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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)