Top of the crops

By Andrea Rowe Photos Yanni

Terri and Darren Cuffe greet me behind a pile of blackberries. Crates of them. There’s no time to stop because they’ve got orders and deliveries to fill; between 200 to 400 boxes a day.  Then there’s the handpicked and farm-sourced vegetables and fruit to organise and deliver. Talking time is picking and packing time, and that’s how it’s been for the last 12 months.

At the end of 2019 the couple had just launched their business Fruits from the Ridge in Main Ridge

They were preparing for a scaled introduction of selling berries direct to the public and still setting up their systems. Cue a global pandemic and regional lockdowns. Victoria’s restrictions brought a shift in shopping habits which fast tracked their farm-to-front door business and inspired some produce pivoting of their own.

“It went gangbusters in lockdown,” says Terri, “We were suddenly helping growers move excess stock while offering affordable farm fresh food delivered to locals in tough times.”

Fruits From the Ridge now brings Aussie-grown fresh fruit and vegetables, handpicked, packed, and delivered with care. It sources produce locally on the Peninsula and from across Victoria’s reputed growing regions. But that wasn’t how they started out.

A career change for Darren who was in plumbing supplies, and Terri as Customer Service Manager at Diggers, and a love for self-grown strawberries saw them combine their career knowledge. When they originally started out, their focus was pick-your-own fresh blackberries, blueberries and strawberries grown on Rocky Creek Farm’s 35 acres in Main Ridge.

But as restrictions limited visitor access, and the phones starting ringing for deliveries, Fruits from the Ridge took the farm to front doors instead.

The produce range expanded with customer’s requests and the Cuffe’s began sourcing produce from farm neighbours and further afield. It was not just any produce, but in-season vegetables and fruit from local businesses.

By October 2020 they’d set up a Cranbourne distribution centre to facilitate packing and delivering farm fresh produce direct from south-eastern growers, and the farm at Main Ridge officially became Rocky Creek Farm gate, supplying Fruits From The Ridge, and U-pick and farm gate shop produce to locals and visitors.

“Initially we were selling produce from local farms but as lockdown grew so did customer demands. As long as it was Australian-grown people we’re really happy to see it delivered to their door.”

“It’s one business feeding another,” says Darren. “We love being able to support growers from across the region and we’re delivering as far as Gippsland, Phillip Island and Melbourne as we represent small growers and larger suppliers.”

They source fresh-picked produce direct from such reputed suppliers and growers as Jones Potatoes Warragul, Delgrossos of Red Hill, Arnotts, Corrigans, OliveGrove Estate and avocados from Main Ridge. Customers place online orders through the Fresho app for favourite fruit and vegetable, mystery boxes, customised crates and berry boxes.  Taking the place of ‘popping into the shops’ in social distancing times, Fruits from the Ridge have now remained firm favourites with hundreds of customers who discovered them in lockdown and continue to order on a weekly basis.

“We like to value add and when we’re sending deliveries from our growers, we often pop in a handwritten note too. Our drivers know so many customers and have conversations with them as well. We love that it’s all about the farm produce, but it’s also the personal relationships too,” says Terri.

“We offer that personalised service with sourcing our produce and preparing stock for delivery. Whenever we select the fruit or vegetables, I always ask myself: ‘Would I eat it?’ We’re representing our customers who are busy and want to put good quality, nutritious food into their bodies and onto the table. So, we’ve got an important job to do.”

The team personally pack each crate for customer delivery, taking care to ensure their produce is in premium condition. But don’t be surprised if your order features an occasional misshapen strawberry or a knobbly potato.

Passionate about preventing food waste, Terri and her team talk enthusiastically about ‘spec sizing’ and practical and fun benefits of consuming food that may not be perfectly shaped. In Australia, between 20 and 40% fruit and vegetables grown are rejected before they reach the shops because they don’t meet supermarkets’ high specifications and standards.

The business wants to be a part of the solution, preventing food waste and raising awareness for better use of misshapen vegetables to support growers distribute stock which is overlooked by supermarkets.

“Fruit and veggies aren’t meant to be grown to a certain uniform size – we don’t always come into in the same size ourselves. Our beans aren’t always straight either but they taste fantastic. Even what we affectionately call our ‘ugly strawbs’ may not always have a perfect shape they still have a perfect taste”.

They share weekly recipes for nutritious meals using common sense approaches, and sell frozen berries and jams and chutneys with excess produce.

“They’re sharing recipes back with us too, so it’s quite the community of sharing things like Berry muffins and zucchini fritters.”

“Regular customers are really interested in what they’re selecting, and where our stock is coming from – we’re always sharing information about the growers we support. And we keep them posted on what’s seasonally grown and in stock.”

Terri adds that the values of their customers matter to them too and they’re constantly applying sustainable practices as they grow. “We are the ones who answer the phone and emails. We have the conversations with customers about what their morals stances on things like single use plastic and excess waste. We don’t use Styrofoam for packaging and we introduced a crate swap where customers can hire a delivery crate for a one-off fee of $10 instead of having excess packaging. It’s been so well received.”

Such is the interest in farm fresh produce delivered to the door that collaborations with local gymnasiums, dieticians, nursing homes and retirement villages are evolving.

With the easing of restrictions, summer berry picking fun for families is the juicy centre of their business. Rocky Creek Farm’s spotted gum lined driveway entices visitors to spot koalas and spy spotted pardalote birds as visitors pick direct from bushes, and get a taste farm life.

“There’s nothing better than picking something off a bush and eating it straight away,” smiles Terri.

“The farmgate experience has really grown out of responding to what the community wants once again. This is such a beautiful place, but it’s still a working produce farm.”

“Visitors grab a picking bucket and head down to the berries. The kids can touch, taste and experience what it is to be on a farm while they’re here. That feeling of freedom and to feel what’s food and in your hands is priceless; we want to give families this connection too.”

Terri added there are also plans to develop a small picnic area; a sensory garden for families experiencing learning challenges.

Berries are part of the couple’s history. Darren and Terri themselves met nearby during teenage summer jobs at Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm, and owner Mick Gallace, Main Ridge strawberry legend, is Darren’s godfather.

It continues to be the family affair with two of their three sons working alongside their seasonal staff. Behind the produce and the planning, they’re a busy bunch growing a vibrant farm to front door business.