• Tatiana Collier

Growing Gordon

More than a shop front – the new Gordon Farmgate project has bigger plans for this little town.

This article was developed for and featured in Ballarat Living, Winter 2021, produced by Provincial Media.

The launch of the Gordon Farmgate earlier this year was the culmination of 18 months of work for Susanna McPherson and her team of volunteers.

It all began in 2019, when Susanna visited our nation’s capital as part of the Leadership Ballarat and Western Region program.

“I realised after visiting Parliament House that if we want to see change at a local level, then we as individuals are going to have to do it for ourselves. That’s just the age we live in.

“On that same trip we visited a small shop on the outskirts of Canberra. It was previously run down and abandoned, and it was the local community that decided to change it into something useful.

“They started by opening a small grocery store, and this attracted other businesses, such as a yoga studio and a coffee cart that sets up out the front.

“The community made the area vibrant, and I realised we could do the same in Gordon.”

Gordon is a small town located just off the Western Highway, about 20 minutes from Ballarat. Surrounded by farmland, the township itself has a café, a pub, a few shops, and essential services. Despite this, Main Street is a quiet place.

“We get a lot of visitors passing through, but we struggle to get the community into the main part of town.

“We also live in the middle of an amazing area for fresh produce, yet it all seemed to be headed out of town. It was so hard for us as locals to get our hands on the fresh food that’s growing on our doorstep.

“That’s how I came up with concept of the farmgate. After that I needed people to help me bring it to life.”

A call out on the community Facebook page brought more than 30 people to Susanna’s first information session, and the idea took off. A Management Committee formed, with Susanna as President, and even through Covid lockdowns, the project rolled on.

Thanks to the work of volunteers, donations of time and materials from local businesses, and a grant from the Ballan Community Bank, the Gordon Farmgate opened online in February this year, with the shopfront following close behind at the end of March.

The farmgate stocks produce from suppliers within a 60-kilometre radius of the town. With each passing week, more people are using the store, and more suppliers are coming on board – exactly as Susanna envisaged.

“We launched with a handful of suppliers, and we now have about 25, and the number keeps growing.

“Initially we focussed on primary producers. But there are a lot of businesses within the 60 kilometres that add value to a product and turn it into something new, even if the ingredients are sourced from elsewhere.

“The farmgate is about supporting all local food businesses and we love the products our community is creating. So, we extended our definition of ‘producer’ to include those suppliers.

“We’re happy for people to source raw materials from outside the zone, so long as it’s traceable, sustainable, and through ethical practices.

“We have such variety in our region, and every product we stock has a unique story.”

Relying only on local producers, stock availability changes with the seasons. Coming into Winter, the fresh vegetable supply is slowing down, but the Management Committee is confident the farmgate can push through the colder months.

“Being consistent in our open hours is really important. We want the community to know they can rely on the shop to be open when we say it will be, and trust that the business is here to stay.

“Although it’s Winter we have some wonderful fridge and shelf-stable items, such as breakfast mueslis, milk, coffee, flour and other pantry staples. You could easily create a tasty meal for a Saturday night with some of our chesses, charcuterie, fresh bread, local lamb and a bottle of wine to cap it off.

“We recognise we can’t supply customers with all their shopping needs, but if we can encourage people to support local as much as possible, it’s a win.”

It’s not just produce that the farmgate has attracted into town. As Susanna hoped, community members are coming in too.

“New people to the area are volunteering so they can meet other community members. The newer generation is really receptive to what we’re doing.

“Our volunteers all want to work in the shop because it’s so much fun. I find I pop my head in each Saturday, to buy something or even just to say hello. There’s always something to do or someone new to meet.”

While it may seem like Susanna has achieved her vision, there is still more planned for this project. Susanna hopes that soon there will be enough profit to start reinvesting money into the community.

“I’d like to build up to a point where we can start to give back. Once our profits reach a certain level, we’ll look for projects happening around the region so we can donate some of our funds.

“I’d also like to see more connection between community members and our suppliers. I have some ideas on how we could do that, such as cooking demonstrations, gardening classes or information sessions on bee keeping or preserving food.

“We want to remain a not-for-profit organisation. Anything that doesn’t have to be reinvested in the business will go into the community.”

At this stage, these are ideas for down the track. For now, Susanna and the Management Committee are focussed on the core business.

“We’re still in the growth phase, and any money we make goes back into the shop. If we can attract more volunteers, then we can increase our shop hours; the more suppliers we have, the more interest we’ll have from shoppers.

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