South East Queensland Urban Farm Gathering

A place where farmers, chefs and advocates came together to discuss local food systems.

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of attending a gathering of urban farmers from across South East Queensland (SEQ), in my hometown of Brisbane.

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet and hear from a number of farmers growing food in Brisbane and the surrounding suburbs. If you’re anything like me, when you think of food production, you don’t tend to think of big cities. But what I realised as I sat there listening to everyone’s stories, is that local food and the benefits it brings, may be more accessible than you think. I want to introduce you to the wonderful farmers and chef, who were present that day.

The event was coordinated and hosted by Green Dean Urban Farmer. Dean has been involved in the urban farming movement for over 10 years. He has a wealth of knowledge on permaculture, urban farming, soil care, organic edible gardening, keeping chickens, worm farming, creating biodiversity, cooking, nutrition, food sustainability, community resilience and much more. His passion lies in educating and consulting in these areas and supporting communities and individuals in setting up their own urban farms in SEQ. Dean has founded numerous projects over the years, including Green Dean’s Crop Swaps, The KFC Project (2012-2017), Australian Kimchi Appreciation Society (AKAS), Fermental As Anything and many more.

Higgledy-Piggledy Farm is a quarter acre farm 14 kilometres from the city in Eight Mile Plains. Rell and Viv grow chemical free, seasonal vegetables using permaculture principles in the backyard of their suburban home. They have free-range chickens, ducks and quails, and distribute to customers within a 10-kilometre radius of the farm. Utilising nearly every spare patch of soil, it’s very impressive what Rell and Viv produce in such a small space.

River Soil Organics is a three quarter acre farm near the river in Oxley, farmed by Micah and Matt. They sell direct to the community through farm gate sales on Friday afternoons from 2.30pm onwards, at 110 Clivedon Avenue. If you live locally be sure to get in quick because they always sell out. The organic produce is picked the day before and sold 100 metres from the farm at affordable prices, comparable to the leading supermarkets. They also sell to two buyers group, including one in Oxley, which is The Edible Suburb Project.

The Mini Farm Project is a not for profit permaculture farming organisation that grows food for those in need using garden pods in under-utilised spaces across Brisbane. It has two active sites; one in Camp Hill, their flagship site, which is land shared by Timber Tots Child Care and sponsored by Wine & Dine’m Catering, and another site at Woolloongabba.   They also have an additional inactive site with a chicken farmer south of Beaudesert, on a land share contract for 30 acres for 10 years. 15 acres is planned to be converted to donation crops and 15 acres is planned to be for cash crops to self fund the project. During its testing phase, The Mini Farm Project harvested 94 kg of produce from Camp Hill, which has been used in the meals provided at a homeless shelter at Caboolture.

Millen Farm is on 2500 square metres in Samford Valley, which is 30 minutes from Brisbane CBD.   It’s a not for profit organisation that has been founded, established and managed by the community, for the community. Arran is the farmer at Millen Farm, which produces organic, sustainable produce sold within the local community. They also run workshops, including how to compost, build an Australian bee box, and permaculture design in practice.

Peter Kearney from My Food Garden spoke about a number of exciting projects he’s been involved with, providing advice to developers on urban farming projects. Peter has numerous years experience and delivers a range of services including mentoring, urban agriculture consulting, educational workshops on a wide variety of topics, such as organic gardening and biodynamic methods. He also supports people interested in building their own backyard or community garden. Peter is delivering a talk on biodynamic gardening at the Relaxation Centre of Queensland on Friday 27 October.

Forkhay City Farms is a not for profit backyard based urban farming project in Bulimba coordinated by James Blyth. This initiative is still in its infancy and slowly gaining momentum. Excitingly, James is also leading on the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project at a local school and supporting children to grow their own food sustainably, which they then use in the kitchen to cook with.

Lui Varney is an aspiring urban farmer setting up a new farm in a backyard in Coopers Plains on a quarter acre. He plans to grow a range of seasonable vegetables and sell direct to the public at markets in Chillingham and in Brisbane.

Jerome Dalton from Dalton Hospitality Bespoke Catering and Events was also present and spoke about the catering and consulting services the company provides for functions and events in Brisbane. As a chef, he was extremely interested in sourcing more local food and was eager to understand and overcome, the logistics and practicalities of using smaller farms when planning menus for large numbers.

It’s really exciting to see so many urban farms in Brisbane and the outer suburbs, and this list is by no means complete. There are enormous benefits with growing food locally, and investing in urban farms is something we need to be advocating for at a local, state and national level.

