Tag Archives: backyard gardening

People are starving for a real experience

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 16.8.14

My travels continue at what at times feels like a break-neck pace. I have spent a week in each of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Toronto, and have just arrived in Argentina. Last night I stayed in Buenos Aires, then flew this morning to the northern province of Tucumán, where I will be till Friday night, when I take a bus to Córdoba. This week – and indeed the whole month – promises to be one of intense learning, as I immerse myself in coming to an understanding of the scope, scale and importance of the national Pro Huerta program, that reaches 500,000 families across the country, including 45,000 in Tucumán. Every day has brought so many new people, projects and places into my life that I will need a considerable amount of time to process it all. My commitment is to write a brief report for the Churchill Trust (minimum 10 pages), but it feels like a book. Or a number of books. There are just so many wonderful stories. And I already have in the order of 100 hours of recorded interviews. So I’m actually going back to Chicago this time, to share some observations from one of the most remarkable people I have met so far. Someone who has been practising urban agriculture for more than 15 years, making her one of the ‘elders’ of the movement in North America. And someone who has embraced it with a passion and dedication that has to be seen to be believed.

With Vicky and Eric, of VK Urban Farms
With Vicky and Eric, of VK Urban Farms

I am talking about Nicky, of VK Urban Farms, in East Caufield Park, Westside Chicago. She and her husband Eric, a policeman and trained chef, are working two vacant lots adjacent to their home, where houses formerly stood.       Their focus is animals, rather than fruit and veg, and Nicky explains why: “When I had my children, that’s when I decided to get the chickens. I come from the city and I want my children to have culture, but I think there is an irreparable disconnect when you don’t have the space to put your hands in dirt, and land to live and look, and grow your own food. You can theoretically learn about it, and think about it, but when you have a tangible connection to your environment, it does something that connects you to your universe and your environment that you can’t just do in a book.

Some of the 15 chickens, VK Urban Farms, Southside Chicago
Some of the 15 chickens, VK Urban Farms, Southside Chicago

You can grow fruit and veg, and you can know to take care of your environment, theoretically. But when you have a live animal that eats up that ground, and then you’re going to eat off of what it gives you, it’s a different conceptual reality. So that was why I got the chickens. .” Nicky refers jokingly to her chickens as a ‘gateway drug’, because goats followed in their wake, and this year two pigs were added. Now their urban homestead includes 15 chickens (10 eggs per day), eight goats, and two beehives in addition to the two pigs. Nicky told me how wonderful it is to have goats: “ I love the fact that we milk every day, and we make cheese every third day. So I make feta and chevre, and farmhouse cheddar. I get a gallon and a half of milk each day.”   “A gallon of milk yields about a pound a half of cheese [so that’s about 20 pounds of cheese per week – somewhere in the order of 8 kilos]. We work together with a remarkable woman in Austin, Carolyn Yoder, a remarkable human being. We ship in the hay together for the goats and split the freight charges. We care for each other’s goats when we go on vacation. She had a birthing crisis and I had to help her with the midwifery of her goat, which was ridiculously fantastic. We had to reach in and turn the kids, we had a 2% chance of birth and we did it, it was quite lovely.

Nicky milking one of her goats, VK Urban Farms, Southside Chicago
Nicky milking one of her goats, VK Urban Farms, Southside Chicago

“Urban ag people – we have to do everything, we have to midwife, we have to castrate, we have to disbud (burning off the horns), it’s a high calling that you have a responsibility for these animals, and you better educate yourself, because there’s no-one to call for help.” Nicky speaks lovingly of how the animals work together, in harmony with the land and the growing of vegetables and fruits: “There’s a beautiful symbiosis with all of the animals and the farm. The goats produce a ton of manure, and that’s direct feed for the soil, you don’t have to age it. It’s enough for all of my gardens and a lot of community gardens in the neighborhood. It’s the difference between a few tomatoes, and a LOT of tomatoes, and they’re delicious! Especially in this table city soil. It’s exactly what you need to amend your soil. There’s a place for the goat poop to go, which is necessary.

