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.

Joel Orchard: Small scale farmer and big future thinker

What started out as an aspiration to be self sufficient, has evolved into a vision to grow and support young farmers into a profession that has enormous reward, alongside huge risk, immense challenges and a great deal of fulfillment. What’s more Joel can see the future in small-scale farming and has a vision for how we can shift to sustainable farming practices and develop local food systems, challenging the predominant industrialised model of agriculture.

With a name like Orchard perhaps he was destined to be connected deeply to the earth because his roots run deep. Joel grew up in a farming community in southern Victoria and worked on dairy farms in his youth. Despite these early connections to farming, he first started growing his own food while studying in Melbourne. His desire to grow enough food for himself and generate his own nourishment, led him on a journey up the east coast in search of enough land to make a livelihood out of it.

There were few opportunities for a young farmer wanting to start from scratch. He encountered numerous barriers including the significant capital to buy land and equipment, along with limited entry points for someone with no farming background and limited experience.

Now Joel rents one and a half acres at Mullumbimby Community Gardens, where he has a small scale diversified farm, harvesting a range of crops with up to 12-15 vegetable lines growing at a particular time. He does this alongside managing a beehive, making liquid fertilisers from the worm farms; minimising waste by using food scraps from a nearby organic retailer and is currently putting together a solar powered aquaponic system to sustain his off-grid farm. He had a flourishing Community Supported Agriculture scheme established with regular subscribers, gratified with the fruits of his labour. Sadly, after the torrential downpour the region experienced in April, his entire farm was completely submerged by water, which meant starting over, just when things were going well.

Truly a farmer’s worst nightmare, yet sadly a harsh reality that our famers face. Our weather is unpredictable and it’s been documented that Australia is set to experience even more extreme weather events as we face the uncertainties that climate change brings. This is even more reason for encouraging and supporting sustainable agriculture, also known as agroecology.

Running a small scale farm is nonetheless, just one hat that Joel wears at present. Recognising that the average age of farmers in Australia exceeds 56, the need to support new young farmers into farming is essential.

Joel highlights:

“Nothing is being done to stimulate or support young people to get into food production to support a rapidly growing population. I really want to be setting a framework in that they will operate in. Dynamic and diverse agricultural enterprises can respond to deal with climate change, another huge thing for young farmers.”

This is why Joel has established Future Feeders which provides young people wanting to get into farming with opportunities to learn. Partnering with a local training institute, alongside providing the land, equipment and established crops, Joel is giving interns an opportunity for collective skill development, minus the enormous barriers he faced when entering small scale farming.

This has also led to the formation of the Northern Rivers Young Farmers Alliance to facilitate peer support for young farmers in the area. This is a network of farmers under 40 who share the same values in ecological agriculture and sustainable land management. Joel praises the alliance, acknowledging there are “enormous benefits for a support network, however one challenge is that when farmers are already stretched to thin, it’s hard to find time to be involved in a food movement.” Despite these challenges, the group meets monthly and provides fantastic opportunities for support, collaboration and networking.

When asked about his five-year vision Joel would love to see small-scale farms in his local area form a collaborative farming network. Reflecting on the economic inefficiencies of small-scale farms Joel aspires to see “a range of emerging farmers form as a cooperative. Efficiencies go up because they become part of a bigger farm on the books, but they still benefit from being able to explore farming at their own autonomy.” It’s clear he’s given this a lot of thought because Joel states “through making the farm look bigger under a collective identify, it provides enormous benefits such as increased buying power for various inputs, as well as increasing efficiencies for distribution through accessing bigger markets. A network has a lot of advantages instead of doing all of that at the same time.”

When asked what consumers can do if they want to support a fairer food system, Joel imparted three wise words “know your farmer.” He emphasised how this makes it more real for the farmer and more authentic for the consumer. You can do this through farmers markets or by checking out local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models in your area. Joel praises the CSA model because it shares the risk between both the farmer and consumer.

He states:

“Another reality for farmers is that they get left holding all the risk – whether the crops succeed or fail, or whether the market changes. In a CSA model, customers become shareholders; stakeholders in the farm itself and the risk is distributed. Everyone benefits when the system is working really well. Everyone shares the load when things don’t go well such as natural disasters or pests.”

