Social media is awash with images of empty supermarket shelves, but as interstate logistics and supply chain issues plague the big three, smaller butchers and greengrocers are urging people to buy local. 

Key points:

  • Grocers, farmers and butchers are helping to feed Australia amid the pandemic and supply chain issues
  • Local connections are helping keep up the supply
  • The pandemic is affecting picking, packing and truck transport

While not immune to the challenges of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant, their closer connections and long-established contacts are helping keep shelves stocked.

Twenty years before the ‘Near North Coast’ was renamed the Sunshine Coast, Thelma and Eric Erbacher bought a farm at Diddillibah and started selling fruit and vegetables direct to customers — raising 13 children, who helped grow their business.

That was in 1945 and 77 years later, 30 family members spanning three generations are working in the business.

Cyril Erbacher, one of 13 children, keeping the Erbacher tradition alive.

The big Erbacher clan bands together to feed their community.(Supplied: Erbacher Fruit and Vegetables)

More than 20 herbs, vegetables and flower varieties are grown in the fields surrounding their grocery store, which is a big old shed where the air conditioning is provided by the sea breeze.

Second-generation co-owner, Cyril Erbacher, said they were dealing with disruptions caused by the rapidly spreading COVID-19 variant.

“We’re still managing alright. Having such a large family helps,” Mr Erbacher said.

Leafy greens are grown in the ground opposite a grocery store.

Food is measured in metres not miles, opposite Erbacher’s Fruit and Veg store.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Until this week, the family had been keeping up their supply of homegrown herbs, lettuce and kale. But sales have increased around 10–15 per cent and hot wet weather has reduced local supply.

“Now we’ve got to source more out of the Rocklea markets and there’s a lot of trouble with stuff coming from down south,” Mr Erbacher said.

“They can’t get pickers and they can’t get truck drivers and they can’t get it packed and so on.

“But we’ve got quite a bit coming through tomorrow, so I’ve been told — we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Support local and seasonal

Pineapples and an array of fruit are in grocery shop

Pineapples are sourced locally, but the price of some fruit and vegetables has spiked.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Queensland bananas, avocados and pineapples are in season, but some vegetable prices have spiked.

“You’ve got to work on a skinny margin, not much you can do about it, just try and keep it turning over.”

Two shoppers stand in front of shopping cart with fresh fruit and vegetables next to them

Sue Hillier has been shopping at Erbachers for 22 years, Steven Duncan for 30 years.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Sue Hillier has shopped at Erbachers for 22 years, her partner Steven Duncan for 30 years and the pair regularly travels from Coolum Beach to supplement what they can not grow at home.

At the Original Forest Glen Butchery, sales have increased, but have not matched the panic buying at the start of the pandemic.

A man with a beard holds up an empty tray of mince.

Forest Glen Original Butchery’s Andrew Higgins sold out of some lines during panic buying in 2020.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“We sold more chicken breasts yesterday than we’ve sold in the past weeks, probably two or three times the amount and two full trays of mince yesterday compared to maybe a tray on a normal day,” owner Andrew Higgins said.

“So they’re not going crazy yet, but I do expect it.

The butcher was confident of sourcing meat from Gympie and the Sunshine Coast but is concerned a Brisbane supplier may run into problems because 90 per cent of their stock comes from interstate.

Don’t stockpile

The director-general of Emergency Management Australia, Joe Buffone, has implored people not to panic-buy.

“What we’re asking is that you actually don’t go out and buy unnecessary amounts of a whole range of products and hoard,” he said.

“What we’re asking is that you buy what you need.”

A profile photo of a man in uniform.

Joe Buffone is imploring people to simply buy what they need.(Supplied: CFA)

He said empty shelves in stores are a result of staff shortages, not problems with food supplies.

Emergency Management Australia is part of a national taskforce that is setting up new COVID testing arrangements for the industry.

“One of the biggest challenges at the moment is the workforce because that’s obviously impacting on both distribution centres, freight and also … at the retail outlet,” its director-general said.

“These policies and procedures will limit the amount of staff that need to be furloughed. In other words, that will need to stay home.

“So, it’s about getting them back into their workplace as quickly as possible, but also as safely as possible.”

In the meantime, Mr Buffone urged people to be sensible.

“The key thing is for the public not to go out … and stockpile,” he said.

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