Nicky at the entrance to the goat shed

Nicky with her chickens

“So they feed the garden, the garden feeds us, and the compost goes right back into the composter. They give me all this beautiful milk. I make cheese, and there’s a by-product of cheese – whey – which is the most magical thing in the world. You can wash your face with it, it cures acne…what we don’t use here, we feed back to the goats and the chickens and the pigs. Between all of the animals there’s no waste at all. We have no food waste at all. Everything gets eaten, between the goats, the chickens, and the pigs will eat whatever’s left over.

The daily haul of eggs...
The daily haul of eggs…

“If you just have chickens, you’re going to have more waste – but the goats, the chickens and the pigs create a beautiful balance. 8 goats, 2 pigs, 15 chickens, 2 beehives, and a mass of gardens.

Nicky with her 2 pigs, VK Urban Farms, Westside Chicago
Nicky with her 2 pigs, VK Urban Farms, Westside Chicago

I asked her what it was like when she first moved to Chicago, and to the west side: “20 years ago it was very different here. Culturally. I was told I was crazy. I was the only white girl here, for years. We were raised, in Maine, that everyone is the same, doesn’t matter if you’re poor, or white, or black. But it’s easy to be raised like that when you live in a homogenous area. It’s easy not to be racist when everyone’s white. So people thought I was crazy when I moved here, to an all-black ghetto. They told me I was going to be cut up into little pieces, and raped every day.” Yet her experience of hostility came not from the westside of Chicago, but from its predominantly white north: “I lived in the north side of Chicago for a little while, but I found it very hostile. Nobody spoke to each other when you walked in the streets. You had to look down at the pavement, because God forbid you smiled at each other. They would recoil from me if I said ‘Good morning.’ The white people were just not friendly, whereas the black people are. I felt so lonely and isolated. The rent was very high. I looked into buying a place, here, on the Westside. I paid $30,000, and my mortgage was $234 a month, as opposed to $1600 a month, to rent a place with no backyard.

VK Urban Farms, Southside Chicago
VK Urban Farms, Southside Chicago

“So I came to this block and I asked the neighbors, what would people think if I moved in, and they said ‘Oh honey, you’ll be fine’. And I felt so much more at home, among black people. They don’t look at you funny if you look them in the eye. People would come and knock on the door if it was street cleaning and I hadn’t moved my car. It’s so much more – it’s southern hospitality, and I felt embraced, even though I was the anomaly.” Nicky and Eric also tapped 66 maple trees from the streets surrounding their property, and boiled up 7 gallons of home-made maple syrup – possibly the first such product from an urban farm in North America. This was a great bonding experience for the community, Nicky says, because it ‘started so many wonderful conversations, because people didn’t know what maple syrup was. People have conversations that they never would have had otherwise. It really unites people.” At the end of the process, which lasted a couple of weeks, they had a big community pancake breakfast.

Products of VK Urban Farms, Westside, Chicago
Products of VK Urban Farms, Westside, Chicago

Nicky is unsure about the future of her urban homestead, because the neighborhood is slowly becoming gentrified, and that could lead to tax rises. It could also lead to the City wanting to sell the vacant lots, which Nicky and Eric are trying to buy, so far without success, to a developer. A main issue for her are the constraints the current rules place on the ability of urban farmers like her to commercialise their produce, when it’s mainly derived from animals. So she and Eric are looking for creative ways to monetise some of their labour: “Our plan is farm to table dinners – we started this year with an urban wedding, a 100-person wedding, and those you are allowed to do. You are allowed to feed people with the food we produce here. So that’s why we’ve added the pergola, and why we’re doing the landscaping. We’re going to put down old pavers from the old City of Chicago streets. We can do events here, and there’s a lot of money doing that. That is an idea that we’re going to hope to keep things going. And maybe if we make enough money, the City will sell us this land. Having spent over an hour with Nicky, I asked her what the urban farming meant to her:

“For me it’s like the core of my happiness. Being out here and digging in the dirt, it connects me to the most fundamental space in my heart, which is nature. It gives me peace, and it calms me down, I’m not listening to podcasts, or news, or music, or looking at my cell phone. It’s just connecting with my environment. And it gives me back something for doing this!”

