Just keep growing: life in a time of corona

1st August 2020 | Alison Turner

What a time we live in. COVID-19 has wrought havoc on industries right across the globe, including the food industry right here in Australia. The pandemic has had an impact on every link along the supply chain, from the people who grow our food to the ones who dish it up to us. While businesses large and small scramble to “pivot”, the continued uncertainty of our situation here in Australia is leaving many food producers struggling to cope.

There have been countless tales of tension, tribulation and triumph in the food sector over the past few long months, but one story that captures elements of all three is of a family-run herb-growing business in northern NSW. Pocket Herbs grows a range of hydroponic produce – including microgreens, baby leaves and bush fruits – in a super-sustainable agricultural set-up that includes the utilisation of collected rainwater and solar power to nurture and operate controlled environment greenhouses.

Pocket Herb’s crops are grown in controlled environment greenhouses using sustainable agricultural practices.

Pocket Herbs typically supplies to the food services industry, including restaurants, cruise ships and casinos. The business had been flourishing, but when COVID-19 hit, orders for produce dried up almost overnight.

“I remember the date was March 19,” says Iain Reynolds, founder of Pocket Herbs (pictured at top). “For the first time since we started trading in 2008, we had zero orders. We went from 100 percent to zero percent in two days.”

Reynolds describes the time as an “absolute nightmare”, as he was forced to make some difficult decisions very quickly. He had to let go of all his staff, which left only Reynolds and his wife and son to run the business.

“We had two greenhouses full of stuff that we had to just throw out,” Reynolds says, “We sold some stuff as seedlings, and we tried to pivot to local deliveries but that didn’t really work because we’ve got a very limited range.

“We did pivot to local retail a little bit, but that’s quite small in terms of volume.”

Orders for Pocket Herbs’ produce dried up almost overnight.

Once the government announced JobKeeper, Reynolds was able to bring some staff back on board to keep the farm going. But the situation was looking fairly hopeless, and Reynolds and his wife were unsure exactly what they should do. Then, one day, the phone rang.

It was a Sunday, and an overworked and overstressed Reynolds was taking some rare quiet time to read his weekend paper. When the phone rang, he didn’t recognise the number, and so decided to let it go through to voicemail.

“I thought, I can listen to that on Monday,” Reynolds says. “But then the phone went again with another alert and there was a text message, so I read it. And I thought, okay, maybe I should have taken that call!”

The call had come from Tim Nitschke, the business category manager for fresh produce at Coles. He had seen Pocket Herbs’ dilemma featured in an article on the ABC’s Landline website, and contacted Reynolds to see if he could offer some assistance.

At first, Reynolds didn’t believe his product was suited to retail.

Of course, Reynolds called him back, and laughs as he recalls that he spent the first part of the conversation trying to put Nitschke off stocking his produce in store.

“I actually didn’t believe I had a retail product,” he admits. “There’s another grower that I know of down in Melbourne who had tried with Coles about eight years ago. It was a different format, but essentially the same product, and it didn’t work. And then another business, also from Victoria, tried to arrange something with Woolworths about four years ago, and that didn’t work either.”

But Nitschke was undeterred, and for every concern that Reynolds raised, he assured the herb grower that he could deal with it.

“I thought, well, I’d be mad not to give this a go,” Reynolds says. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that.”

The company then went on a whirlwind journey – developing in-store instructions for the care of the plants, figuring out which varieties of Pocket Herbs’ 46 products Coles would stock (they took 10), filling out all the necessary documentation, learning to use the supplier portal systems and numerous other hoops that had to be jumped through. And from the time that Nitschke made that call to the time that Pocket Herbs was in store, it took less than six weeks to get it all off the ground.

Red veined sorrel is just one of 46 varieties that Pocket Herbs grows, and one of 10 that Coles now stocks.

“It must be some kind of record,” Reynolds says. “It was all so surreal. I’m aware there are companies who queue up to get into Coles, so for Coles to ring us was pretty amazing.”

When Eativity spoke with Reynolds, he had just sent off his fifth shipment, and is sending one carton of produce a week to each of 40 selected Coles stores across Brisbane, the Sunshine and Gold Coasts, Armidale and Port Macquarie. He was also awaiting a meeting with Coles to discuss expanding the range or selling the current range at more stores.

“But it’s early stages,” Reynolds says. “I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity, of course. But in terms of volume at the moment, it’s just not enough to keep this business from going under. So right now we’re just trying to keep things going while we wait for either the food services industry to come back – which I don’t believe it will to the same level – or we continue to explore retail options.”

The impact of COVID-19 on his business has “knocked the stuffing” out of Reynolds.

That fateful call from Coles was certainly the kind of lifeline that was needed when the business was drowning. And Reynolds is all too aware of how lucky he has been, when others have not been so fortunate. But still, times are tough for the Reynolds family.

“It was a little kick of positivity in a sea of despair,” Reynolds says of the deal with Coles. “We had staff coming in who thought they were rostered on, but there’s no work. They’re crying, my wife’s crying. It’s horrible. It’s been so stressful with not knowing what’s going on; whether the business is going to survive. And the workload has been phenomenal.”

This is not the first business that Reynolds has set up and run throughout his career, and he has seen tough times before, but none that have lasted as long as this.

“It’s knocked the stuffing out of me,” he confesses. “I’m super stressed. I’m waking up at 2am because I can’t sleep. My blood pressure’s up.”

Obviously, there are some businesses that are in a far worse position than Pocket Herbs. Even so, there have been times when Reynolds and his wife have considered calling it a day.

“One part of us is saying, pull the pin and walk away, the stress isn’t worth it, life’s too short. But the reality is that I do have responsibilities as an employer and a director and a shareholder. And I just can’t walk away from everything we’ve built over the last 12 years.”