The reason for this is that small-scale farms grow food in a way that nurtures and protects the land. This promotes soil health and improves biodiversity. There is minimal if any waste, since it is all composted back into the earth and reinvested back into the soil. Thus, there is less emissions and energy associated with the food, and the food miles are generally minimal.

The environmental benefits are great but there are also enormous social benefits. Many of the farmers sell their produce direct to the community. This local food economy has been shown to increase connection with consumers and the source of their food. It promotes transparency because consumers know exactly where their food comes from. It facilitates social connectedness between farmers and consumers benefiting all.

Other benefits include eating food that’s full of nutrients and flavour, and in season. Locally produced food can also improve the availability and access of affordable and healthy fruit and vegetables, for people who are food insecure.

For those of you who live in an urban area, I encourage you to find out where you’re nearest farm and farmer is. As I said earlier, it may be closer than you think.

Emma-Kate Rose: Transforming people’s attitudes through food

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

Emma-Kate Rose is well versed in advocating for change as part of Australia’s fair food movement. She has worked in this space for many years and has witnessed change in many forms, since her initial appointment as the General Happiness Manager of Food Connect in 2011. Together with her city cowboy, Robert Pekin, their vision is to see a highly distributed, highly participatory network of small place-based community food enterprises across Australia. Her passion in transforming people’s attitudes from an individualistic outlook on life to a more community minded outlook fuels this vision.

Reflecting on her passion Emma-Kate states:

“How can we do things using food as a vehicle to get people closer to the understanding that they aren’t just one person but are part of a bigger picture, and that they have a real meaningful contribution to make in this space?”

The Food Connect Foundation, of which Emma-Kate is Director, is powering this vehicle. Founded in 2009, the Food Connect Foundation is an innovator in the rise of a new food economy. It has many cogs in the wheel, one of these being the award winning Food Connect Brisbane (FCB). FCB is a food distribution social enterprise comprising multiple farmers, with an innovative community-based distribution system. Through an online subscription service, customers purchase weekly boxes of fresh, seasonal, ecological produce that has been sourced from local farmers within a 500-kilometre radius of Brisbane.  The boxes and/ or additional extras are then delivered through its unique distribution system called the City Cousin network. FCB also supplies many bulk buyer groups in South East Queensland using wholesale prices to access local food more affordably.

Emma-Kate acknowledges that this distribution system is a hybrid model of the well-known community supported agriculture (CSA) system. “The hybrid model made more sense in Brisbane. We call it community shared agriculture, since we want the farmers and consumers to share responsibility towards making a great food system.” This hybrid model inspired similar enterprises elsewhere including Food Connect Sydney (recently bought by Ooooby), CERES Fair Food and Bello Food Box.

Food Connect aspires to democratise the food system by increasing transparency, enhancing participation and providing opportunities for connection. One way they do this is by facilitating a unique connection between the farmer and consumer. This is achieved virtually through connecting online with all of the farmers who supply produce to Food Connect, or in person through regular farm tours. As the urban-rural divide increases, so too does the disconnect with our food and where it comes from, so this connection benefits both farmers and consumers. Emma-Kate states “with suicide rates three times higher in rural areas, it’s integral to break the isolation faced by our food growers. Farmers love being acknowledged and appreciated for what they do. You can see it in their eyes.”

At the heart of Food Connect’s ethos is that farmers are paid fairly for their produce. Generally, the leading retailers pay farmers, on average, 11 cents in the dollar – often well below the cost of production. In contrast, Food Connect farmers are paid forty cents in the dollar, essentially by cutting out the many middlemen in the supply chain. “The price is set with the farmer based on what their true costs are,” Emma-Kate emphasises.   Additionally, all Food Connect farmers know what their fellow farmers are paid, which has helped them to move away from a mentality focused on competition to one of cooperation. This also helps facilitate a shift away from the ‘get big or get out’ mantra often preached in agriculture.

With grand plans on the horizon, the Food Connect warehouse in Salisbury is set to become a buzzing food hub in 2018. Inspired by similar models in the United States, the vision is to have 20 food enterprises under the one roof, attracting a local community of like-minded citizens and consumers who are interested in sourcing locally produced food and creating a resilient local economy. There will be established kitchens with equipment, shared infrastructure, including printers and office space. The food hub will have food businesses, a people’s supermarkets selling fresh produce plus value added products made onsite, and also include a café, bar and event space.