With one of VK Urban Farm's 8 goats, Westside Chicago
With one of VK Urban Farm’s 8 goats, Westside Chicago

Urban agriculture is becoming a movement, she says, because it speaks to a deep yearning amongst many people for (re-)connection: “ A lot of people involved in this are younger than me, they’re in their 20s and 30s. I think there’s a way in which we’re so disconnected – we have Facebook instead of actual friends, we have screens instead of human interactions, that people, especially in that age demographic, are starving for a real experience, in the world.” These words chime very much with my own feelings about urban agriculture, and the fair food and food sovereignty movement more broadly. Whereas the big, globalised and industrialised food system is premised on a series of disconnections and separations, everything about urban agriculture speaks of connection and healing: communities, minds, bodies and souls. Often this is also expressed through cooking and food preparation, as Nicky notes in relation to Eric: “My husband is a city boy, never grown anything in his life. When he first moved here he mowed over my herb garden. He’s like if it’s green it’s grass…No! Watching the transformation in him has been miraculous. Now he loves the gardens, he loves the animals, he’s proud to tell people about it. As a trained chef, it woke something up in him, that was even more than I have. For me, it connects me to my universe and myself, but for Eric, cooking for people is his connection to his world. To be able to have it be so real for him, is pretty beautiful.” Nicky says that urban agriculture is a diverse and grassroots movement and phenomenon, but it’s the basic desire for connection that unifies all those who are involved in it: “I think the people who stumble upon urban agriculture – because everybody does it for different reasons – and it does seem like a ‘stumble upon’ thing – you had a neighbor, who had bees, and you got into it; or you took a class in college, on agriculture, and got into it. But it’s not being passed down, it’s not like a farming technique, so everybody’s coming at it from all these crazy different directions. Some people like to brew beer, so they ask, well, where do my hops come from? And you grow your own hops, and then you start growing everything. “But I think it all stems from that same place of just been starving for an actual interaction with your universe.

Veggie Swap arrives in Sawtell!

Veggie Swaps

According to sources, veggie swaps in Australia first took off in Brunswick, Melbourne, in 2004 with the CERES Urban Orchard Project. The initial idea was to map household fruit tree plantings in the inner city local government areas of Moreland and Darebin, and to encourage householders to gather surplus and unwanted fruit and bring them to a central venue on a regular basis to exchange for other produce.

From those humble beginnings the CERES Urban Orchard now takes place every Saturday, with residents from over 200 households bringing their veggies, herbs, fruit, backyard eggs and more to exchange.

CERES can hardly claim ownership of the concept of swapping backyard produce, of course. As older readers will no doubt recall, the swapping of produce across the backyard fence would have been commonplace fifty or sixty years ago, when the tradition of home food growing was commonplace.

But the backyard veggie garden is making a comeback. Consistent with a ‘DIY’ and collaborative ethos of a small but growing food movement in Australia, a loose network of semi-structured ‘veggie swaps’ is now emerging to help backyard gardeners meet like-minded souls and find a good home for their surplus parsley, kale and pumpkins.

By some estimates there are now over a dozen regular veggie swaps in Melbourne, ranging from the large and public swaps like CERES and the Yarra Urban Harvest which happens once a month on parkland bordering Alexandra Parade, to smaller neighbourhood swaps such as the Bulleen Art and Garden (BAAG) monthly swap, and the Kildonan Fresh Food Swap, also held monthly on Sydney Rd, Coburg.

Veggie swaps are also popping up in other places, such as West Croydon in Adelaide. Bellingen had a veggie swap for a number of years.

And on 23rd June the first veggie swap was held at Sawtell Public School, from 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. As one of the organisers I really didn’t know what to expect – we thought only a few close friends might turn up, with perhaps a few bunches of parsley.

Nick and Juliet - the organisers!
Nick and Juliet – the organisers!

But we – and school principal, Michael Cheers – were very pleasantly surprised. Over 25 people of all ages attending, including students with their parents, but also neighbours and residents from the surrounding streets.

