Living off the bounty of the land in the Bellinger Valley
First published in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 4.9.10
Fears over food price inflation are back in the news. We haven’t yet reached the convulsions of May-June 2008, when there was rioting in over thirty countries. Though the situation in Pakistan, where nearly 25% of the country’s crops have been destroyed in the ongoing floods, is extremely precarious.
This time, the sharp spike in wheat prices has not been caused by a run-up in oil futures. It’s because Russia, having lived through its hottest summer on record, has imposed a ban on wheat exports until November 2011.
As a result, prices for consumer staples like bread, beer and meat will all rise in the coming months.
These events are leading many people to see the sense in embracing older traditions of at least partial self-sufficiency: the backyard veggie plot, and keeping a few chooks for eggs.
Other reasons for this trend include well-founded concerns about food safety and quality. The recent salmonella outbreak in the US, which has led to thousands of cases of food poisoning and the recall of more than 500 million eggs, is only the latest of numerous food scandals.
Some residents of the Coffs Coast however take the embrace of self-sufficiency much further than a few herbs, lettuces and tomatoes in the summer. Nell Haydon, for instance, supplies most of her food needs, with plenty of surplus to spare for others, from her half-acre garden and citrus orchard on her property, a few minutes drive out of Bellingen.
Nell, who hails originally from the NSW Central Western town of Grenfell, was raised in the traditions of self-sufficiency, family industry and generosity. Her father was a market gardener, who died when Nell and her three siblings were still young. Nell’s mother and the children worked her father’s two acres, feeding themselves and sharing their surplus with their neighbours.
Later, when she worked in public health administration in Papua New Guinea from 1968 to 1982, Nell’s experiences with villagers who largely followed self-sufficient, traditional lifestyles, and yet enjoyed higher standards of health than many ‘richer’ people in the cities, confirmed for her that this was the path she wished to follow.
She returned to Australia with a dream of buying a small piece of land that had decent soil and a good aspect. Connections through friends drew her to Bellingen, and she paid the deposit on what is now her home on the same day that Australia won the America’s Cup in 1983.
When you walk into Nell’s garden, you can really feel the thriving abundance of 25 years’ worth of loving care of the land. Everywhere you turn something is growing, a fair amount of it self-seeded, according to Nell: chillis, butternut lettuces, potatoes, three varieties of sweet potatoes, sugarsnap peas, broccoli, cauliflowers, Pak Choy, papaya, strawberries, Italian garlic, leeks, Russian shallots, yarrow, hibiscus, and the exotic-looking Cape Horn cucumber, amongst much else. The orchard has various varieties of grapefruits, limes, lemons, oranges, mandarins and tangellos.
The marvel is that, apart from an initial tractor run to create the orchard, it was all done by hand. Yet now, Nell spends no more than an hour a day in her garden.
Her garden is also spreading. Since an initial visit organised by the Bellingen Local Food Network two years ago, she’s had numerous visits from the North Bank Road Community Garden and the Bellingen Seed Savers. Cultivars and cuttings from her garden are now growing in various homes throughout Bellingen and beyond.
So Nell, who is now 74, finds herself part of a growing network of Coffs Coast residents keen to embrace the ways of self-sufficiency, and she’s an inspiration for many of them. “People are happy when they come out here”, says Nell. “[That first visit in 2008] has allowed me to meet up with like-minded people. It’s broadened my life.”