We caught up with Phil and Alice, anti-waste warriors, and founders of the incredible organisation, Loop Growers, about how they are working with small businesses to help shift the waste culture in our community, and why we should all care about creating sustainable food and farming practices.
How’d you become Loop Growers?
Phil: I travelled a lot straight out of school, and spent a lot of time working on farms where there was a strong connection between food and community. While I was at uni, I worked as a barista, for some of Brisbane’s best cafes. I learned a lot during this time and witnessed first-hand how these businesses utilised their waste (or didn’t!). I knew that there was a much better alternative and that’s where the seed was planted.
Alice: I was living in inner-city Brisbane, and over the years started to see the huge disconnect between people and nature. I become obsessed with plants and spent a lot of my spare time in the garden. There became an opportunity to utilise some of the space on my Dad’s property, only 30 mins away, so I started making plans to move out there to start a larger-scale veggie garden. Having access to a rural property so close to the city, I felt like it was almost my responsibility to use it to grow food for my family and the local community. Meeting Phil, who was clearly on the same trajectory, just solidified the idea.
How did Loop Growers come about?
Phil: My hospitality experience, and seeing first-hand how waste was produced on a large scale, really opened my eyes to the way in which we view and use food traditionally in our society. At the time, I started to think of the parts of food that were typically viewed as scraps, as yields, and so, by definition, not waste. I got really into the science and benefits of composting and had a little idea to create composting hubs around the city.
It was around this time that I met Alice, and it was one of those crazy, serendipitous moments because she was already starting to build out a community garden of sorts, on her family property in Draper. Turns out we were both on the same path, and just approaching from different angles, so it seemed clear we were supposed to meet and do something together. We chatted and the idea for Loop was born.
Alice: The goal at first was to learn about growing our own food. We were passionate about capturing the material that was traditionally going into landfill and we both wanted to see a real shift in food production and waste management. It happened really organically – we certainly didn’t write a growth plan or anything like that!
Phil: Yeah, it was really a lifestyle decision and a kind of personal challenge to see what we could do and if we had the mettle to actually affect some real change. We took it day by day.
Why does it matter?
Alice: The way our society produces and disposes of food now is just not sustainable. Cities absolutely need to take more responsibility for growing their own food, as opposed to relying on rural communities that are hours away. The intense nature of traditional food production is inefficient and places a lot of pressure on the environment. Often, the produce grown by these mass-farms aren’t replenished by something organic, so it actually creates something negative – it’s a really big environmental issue.
Phil: We need to be utilising the built-up space we’re lucky enough to have access to, 30 minutes on the fringes of Brisbane – and produce food on a smaller scale that feeds the community around it.
How does Loop Growers work? What’s the concept?
Alice: At its core, the Loop process is very simple. We pick up kitchen scraps from local hospitality businesses and then take them back to the farm and use them to create compost.
We use the compost to grow vegetables and then we sell the vegetables back to the cafe that provided us with the scraps.
Phil: The key is making it simple for the staff in the cafes to implement. We’ve developed a colour-coded bucket system for different types of organic materials – eg coffee grounds, egg shells, bread, citrus etc. The staff separate their scraps into the respective buckets and then they go into bigger, industrial-sized bins on site at the cafe, which we also provide. Once a week, we do a collection of the yields and take it back to the farm to use in various ways (worm farms, hot compost, chicken feed…) and then, the cafes jump onto our website and order their veggies for the week and we deliver them personally.
Alice: The key is in ingraining this behaviour and breaking habits. We want staff to understand what they’re throwing away – so much of what’s thrown out can actually be used and we’re focusing on educating the teams on why it matters, and this is something we work really hard on.
So, you’re farmers first?
Phil: Yep. First and foremost, we’re farmers. We run a bio-intensive market garden in Draper, just near Samford, which is about 30 minutes from the CBD. Intensive basically means we are small scale – we’re on about ¾ of an acre, but we get a lot out of that area. We rotate veg crops with cover crops intensively to maximise the amount of yield we can produce. Our farm is super low-tech – we don’t use machines at the moment so it’s all farmed by hand.
What does being a Loop Grower farmer involve?
Phil: The first step is to build the compost. So we take the materials from the cafés, mix it with high-carbon materials such as wood shavings or sugar cane mulch, and then we add it all to our worm farms to make compost. Then we use the compost to make our seed-raising mix, and once the seeds have grown into seedlings, we transfer them to the garden.
Alice: While all this is happening we’ve also done a lot of work to get the space ready to be planted – building the soil is extremely important. We then need to feed and care for the seedlings once they’re planted, and we utilise the fertiliser from the worm farms for this purpose. Then, once our beautiful vegetables grow, we harvest them to provide food for the cafes.
Do you do it all yourselves?