The crowd gathers in anticipation...
The crowd gathers in anticipation…


And we were delighted to welcome Dave Pepper, who travelled all the way from Glenifer, and brought a ute full of ‘naughty pumpkins’ (naughty because they burst out of the compost and rambled all over the garden), along with buckets of sweet limes, mandarins, chokos, sweet potatoes and tumeric.


Other produce included organic bananas from Orara, a wide selection of herbs, many lovingly tied in bundles (thyme, rosemary, parsley, mint, coriander, holy basil, Vietnamese mint and lemon myrtle); comfrey, lemon grass, ginger, rhubarb, packets of rocket and lettuce, chicory and salad burnet. The school exchanged broccoli seedlings, propagated Geraniums, and native Dendrobium kingianum pups.

The produce is on display...
The produce is on display…

And to top it all we even had jars of homemade sauerkraut. Not to mention homemade cakes and cookies, with cups of tea and coffee.

The sun shone brightly as we chatted amongst the thriving school garden nestled amongst the gum trees. The produce was laid out on trestle tables and introduced by those who brought it, and then the ‘swapping’ begun: all present filled their baskets with what they wanted. There was plenty to go round and some to spare.

Chatting in the Sawtell public school kitchen garden...
Chatting in the Sawtell public school kitchen garden…

Everyone enjoyed themselves; and everyone went home to tell a friend about it. The next swap will be on Sunday 21st July, from 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. If you want more information, write to Juliet Thomas, jtinthegarden@gmail.com.

The Homemade Food Act

The Homemade Food Act

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 29th September, 2012.

At the end of August, the Californian State Assembly passed the California Homemade Food Act, and it was signed into law by the Governor of California on 21st September. This law aims to support home-based and cottage food industries, by exempting them from onerous regulatory food safety, packaging  and planning requirements.

The types of foods that the Act is aimed at are what it terms ‘non-hazardous’ foods, which excludes dairy and meat products, but includes a wide list of preserved and value-added items, that you would typically associate with home kitchens: fruit pies; dried fruit and dried pasta; granola and cereals; honey; jams and preserves; vinegar and mustard; biscuits, breads and pastries; and roasted coffee and dried tea, amongst others.

Homemade Food  Act

Recognising the role that micro-food enterprises play in local economic development, as well as poverty and hunger prevention, the Act aims to create a permissive and enabling environment for such enterprises, rather than a prohibitive one. Local authorities are expressly forbidden by the legislation to prohibit a cottage food operation. Rather, they can either classify such operations as a permitted use of residential premises, or alternatively require such operations to apply for a permit to use a residence for that purpose, with any fees charged to be kept to a minimum.

The Act’s philosophy, and the societal ills it seeks to address, are set out clearly in Section 1. Foremost among those ills is the obesity epidemic, which as the Act notes ‘affects virtually all Californians’. Section 1(b)(3) notes that obesity-related diseases ‘are preventable and curable through lifestyle choices that include consumption of healthy foods’. Section 1(c) acknowledges the existence of so-called ‘food deserts’, which have condemned car-less low income communities to reliance on ‘expensive, fatty [and] processed foods’.

Section 1(d) recognises the existence in California of ‘a growingmovement to support community-based food production, [which] seeks to connect food to local communities, small businesses, and environmental sustainability’. Section 1(e) states that ‘[i]ncreased opportunities for entrepreneur development through microenterprises can help to supplement household incomes, prevent poverty and hunger, and strengthen local economies’.

These are the sorts of things that many of us in the local food movement have been saying for years. So it’s somewhat astonishing, and not a little gratifying, to see them now enshrined in legislation, in the world’s eighth-largest economy. And California is hardly alone in this initiative; if anything, it’s catching up. With this Act, California joins 32 other US states that have passed similar legislation.

Clearly in the US micro-food enterprises are now achieving the recognition and support they deserve, as powerful motors of economic and social development. There are a number of reasons for this.

