WORKING closely with a major supermarket chain is not every farmer's idea of destiny - much less financial security - but for Caniaba herb growers Robert Hayes and Christine Lucke, the relationship has proved workable and the key to building their business.
Robert stumbled upon the potential of herbs in 1978, when he was a struggling dairy farmer on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula.
Robert said he had lost a milk contract and his bank no longer considered the business viable.
A looming overdraft and the threat of foreclosure were all too real.
When they launched their quality assurance program 20 years ago, it led the industry from its inception. But every time they lift the bar, it requires substantial investment.
But in a moment of inspiration, Robert planted a small paddock of basil next to the dairy bails and it produced prolifically.
Robert's first sale to Melbourne restaurants was 100 bunches at 50 cents each. The next week, he had an order for 1000 bunches at 75 cents a pop and before the crop went to seed, he was able to pay off his $26,000 overdraft in cash.
What followed was a remarkable foray into industrialised herb farming, culminating in a 10,000sq m glass house being built at Caniaba, west of Lismore.
Today, Caniaba Freshzest supplies Woolworths and a number of IGA stores with gourmet herbs packed in air-tight punnets to keep the contents looking fresh and tasting good.
Robert credits continued growth to the popularity of televised cooking shows.
But the business's success also has much to do with Freshzest's ability to work well with food giant Woolworths.
"They ask a lot of growers, they are demanding - but they need to be," Robert said.
"Their business requires absolute accuracy and unerring focus on quality, in order to make their delivery schedules work and ensure quality produce for their customers.
"If you deliver for Woolworths, you can build a strong relationship.
"We must conform to their logistics. If you look closely at what they do, you can understand why.
"If you analyse their practices and build your system to suit, it can be made to work for you, as well as them."
He said the key to success was delivering product at a cost low enough for the supermarket to make a profit - in other words, everyone must be a winner, if the relationship was to last. And it was critical supply was never broken.
For Robert, the key to continuity of product is to share and manage the risk with a small and select group of sub-contractors, who provide herbs to supplement the major greenhouse crop.
"If either we, or they, hit a stumbling block - whether that be from bad weather, pests or disease - one of us needs to cover it," he said, adding Woolworths was a stickler for quality, and demanded the same ethos from suppliers.
"When they launched their quality assurance program 20 years ago, it led the industry from its inception," Robert said. "But every time they lift the bar, it requires substantial investment."
Woolworths' latest requirement is for suppliers to install a metal detector, so no metal ends up in a consumer's salad.
"What that means is that there will continue to be further consolidation of this industry," Robert said.