of the GVFC.
Webb told Green Left Weekly the community’s first response was an offer to Heinz “to take over the plant lock, stock and barrel and carry on producing for them. The way we saw it, if within 12 months we couldn’t do that efficiently and compete with whatever they were producing in New Zealand [where Heinz has moved its operations] we didn’t deserve to be in business.”
Workers felt confident they were up to the challenge. “They began coming to us with all sorts of suggestions to cut costs that they had been advocating to Heinz for years.
“One classic example is that all the water used for the evaporator seals to turn tomatoes into paste was of one-time usage. All that water was simply going into waste treatment and then irrigation. The guys said: ‘Look, if we put in a recycling system we can save 35% of water usage in this factory immediately’.”
Heinz refused the coop’s offer, and instead began a “scorched earth policy” to ensure the plant would no longer be functional.
This included dismantling everything from a 40-year old boiler “that would have cost Heinz more to convert into scrap metal than they could have received for it”, to ripping out the rat-proof fencing.
The decision to sell the factory’s second evaporator was a move that particularly infuriated local growers who, having agreed to the company’s request for a $2 a tonne cut in the price paid for their tomatoes 15 years ago to fund the purchase, had effectively paid for it. This evaporator Heinz sold to Papua New Guinea.
A different type of cooperative
With no option of taking over the already established plant, attention turned to building a community cooperative. Setting themselves the immense target of 1 million cooperative members, Webb said that “at $50 a head, it means anyone who cares about this issue can have a stake in it”.
It also means that the funds raised in the process can help the cooperative avoid taking on a big debt as it starts production.
Webb was quick to explain that the vision for this cooperative “is something very different” to what has been tried elsewhere.
There are many examples of how “individually, grower, worker or consumer cooperatives haven’t worked, and while there are some successful examples where a broad base of cooperative initiatives have come together, such as Mondragon in Spain, the reality is that they have been built up over a long period of time.
“But in the Goulburn Valley we’re starting from scratch.”
The GVFC has opted for the model of a “community cooperative” that brings together “growers, workers, other traders and enterprises in the valley that depend upon this initiative, and also the broader community, locally, nationally and to some extent already internationally”.
The aim is an operation that can look at the entire production chain, taking as its starting point what consumers want and from there “working all the way down the supply chain, back to the grower”.
Already, the GVFC has received several suggestions and requests for different products. With the help of renowned Australian television chef Peter Russell Clarke, two of these were premiered on May 16: a tomato bread and a new variety of tomato sausage.
From here, Webb said: “We are going to test them, and see how we can produce them, possibly co-packing with other people in the valley, so that we are creating work locally.
“Then we need to see what we will need to put in place at the processing factory to produce the products and decide whether we go back and put in the primary processing equipment to make the tomato paste or instead contract with another company to process the growers’ produce into paste, which in turn is sold on to us.”
Webb said the cooperative will not only provide employment for many of those who have been left out of work by Heinz, but will also provide training programs.
These programs would focus on food processing and handling skills “right up to the Certificate IV and Diploma level, so that the workers will have a real understanding of the whole production process” as well as what it means to work as a cooperative.
“How do you do it in a way that isn’t self-exploitative? How do you have the appropriate relationship with the union in a cooperative context? These are also some of the issues that will be taken up.”
‘We wouldn’t want to die wondering’
Webb said: “Our agenda is food sovereignty, food sustainability. This is what we are creating with this broad community cooperative.”
Without denying that this community has set itself a “big challenge”, one that some might view as a “crazy dream” or an example of “dreaming in technicolour”, Webb hopes the experience “will get to point where this community in the Goulburn Valley who have taken on a multinational company” becomes an inspiration for many others.
Already, important gains can be seen. Offers for loans and financial help have come in, as have offers to provide land for the processing facility.
Other steps forward are also evident, most notable in the spirit of the community and the drive with which they have taken up this call.
Webb recalled “a classic moment”, when the Victorian state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union Food Division called in three delegates from the Heinz factory and introduced them to Les Cameron, the director of the National Food Institute, and himself.
“The only thing he said as we walked through the door was: ‘These two guys are here to talk to you about how you take over the factory’ and the look on their faces was a picture. But an hour later when we asked them what they had taken from all this, the line was, ‘we wouldn’t want to die wondering’.”
Since then, there has been no going back.
“The fascinating thing” said Webb, is that among those who only 12 months ago just wanted things to go back to how they were, “there’s now a growing understanding that things can be done differently, in a way that helps build cooperation and works out, from the ground up, what this whole project could look like.
“We feel we are doing something significant because all of the problems that are in a sense epitomised by what we saw with the Heinz factory in Girgarre are being replicated all over that region and in every other food bowl in Australia, whether that’s Lockyer Valley, Liverpool Plains, Riverina, Sunraysia/Riverland, south Western Australia or Tasmania.
“Each of these regions has many of the same problems, and if we can find a way of doing something different, then maybe this is something that could be replicated nationally. It might sound like a crazy idea and may not be possible, but it’s necessary, so the sense here is ‘let’s have a go, at least we won’t die wondering’.”
[To join the GVFC visit the website at gvfoodcooperative.com. Tony Webb will be speak about the GVFC experience at the Climate Change Social Change conference to be held at Parramatta Town Hall on June 30. For details email email@example.com or phone 0412 556 527.]