In the first place, despite all the spin to the contrary, the US economy is very much mired in the stagnation of a ‘job-less’ recovery. Indicators of poverty and inequality continue to be broken, with a report earlier this month showing that a record 46.7 million Americans were receving food stamps (the US equivalent of emergency food vouchers in Australia), 50 million ran out of money to buy food at some point in 2011, and 17 million regularly ran short of food last year. These are shocking figures for the world’s richest economy. So it’s not surprising that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, with food-growing and associated micro-enterprises leading the way.

Secondly, there has been institutional support and resourcing of local food in the US for many years. The US Department of Agriculture has operated a multi-million dollar annual grants program that has seen the numbers of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture initiatives rise exponentially since 1990.

Thirdly, farming, and urban agriculture in particular, is seen as the ‘new cool’ in the US. A friend just returning from there told me that being a farmer is now ‘one of the coolest things a young person can do’. And part of this wave of ‘cool’ is a new generation of enterpreneurs and new economy types who are putting in place the local markets and distribution networks to support the new generation of young farmers.

So when can we expect NSW to legislate for a Homemade Food Act? Not any time soon, if the lead being given by the Federal government in its National Food Plan is any guide.

Angelo Eliades – Practising Permaculture in Preston

A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 9th June, 2012

A little over a month ago I introduced Angelo Eliades, and his permaculture food forest experiment in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. What Angelo has done embodies the wave of food self-sufficiency sweeping the inner north and west of Melbourne. This wave has been generated by individuals and community groups, but it’s increasingly being embraced by local governments, who are integrated policies on community gardening, edible streetscapes and urban orchards into their policies and strategic frameworks.

Angelo is remarkable for the methodical and systematic way he has built his backyard food forest, and in particular for his documentation of everything he’s done, from species selection, plantings, climate events and yields. All of this is available at his blog, deepgreenpermaculture.com.

Angelo built his food forest on the ‘leached and lifeless’ soil of his 80m2 backgarden during the winter of 2008. He calls his method ‘backyard orchard culture’. It’s based around the careful selection and strategic siting of a range of different tree species (Angelo has 30), interspersed with numerous varieties of berries (21, with multiples of several varieties), herbs (90) and other perennials, with some space left for annual vegies. Typically early, mid- and late fruiting varieties will be chosen, because ‘this gives extended seasonal cropping – instead of having one tree produce a glut of fruit all over a few weeks, you can extend your cropping [over several months].’

For Angelo, a key motivator is yield; his aim was to show what’s possible in a small space, the ‘typical suburban backyard’ in inner Melbourne. Remember, he wanted to counter the scepticism of folks in DPI and elsewhere who scoffed (and still scoff) at the idea that permaculture and backyard gardening can actually produce significant amounts of food.

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

But he’s also very interested in resilience: in selecting species that can do well in a Melburnian climate that is behaving increasingly erratically, with damp and cool summers, short and mild winters, freak hail storms, and extremely hot days in early spring. Never mind the droughts, the fires and the floods.

So he and his colleagues are looking abroad and at other cultures and agricultural traditions, trying out species that you wouldn’t think of as forming part of the ‘normal’ Australian diet, if such a thing still exists. The multi-functional and ‘very highly productive’ Peruvian root crop yacón is one. “It’s very sweet, you can eat is straight, or stir fry it; you can also produce a natural, inulin-based sweetener out of it”, says Angelo.

The cold hardy babaco, a member of the paw-paw family, is another tree that features in his food forest. It’s also known as champagne fruit, because it tastes ‘like a lemon-sherbet pineapple-strawberry blend and it’s quite fizzy’. It also has medicinal properties, having four times the bromelain (anti-inflammatory) content of pineapples. And, Angelo told me, it ‘makes great smoothies, too’. Unfortunately none were ripe when I visited. He expects the tree to yield 50kgs per year when it reaches maturity at four years.

Angelo explains the strategic thinking that informs the selection of perennials, not annuals, in this type of orchard design:

“They’re more flavour-intensive, they’re far hardier, and they grow much better. We find all these types of plants, like French sorrel, and perennial spinach, things that are high-yielding and good tasting. And then we propagate them, and distribute them out through the local community, so everyone gets hold of these plants. The more we share them, the more we have of them.”