Phil: We’re supported by some amazing volunteers, but for the most part it’s Ali and I, doing the farming, the prep and the deliveries.
Alice: It’s really nice because when we do have volunteers, often they’re staff from the venues we’re involved with, so it’s nice that they’re invested enough in Loop to give back with their time.
Phil: Yeah, I think that’s one of the most important things about Loop – the human energy. That’s what really powers this whole thing.
Alice: It’s a real community effort. The people we engage with at cafes then come out to the farm to check out what we’re doing and learn, and they get so much out of it and so do we. It’s a beautiful thing.
Has it been difficult to get the cafes on board?
Alice: The cafe community has been incredibly supportive. One of the things we were both passionate about was the potential cafes had to become thriving hubs in the community. We thought, if we could get them involved in creating a system to use their waste and somehow feed this information through to their customers, it was a win-win. They’re acting sustainably and doing something great for the environment and their customers, and it provides an easy way for them demonstrate that the food they’re serving is something people can feel good about.
Phil: We were lucky enough to have an incredible network of people in Brisbane who were willing to help us at the beginning, and, because everyone knows everyone here, particularly in the hospitality scene, the word quickly got out about what we were doing and it all just grew from there.
Alice: It’s amazing, because we’ve been able to grow the farm from the venues that have been involved, so essentially the loop gets bigger as our network does.
Phil: Yeah the demand just exploded. As soon as we got a few venues on board it started to really blossom because people were engaging with us more and other venues were seeing it and wanting to get involved.
Alice: We’ve also really invested in our relationships with the venues and the people who work there – it’s a true partnership. What we do is not simply transactional – we engage with the businesses from the start and help to educate them on what we’re all about and why sustainability matters. We want to empower teams and individuals so that they become as passionate about this as we are and then go out and make a difference on their own.
Phil: It’s because of loyal businesses such as Avid Kitchen and Garden and Flock Eatery that we exist. Without the support of our local cafe community, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. They’re really putting their money where their mouth is.
Alice: Every time another partner comes on, it legitimises our business and strengthens our network, so we are so grateful for the support.
Surely it must come down to hard costs to the business, despite the obvious environmental benefits?
Phil: Yep, spot on. It’s important that we can demonstrate that the Loop service will actually be financially beneficial to them, and there are two parts to this. First, is that customers want to be able to put their money where their mouth is. They’re aware that they should be eating local produce and they’re keen to contribute to creating more sustainable environmental practices, but it needs to be easy. One of the benefits of Loop is that it legitimises businesses by allowing them to demonstrate to their customers that they can trust that when they eat at that cafe, they’re eating food and eating in an environment where the focus is on doing the right thing, and this creates loyalty.
Alice: The second part is that our bin sits side by side the regular council bins, which businesses also have to pay for. So for us it’s about communicating how our bins are actually providing them something in return.
How has the business evolved since you started?
Alice: We’ve built some amazing long-term relationships with cafes and bars, to the point where we don’t want to continually build our client base for the sake of it. We haven’t maximised the amount of vegetables we’re putting into kitchens yet and so our focus is on continuing to build on these existing relationships and ensuring our produce is a bigger part in kitchens and on menus.
Phil: Yeah, it’s the small-scale nature of Loop that makes it successful. We want to focus on positive relationships and personal interactions with clients.
Alice: We’re effectively closed-loop consultants. All the venues that we deal with have the ability to send themselves out to the farm – harvesting and eating with us – and learning about what we do. When we bring a business on board they know that this is an open-source platform for them to wield. It’s a partnership. The more clients we have, the less opportunity we have to follow up on those people, so this is something we’re continually balancing.
Phil: I think the biggest evolution is just the momentum. We started with a simple idea and now we’re engaged in a sustainable, small-scale food-growing revolution that’s happening in Brisbane and we’re really excited.
What’s next for Loop Growers?
Alice: Focus now is primarily on enriching our existing relationships and really celebrating the venues that have got behind us.
Phil: We’ll definitely be hosting some more events that allow the venues that we have to see the progress of the farm and also give them an opportunity to promote their business.
Alice: We’re trying to be mindful of not spreading energy everywhere and make sure we’re always bringing it back to the farm, where it’s needed. That and strengthening the community engagement.
Phil: Yep, we’re not growing for growth’s sake. We’d rather stay small, as opposed to employing a bunch of staff to handle 50 venues. We’d rather have 15 venues and within those relationships, triple the vegetables and/or involve each venue in our events and providing space for the relationships to grow.
Alice: In saying that, we are focusing on getting our systems more effective and efficient and building infrastructure at the farm to make our processes a bit more sophisticated.
Phil: Sustainability is the key. For the environment of course, but also for Loop. We know we’re doing something valuable so we want to make sure we can keep on doing it!