Dear Diggers (Spring 2015)

Contributions and feedback from our readers following the Spring Garden 2015 issue.

Those in favour...

Clive, selling heirloom (? seeds) through large retail establishments is not selling your soul to the devil but more a strategy of working together to convince retailers there is an alternative and there is interest. Remember that 30 to 40 years ago ‘organic’ was for hippies and freaks, but is now becoming mainstream.

I'm just back from San Diego where Jimbo's is a food shop as big as any Bunnings, stocked only with organic food (fruit, vegies, all dairy, breads, cakes, meats, take away meals, wines, beers, herbal/homeopathic medicines etc.) and is always busy.

Even if the sales through a large chain aren't as good as required just getting the Diggers name and philosophy out there will spread the word. The biggest threat would come from too much success when major seed retailers take up the heritage angle. You will need to be careful to maintain independence in the negotiations before starting, as large retail organisations can be very demanding as to price and stocking.

If it is done wisely and properly it would certainly not cause me to give up my membership, and I would like to think that other Diggers members are of similar mind. Noel A.

Dear Clive, my initial reaction to your editorial in the 2015-2016 Seed Annual was to say “no.”

However, I then began to think it through and, like yourself, I am torn as to whether or not it would be a good thing to do.

These days for a business to thrive and grow it is necessary to expand and supply of Diggers' seeds through Bunnings' outlets would certainly achieve this. Furthermore, it could also have an added bonus of strengthening the long term viability of Diggers itself.

My main concern would be that Diggers maintains full control of their product. Many large firms, once they have the ‘little man’ in their grasp, tend to fiddle and change things to suit their corporate needs or image rather than that of the supplier or even the customers.

One conflicting factor that I can see in the whole enterprise is, as you stated, “Diggers Garden Shops [are] on sites where 95% of the site is in a garden setting and only 5% of the site is for commerce.”

Bunnings would have to be the reverse of that ... but, imagine the number of gardens that would benefit from their sale of Diggers seeds!
I am sure that whatever you decide to do will be in the best long term interests of Diggers and the preservation of our heirlooms. Rosalyn D.

Dear Clive, I write in response to the article in your latest annual seed catalogue. I have no issue with The Diggers Club selling into Bunnings.

In fact, I agree with the point, this means heirlooms are available to a far greater number of gardeners. Not to mention sometimes commercial realities mean such decisions need to be made and I don't see a conflict from this perspective. Regards, Kylie O.

Dear Clive, I was pleased to read about the opportunity for you to sell your products at the Big Green Shed. My local Bunnings actually sells from Diggers seedlings, but the range is very limited and I would be ecstatic to be able to access a greater variety of Diggers seedlings. While I love to support small business and spend a great deal of time at my local nursery, there are things which I need to go to Bunnings to purchase, particularly when we were renovating our house.

Making your seedlings available at Bunnings will only serve to expand your exposure. There is a real movement towards organic, home grown produce and making heirloom varieties more widely available means there will hopefully be fewer of the hybrid, generic seedlings purchased and people will start saving your seeds. Kind regards, Hannah S.

Those against...

Dear Clive and team, the arrangement with Bunnings wasn't entirely unexpected but it will dampen the esprit-de-corps of many Diggers.

Politicising issues such as GM, open pollination and sustainable land use has doubtlessly contributed to the success of The Diggers Club and I commend Clive and the team for it, even if at times I squirm when reading some of the leftist rhetoric!

One problem remains: heirlooms are special. From personal observation, our Diggers heirlooms struggle to match their roboplant counterparts. As heirlooms, they haven't had the benefit of being bred for the unique big-box challenges of temporary storage, low light and transport. Could it be that the successful Diggers Club is already the most appropriate forum for heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables after all? Warm regards, Trevor M.

Dear Mr. Blazey, I apologize in advance for having the temerity to tell you how to run your business, but you have asked the question “Should Diggers sell heirloom seeds into Bunnings?” and sought comment. My answer is a resounding “No!”

The problem with selling to Bunnings is multi-faceted. The first issue is that by selling to Bunnings, you run the risk of cannibalising your sales to members and visitors to your gardens.

One of the reasons you have members is that you are virtually the only channel by which they can access heritage seeds. If it becomes easier to just go to Bunnings, a certain proportion will drop of the membership list. Then there are those who buy from Diggers precisely because the seeds are NOT sold through a chain – this is the exclusivity thing – “the carriage trade”.

The net effect of this is to put great stress on your business strategy. How do you balance the interests of Bunnings v. the interests of members? How do you balance your product catalogue between what Bunnings want to sell and what your members want to buy? Are you prepared for the hoops you need to jump through in order to supply to Bunnings?

Ultimately you are going to be forced to choose between being (merely) a supplier to Bunnings or a seed saving organisation. I don't see how Bunnings will allow you to be both. Warmest regards, Geoffrey K.

Dear Clive, I am moved to write on the conundrum you have proposed re Bunnings . Having thought over your well considered pros and cons, I must come down against. I see the proposal as akin to the fast food takeaway outlet sited in the Royal Children's Hospital.

Bunnings will be selling Diggers heirloom vegetables to improve public perception and increase their green credentials. Implying by association that Diggers approve of their not-so-perfect corporation.

I do not believe they are motivated by concerns for the planet. They see plants only as things to sell. I would hate to think your voice of reason – on Monsanto, expensive and thirsty plants unsuitable for our climate and numerous other subjects – could be silenced by such an association. Yours sincerely, Glenda B.

After going on and on about all the natural small producers and the disadvantages against hardware plant nurseries ... you are proposing to sell out too ... my father for instance is a fervent reader of your magazine and lover of your witty anecdotes ... he is quite shocked with your decision which you should reconsider at once ... I hope you see sense.  Max P. (age 11)

Should Diggers sell heirlooms into Bunnings?

By Clive Blazey, founder of The Diggers Club

This debate has been fascinating and generated more interest than any other issue ever raised in our magazine. We are eternally grateful for your comments and there were so many that we haven't been able to reply to everyone, but the summary below is a good sample of support and concerns.

We need to clarify a few points.

1. Diggers branded heirloom seedlings (mostly tomatoes) have been on sale in Bunnings for about 5 years through United Nurseries, a cooperative that sows our seeds and distributes seedlings around Australia. What has changed is that we contacted Bunnings directly for the first time after they expressed interest in our Tomato Taste test in March this year. We do not offer packet seeds to Bunnings.

2. Bunnings will never change The Diggers Club's mission which is to put our members first. Over 99% of our turnover is to our members and potential members. So although Bunnings is huge in comparison to Diggers, our sales to Bunnings are minuscule and so, unlike most nurseries, Diggers can't be manipulated.

3. Bunnings has had an incredible impact on the garden industry. With their huge advertising budgets, broad product range offered at attractive prices and locations near garden owners, they have put most of our garden centres and specialist producers out of business. This has not affected The Diggers Club in any way but positively, because our range and turnover has risen dramatically too. There is an increasing demand for alternative supplies for Australia's keenest gardeners. Bunnings now account for about half the garden market turnover and have the buying strength to manipulate suppliers just like Coles and Woolworths.

4. Many members believe that our club is a cooperative where everyone gets a say and the majority view prevails. The Diggers Club is a proprietary company whose purpose is to match costs with revenue and give its members value. Any surplus profit the club makes go back to the The Foundation, which is a charitable trust.

Our values — at Diggers we link Economics, Ethics and Biology so that we garden organically and sustainably. We like to get your views and express them in our publications just like the ABC, so here some of the letters and comments about selling to Bunnings!

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