25 September 2023

Farm, truck, shelf, plate, and all the disasters along the way: Tony Madden on moving our food for half a century

| James Day
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One of Tony Madden's trucks with a blue and black logo on its side reading: 'Madden's Harden Cold Storage'.

The challenge for the logistics industry in 2023 is keeping up with demand. Photo: Madden’s Harden Refrigerated Transport Company.

Trucks, fridges and food. It all seems so simple when you see a full shelf at the supermarket, but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than you’d expect.

One man well-versed on the matter is Tony Madden, the recently retired owner of a refrigerated transport company bearing his very name. Although Madden’s Refrigerated Transport recently shut down after 47 years of operation, Tony still thinks fondly of his long career feeding the region through thick and thin.

Before he started his company in 1976, Tony took his own ‘King of the Road’ across the East Coast on jobs for graziers, farmers and festivals. Early on, he learnt how attuned the trucking industry is with the disasters of the day. Tony recalls a 12-month contract he had in the late-60s when the threat of nuclear war had trucks working “flat out” hauling fertiliser from Port Kembla to Goulburn.

“Everybody wanted to stock up on food thinking it’s going to be the end of the world,” said Tony.

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After a few years on the road, Tony began his own trucking business in Goulburn and was on the lookout for work. Fortune struck when he was encouraged by his old man to go to church one Sunday morning where a chance encounter with a mate from years past put a new potential client on his map. Tancred Meats were looking to get their goods into Canberra and Tony had the trucks to do it.

This partnership gave his company its first kick into a growing fleet of trucks and business throughout the region. But according to Tony, the work has never been steady or easy.

There was the nine-day-long Razorback Mountain blockade in 1979 when the country’s food supply was at a standstill due to hundreds of truckers lining up along the old Hume Highway to protest against the Commonwealth’s road maintenance tax. Then, in 1983, Australia’s decision to float the dollar led to a recession in the export industry, forcing Tony’s relocation to Harden as work dried up at the ports with all the produce stuck in limbo on the coastal waters.

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Whatever the challenges, the trucks had to roll on. But Tony believes the challenge now is keeping up with demand.

“Ten years ago, we were driving five days a week, but now there’s weekend trading which has hiked the work up a lot. In under four years, one of our trucks will do a million kilometres.”

Another change over the years has been the expansion of the hauls.

“In the early days, all the abattoirs out here were so small we couldn’t get a full load of meat. It’d take a fair bit of tripping around in the middle of the night between the sites in Young, Harden and Cootamundra before you were ready to make the trip to Canberra.

“It’s gone from not being able to load one 10-tonne load of meat each night to now where they can load four or five 22-tonne trucks.”

Tony Madden standing in front of one of his refrigerated transport trucks

Tony said as the abattoirs expanded, refrigeration became less of an issue. But he remembers moving meat that was still warm in the middle upon arrival. Photo: Canberra Region.

The pandemic put a lot of truckers’ livelihoods in question, and for Tony, it was “probably the biggest problem I’ve ever faced in my life”. It demanded longer shifts on the road and more time away from family with all the quarantines in place.

Tony had already lost a lot of drivers when the seven-day-a-week schedule took effect, but the overwhelming demand for truckers during COVID pushed his business into the red. Older drivers didn’t have the energy to keep going, and the younger ones didn’t want the job.

Earlier this year, Tony sold off the last of his fleet and settled into his retirement. While Tony knows the days and trucks are longer nowadays, he’s glad they can at least keep the meat cold.

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