Food Forests – food for the future?

A food forest in Preston

A version of this article appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 5.5.12

Recently I’ve been travelling to Melbourne a fair bit, as part of a team working on a research project funded by the Federal Government’s National Climate Change A­daptation Research Facility. NCCARF, as it’s known, is funding dozens of research projects over a wide range of social, environmental and economic fields, many of which will be discussed at its annual ‘Adaptation in Action’ Conference to be held in Melbourne from 26-28 June this year.

NCCARF is currently funding three food security projects, examining, respectively, the impacts of climate change for risk management and the preparedness of food industry leaders; creating a climate for food security in terms of business, people and landscapes in food production; and urban food security, urban resilience and climate change.

It’s the last one I’ve been involved with, and in a nutshell the aim is to better understand how urban and peri-urban agriculture can help meet the challenges of climate change and food security, and build more resilient towns and cities in Australia. Two case study areas have been chosen for this research, Melbourne and the Gold Coast, hence my recent travels.

I’ve met and interviewed  over 30 people from different walks of life, from local government planners, to health and nutrition professionals, community gardeners, market gardeners, backyard gardeners and food security advocates. I’ve been left with lots of impressions, not the least of which is that there’s an extraordinary  amount of activity and enthusiasm for urban agriculture and local food in Melbourne.

I’ve also been struck by the disconnect between this level of activity and enthusiasm, and the low value that the State government (both the current Victorian government and the previous one) has placed on prime agricultural land close to the city. According to the Planning Institute of Australia, on current trends regarding the constant expansion of Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary, 25,000 hectares of quality farmland will be lost to residential development by 2020. Doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s coal-seam gas or new McMansions, it seems pretty clear that food growing rates way down the list of priorities of State government planners and political leaders.

Many people, myself included, are firmly of the opinion that we – and most certainly our children – will rue these choices to chase the short-term buck over long-term sustainability and resilience.

The Melbourne urban food and agriculture movement, which seems to be geographically concentrated in an arc of suburbs heading north and north-west of the city, such as Fitzroy, Clifton Hill, Brunswick, Northcote, Thornbury, Coburg and Preston, is full of people and groups who see some sort of breakdown in the ‘Big Food’ system as likely. Here, and over the next few weeks, I’m going to introduce you to one of them: Angelo Eliades.

Angelo is a life-long resident of Preston, and has been a keen organic gardener since 2002. A few years ago Angelo taught himself the principles of permaculture – he subsequently did his PDC with Bill Mollison – and decided to put them into practice by taking three months off work and transforming his small suburban backyard into a permaculture food forest.

Angelo Eliades in his garden in Preston, Melbourne
Angelo Eliades in his garden in Preston, Melbourne

He was motivated to do this, he said, by the ‘scepticism towards permaculture’ he saw amongst horticulturalists. ‘There was just too much doubt, too much dissenting opinion, about whether it can really work’, he told me. ‘So I said, enough’s enough, it’s time to call their bluff, and build something that shows it really does work.’

And that’s what Angelo did with his backyard food forest. But Angelo is no starry-eyed idealist, he’s a working scientist. Which is what makes him, and his project, so unique. He set out quite explicitly to use his backyard as an experiment, to rigourously document everything he did, and all his yields, in order to establish that bio-intensive gardening of this sort can indeed be highly productive.

‘I have no time or space for wild speculation’, he said. ‘For me, my food forest was really to prove that the concept worked. As a scientist, if something’s scientific, that means it’s repeatable.’

In the next few columns, we’ll look at how he did it, what he’s achieved, and what his plans are for the future.

2 thoughts on “Food Forests – food for the future?”

  1. Wholeheartedly agree. Our generation need to learn more about making food locally available. Better when it’s right at your backyard!

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