As our conversation nears a close, I am left feeling hugely inspired by Joel’s big future thinking. A farmer, activist and connector, Joel is harvesting the seeds for change, cultivating the youth of today to enter the most important job ever required.   A profession that cares and nurtures the land, alongside the greatest responsibility of all, feeding us.

Photo credit: Jo Immig

Deep Winter 2017: Sowing the seeds for our farming future

The air was cool and crisp, as I set out for Deep Winter just after sunrise, eager to meet some farmers and foster a connection with those responsible for one of the most important duties on this planet, feeding people. As I drove south to Bangalow, the winter sun warmed the car and my soul, ready for a day of learning, sharing and connecting with small-plot farmers.

The meeting was held on the North Coast, New South Wales, and was the third annual Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, running over two and half days. I arrived on the second day to meet the eclectic group of attendees who had all enjoyed the fabulous first day of local area farm tours including The Farm Byron Bay, Boon Luck Farm (Tyagarah), Mullumbimby Community Gardens, Future Feeders and Life Force Organics (Mullumbimby).

The tremendous A and I Hall in Bangalow was the setting for a day and a half of sharing stories, learning’s and wisdom amongst farmers, gardeners, educators, eaters and advocates.

Jambe, who represented the Arakwal people of the region, kicked off the proceedings with a Welcome to Country. Graciously leading us through a Connection to Country, Jambe also invited us to connect deeply to the earth and country beneath us, just like the plants and vegetables that grow to nourish and sustain us.

The speed dating introductions followed, allowing us the opportunity to connect to others present at the gathering. It was energetic and intense, and in a short space of time, I met an abundance of small-scale regenerative farmers from across Australia. Owning or leasing land of various sizes, these market gardeners and farmers were here for knowledge, inspiration and camaraderie, rebutting against the long held view in agriculture of ‘get big or get out.’

The sessions addressed a range of topics including land access and ownership, organic certification and peer guaranteed systems, food distribution models, building consumer and chef relationships, and learning’s from young farmers.

Attending the session on land access, ownership and share agreements, I heard about the challenges and barriers people face face wanting to become farmers or lease land for farming. These included the significant cost of land in or near urban areas; the different loan agreements for agricultural land compared with your standard home loan; and the complexities of leasing land off land owners. Given that land ownership was often a significant entry point barrier, many pursued leasing land. Despite the challenges this also presented, one audience member emphasised, “we’re striving for a model of co-operative farming that works with the land, the farmer, and the community”, highlighting some of the many benefits of this model.

If the youth are the hope of our future then young farmers are the hope of our farms! In a profession where the majority of farmers in Australia are reaching retirement age, young farmers are the life-blood of the land. Each of the four farmers on the panel in the afternoon session had a different story to share, but the key theme that emerged was the sheer drive and determination of all who sat before me. Like any young person starting out in a new profession, time is taken to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in order to make it work. This requires substantial commitment, and is often supplemented by juggling paid work alongside establishing a farm. There is also significant capital outlay required to start farming and many accessed grants and/ or crowd funding platforms for essential items, often just beyond their reach. All were quite open about the turmoil that comes from enduring financial struggle, either in the beginning, or after losing crops through various weather events. Yet the love of the land, the food and the people is what lights the fire in their belly, keeps their hands dirty and their hearts full.

On my drive home with the sun setting to the west, a glorious red splashed across the sky leaving its mark on the day, and I reflected how Deep Winter left its mark on me. I felt privileged to meet so many inspiring farmers growing fresh, healthy food sustainably. Small-scale diversified farming provides so many benefits to the individual, community, soil, land, environment and plants and animals, that transitioning back to this way of sustainable farming is essential for the long term health of people and the planet.

We, as consumers have the power to change things for the better in our food system. Buy local. Support small farmers where you can. Check out your farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes. Thank your farmer for growing your food.  If you can’t do it in person, can you connect electronically?   Many farmers are on social media and value the genuine connection they have with with consumers. Farming is truly a labour of love and for that we must be eternally grateful.

Note: Deep Winter wrapped up on Sunday after yoga, a session on marketing for farmers and a recap which I was unable to attend due to family commitments.

Photo credit: Joel Orchard (Future Feeders)