Perry Bridge Farm Fresh Produce owner and grocer Cal Lazzaro has experienced the cost of living crisis first-hand with prices through the roof, and has resorted to opening a nursery to sell seedlings for customers to grow their own food.

[This story was originally published on Friday June 24.]

Speaking to the Gippsland Times, Mr Lazzaro described the “sudden rise” in the cost of lettuce.

“I paid $9 for each lettuce. And then I got to try to resell them. Lettuce is normally $2. It was a sudden jump,” Mr Lazzaro said.

“I think people are going without lettuce, or they are going with seedlings to grow their own.

“You can buy a bunch of seedlings for $3 and grow lettuce, about six of them, and the timeframe to grow them is not very long.”

Lettuce seedlings at the nursery.

Mr Lazzaro said the space that is now the nursery and garden centre was not being used for anything particularly important, so it was a good opportunity to sell seedlings and plants.

It’s not the first time that Mr Lazzaro has sold seedlings.

“When COVID first hit, people couldn’t buy seedlings from Bunnings, because they weren’t allowed to trade out of the gardening centre, so we started selling them. And now people have been asking me about seedlings, so I opened the garden centre and nursery (a few weeks ago),” Mr Lazzaro said.

“We also do a full range of native trees, which are selling pretty good, and we’re getting into succulents as well.”

Mr Lazzaro said most produce had “doubled or tripled” in price.

“Strawberries are around the $10 mark. They’re seasonal, but you used to be able to get them for $2,” he said.

“In the space of three days, cauliflower almost doubled in price. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next week. If there’s a shortage, they could end up more expensive than lettuce.

“Zucchini are usually $1.99 a kilo, now it’s $12.99. Broccoli is usually $2.99 or $3.99, but it’s $14.99 a kilo now. The only things cheap at the moment are pumpkin and potatoes.”

“A bag of fertiliser is usually $20, now it’s $120. What we can afford to grow, we grow. The price of fuel, fertiliser, feeds, everything has gone up. You gotta pass that on, because no-one works for nothing.”

“But people won’t pay that price, so I don’t know if they’ve switched to canned food.”

Mr Lazzaro said the rise in prices coincided with fewer customers coming to the store after the fuel costs spiked.

“While winter is usually our quiet time, as soon as fuel prices went up to about $1.80 (a litre), I noticed a big drop in traffic, so business has slowed down dramatically. I used to see car after car. I’m also in the middle of nowhere (on Bengworden Road) so people don’t want to use their petrol drive up, but thankfully my loyal customers keep coming back,” he said.

“If people need the produce, they’ll buy it. Some others have a go at me because the prices are higher. You try to explain that prices have tripled, and unfortunately we can’t grow everything all year round.

“Without the flow of customers through the shop it’s very hard to pay the wages as you would have to sell a lot of produce, and the minimum wage has gone up. I had some staff recently, but I had to let them go.”

Mr Lazzaro said he doesn’t see prices going down anytime soon.

“I’m not selling anything at a loss, but I am selling some products at cost price, because if I try to sell it at a profit, the customers won’t buy and I’ll have to throw them out, as it’s all perishable,” he said.

“I grow the grey pumpkins myself and sell them for 99c a kilo, so I’m probably not making any money, but I’m not losing any money either. I’m just trying to help the customers.

“And then there’s diesel for my tractors. It usually costs $100 to operate one of them, now it costs over $300. I have three tractors. Some of the bigger farmers may have more efficient equipment, but I can’t afford that.”

Nursery. Photos: Stefan Bradley.

Inside Perry Bridge Farm Fresh Produce.

Perry Bridge Farm Fresh Produce. Photos: Stefan Bradley

New garden centre and nursery.