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Every Thursday, Robyn Guyton completes a 150km loop through rural Southland in her electric van, collecting and redistributing produce in hopes it will rebuild community.
People are lonely, she says. Could her food delivery service be the saviour she believes the dairy country needs?
In the backblocks of rural Southland, the roads abound with noisy utes and towering trucks - fleets of vehicles that reflect the intensified farming industry the region is built on.
But every Thursday afternoon, an electric van can be seen going against the grain, humming along in near silence.
Its driver, Robyn Guyton, is on a mission: to revitalise an old trading route and foster community in the process.
In the boot of her 2021 LDV eDeliver 3 are boxes of vegetables, fruit and meat - plus a chocolate and raspberry muffin for one lucky Nightcaps local.
"Now this is Fairfax," she says, pulling over where only a handful of houses line the side of the state highway.
"This used to be a hotel here, and a garage here, and a shop ... school ... hall. A thriving community. Now there’s nothing left, it’s all closed."
Together with a group of volunteers, Guyton has set up The Longwood Loop - a mobile farmers’ market connecting emerging producers in Western Southland with their community.
Each Thursday, she drives an ever-changing 150km-220km path that starts and ends in Riverton, picking up and redistributing fresh produce along the way.
The initiative is a not-for-profit one, meaning producers retain 90% of their top line and buyers are not stung with delivery fees (the van only uses $10 worth of electricity for each circuit).
"It’s an online farmers market [where] the growers put up how much they’ve got, into the website," Guyton explains.
"Then on Monday, the shop’s open and for three days people can order, and the growers know exactly how many lettuces to pick.
"It’s not like a normal farmers’ market where you might have 50 lettuces and you might sell 20. So there’s no food waste. It’s same-day [delivery] so there’s no overnight storage needed. And it’s carbon-free travel."
Beginning in Riverton, Guyton’s route’s usual stops include Ohai, Nightcaps, Tūātapere, Colac Bay/Ōraka and anywhere and everywhere in-between.
Buyers can order as little or as much as they want, and now 14 runs in, about 80 of the 200 registered customers have done just that.
At the first stop between Riverton and Ōtautau, she drops off an empty chilly bin from last week’s run and collects meat, hazelnuts and 10kg of blueberries. And so it goes.
But while Guyton says the programme is being well received in its pilot phase (it has only been running since August), speed bumps were aplenty during the three years it took to set it up.
Even after the vehicle was purchased, Guyton says, the project was put in jeopardy by the Southland District Council, which raised concerns growers should be registered with the Ministry for Primary Industries.
A back-and-forth ensued, and MPI senior adviser Simon Holst ultimately approved the deliveries.
Guyton says she was going to do it anyway.
"I got the van and I started to do loops and [the council] said, 'you can’t go'. And I said, 'I will'.
"I was prepared to get arrested for it," she recalls enthusiastically.
"Nobody’s going to die off food that’s picked up and dropped off the same afternoon."
But it is not just the landscape that is lonely. Guyton fears many of the remaining residents are too.
Isolation is not hard to find in the region, and trips into the city normally start and end with a visit to the supermarket.
She recounts how one of the people who signed up to the programme told her how excited she was because she would finally have someone to talk to.
During a trial run in 2019, two deliveries that got mixed up in Tinkertown (between Ohai and Nightcaps) meant neighbours Brian and Byron finally met each other.
Guyton firmly believes that a large part of the social breakdown in rural areas is the result of globalisation and big industry taking over the area, pushing people into the cities.
She estimates that over the past 50 or so years, Southland's food supply has gone from 80% locally sourced to 80% global, supermarkets having gained a monopoly on distribution.
"I would like to have food security. I think that people are so trusting in the global food thing. It travels all over the world. Why are you getting your carrots from Australia when you can grow them here? It’s real dumb for the Earth."
She also believes natural disasters prove the importance of fostering local supply chains.
"When we had the Christchurch earthquakes, and the Kaikoura one, and the Ashburton bridge got washed out, there’s only three days of food in the supermarkets. That’s it.
"If you buy off each other, you get fresh and you get cheaper, because it’s local."
Her approach seems to be striking a chord with the people she has met along the way.
When Vincent - a screenprinter in small town Nightcaps - receives his hand-delivered muffin from the Riverton baker, he is all smiles.
He hopes the initiative will encourage people to try their hand at creating and selling products.
"In terms of running a restaurant and accommodation place that grows your own food ... it gives us another avenue for sales," Rutland says.
"I think it’s a great catalyst to get other people in the community to start manufacturing themselves."
Colac Bay/Ōraka customer Lynley McKay is not worried in the slightest that she has had to wait a little longer than normal for her order when the electric bus finally pulls up in her patch (Guyton got held up backtracking to Nightcaps after forgetting to collect a large box of eggs).
McKay reluctantly poses for a photo next to Kate Mahoney, who has offered her place as a centralised collection point for the deliveries, and sings the programme’s praises.
Guyton says interest continues to flood in from growers and consumers alike, and she has been contacted by someone in Northland who wants to set up a similar operation.
Her goal feels lofty: to have Southlanders growing 80% of their own food again in 10 years’ time.
But if anyone can pull it off, it is dogged Guyton.
Her ethos is simple: the best of the old, and the best of the new. She is using an electric vehicle and the internet, but trading the old way.
"We hope that if we start trading again and buying off each other, some money will come back into these communities."