Emma-Kate discusses how the food hub would like to be part of the solution in addressing food insecurity in the area:

“We’re 12 kilometres from the CBD, and it’s in a location where we know we can easily reach out to lower socioeconomic suburbs which are classified as food desserts, and for those areas to be able to be serviced to enable them to access really good quality, affordable food. We aim to develop educational programs including food literacy and cooking skills workshops, engaging with the community on a level where we’re helping people skill up for the future.”

Emma-Kate’s vision is to see similar models replicated elsewhere across Australia. She states, “we believe we can create a viable alternative for rural areas, post coal, to be able to start creating their own enterprises and food economy and we think this is the best model to do that.” There has been a growing movement of food hubs in the US and this is slowly gaining traction in Australia. Emma Kate believes “this has the potential to change communities across Australia to develop their own place based and unique ways of doing a food economy, which is highly distributed and networked and highly participatory, in terms of decision making and investment.”   Backed with the right systems and ethical principles, together with local government support, this model has the potential to be easily replicated around Australia.

In a food system where two supermarket giants dominate the retail market in Australia, it’s inspiring and exciting to see the Food Connect Foundation build a new model. A model that puts a fair price for farmers at the heart of it. A model that allows consumers to become active participants by supporting local businesses and local growers. A model that enhances connection and fosters a greater sense of community. As R. Buckminster Fuller states “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” May this hold true for Emma-Kate and the Food Connection Foundation.

Thor Svensen: Leader in creating a transparent and sustainable community food system

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” is the sage advice from Mahatma Gandhi. Many of us are familiar with this well known quote, yet how many of us choose to act on it? Thor Svensen, founder of Sovereign Foods, is one such change-maker, creating a transparent local food network in the heart of Brisbane.

Thor first caught my attention last year when I saw him present at the Building a Fairer Food System Community Symposium. Hearing him speak about Sovereign Foods, his drive and determination for creating a fairer food system was palatable.

The seed for Sovereign Foods was planted after researching a food politics honours project on local food. This led onto a journey of discovery about Australia’s food system, including an inability to personally source grains and pulses that weren’t imported, or hadn’t been sitting in warehouses for lengthy periods of time. Recognising the need for more transparency in the food system, Thor sought to create one himself.

In 2015, Sovereign Foods was registered as a business and from the onset had widespread support from already established co-operatives in Brisbane. Thor highlights “from the moment we started raising capital there was significant ownership from the community, who contributed to developing a healthy economy from the ground up.”

Sovereign Foods is a fantastic example of a fairer food system. All products are grown and produced within Australia in ecologically sound ways. Thor maintains excellent relationships with his farmers and producers and it is integral that they are all paid fairly. Products are sourced direct from the farm and these are distributed locally through established co-operatives or local farmers markets. Consumers pay a fair price for minimally processed grains and pulses, which are important staples in a health promoting diet.

Thor believes in “the idea that people have a right to govern their own food,” hence food sovereignty underpins the work of Sovereign Foods. The Declaration of Nyéléni states “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” At its core, Sovereign Foods has built a community that governs the way food is produced, traded and consumed.

Thor highlights that one of the great things about Sovereign Foods has been the:

“incredible growth in a few years and the great community around us who believe in what we do. Most people really care about why we do what we do.”

As supporters of an economically and socially just, and environmentally sustainable food system, food citizens may be a fitting description of Sovereign Foods customers.

It’s been a whirlwind journey so far and Thor has no intention of slowing down. A commercial kitchen has just been installed at their Moorooka warehouse. From there they plan on delivering a range of cooking classes, including fermenting workshops. The kitchen is also a fantastic space for professional chefs looking for a space to let. In addition, Thor states, “we’re aiming to value add produce and make our own retail line.” This is part of his five-year vision along with Sovereign Foods becoming a “hub for a lot of different initiatives, and having a number of collectives and people working out of this space.”

If you live in Brisbane and wish to support a transparent food system, you can find Sovereign Foods at Davies Park Market on Saturday’s and Northey Street City Farm Organic Market on Sunday’s. You can also stock up on their locally sourced and sustainable flours, grains, pulses and other pantry goods through their online shop. If you’re interested in getting involved in a community buyers group, or setting one up in your local area they are happy to help. Thor believes, “the co-op model works really well with Sovereign Foods and there are many benefits.” Through this model, Sovereign Foods “is trying to get as close to the end consumer as possible because co-ops don’t add a surcharge. They allow the best price for the grower and best price for the consumer.” For change-maker Thor, his ability to create a viable alternative to supermarkets, by cutting out retailers and keeping costs low is a huge success within our current global food system. Click here if you’re interested in learning more about Sovereign Foods.