You can see here the outlines of a vision for a community-based resilient food future, which I’ll flesh out more in a later column. But what about his yields? Angelo has documented approximately 200kgs per year, with a roughly 60-5- 35 split between the trees, the berries and the vegies. All his trees are a few years away from maturity, – a third are not yet producing at all – so he thinks 500kg a year is quite feasible.

Even his current yield equates to 14 tonnes per acres. Average dryland wheat yields in Australia are in the 2 tonne per acre range, even after many many millions of dollars have been spent on research and genetics. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

The rise of the dachniks

This article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 26th May, 2012

The rise of the dachniks

Last time I began telling the story of Angelo Eliades and his permaculture food forest in his suburban backyard in Preston, Melbourne. In response to that column, a friend sent me a link to some research that was carried out a few years back into the scale and productivity of agro-foresty and bio-intensive small-scale production in Russia. This research formed the substance of a PhD thesis submitted by Leonid Sharashkin in May 2008 at the University of Missouri.

This column will be in parenthesis to Angelo’s story, which after all, has a lot to do with the yields achievable in small-scale food forests. Next time I’ll return to his story proper.

If you’re really keen on the Russian research, you can download the full thesis – a mere 248 pages of text and tables – via ‘soilandhealth.org’. Here’s the (very) short version: Russia is a nation of small-scale gardeners, or dachniks; and they are very, very good at it. Some 35 million households, two-thirds of the country, grow a fairly significant portion of their food on a dacha, a small-scale garden plot with an average size of 600m2, belonging to urban dwellers, either privately or in a co-operative form.

The tens of millions of current-day dachniks are following in the footsteps of a centuries-old tradition of small-scale, self-reliant agrarian communities. As Sharashkin notes, this means that these practices did not suddenly re-emerge en masse in response to the economic collapse in the post-Soviet Russia of the early 1990s, but rather have deep historical and cultural roots that go well beyond the food production and economic dimensions.

Small'scale intensive production in Russia
Small-scale intensive production in Russia

Yet the productivity of the dachniks is impressive. Sharashkin reports that in 2004, they accounted for (conservatively) 51% of total agricultural output by value, around $US14 billion, or 2.3% of Russia’s GDP; a larger contribution than steel manufacturing or electricity generation. And when the focus shifts to staple food crops, as opposed to commercial crops for export, the figures are truly remarkable. Over 90% of Russia’s potatoes, over 80% of its vegetables and fruit, and over 50% of its meat and milk, are produced on small plots, with little or no machinery and minimal energy inputs.

And all this is achieved on a mere 2.9% of the country’s agricultural land, compared to commercial agriculture, which requires the other 97.1% of the agricultural land to produce 49% of total output.

Such extraordinary productivity is explained by two principal reasons. First, the care and attention that comes with labour-intensive gardening for self-provisioning. Secondly, the embrace of polycultures and perennial species, rather than single crop monocultures, characteristic of agro-forestry: plantings that ‘are intentional, intensive, integrated and interactive.’

And beyond their food yields, these spaces also generate a social yield. They are places ‘where a family comes together’ and where they ‘celebrate special occasions’. Dachniks watch over each others’ plots, and they share seeds as well as gardening experiences and tips.

As Prime Minister Gillard boasts of Australia’s potential to be the ‘foodbowl of Asia’, others look to the parlous state of the Murray-Darling basin, the impacts of the coal-seam gas industry on water tables and fertile soils, the growing reality of climate change and the looming shadow of peak oil, and wonder whether we shouldn’t first focus on feeding ourselves. In this debate, the dachniks of Russia have proven that ‘decentralized, small-scale food production is possible on a national scale’.

Which is why we should celebrate the growth of community gardening in this country, and in our region in particular. On Saturday, 2nd June, the Bellingen High School Community Garden will celebrate its first birthday, and everyone is welcome. There will be activities for children from 10.00 a.m., the pizza oven will be fired up for lunch, as well as live music and a photo exhibition. Come along and see what Charlie Brennan, Olivia Bernadini and their many helpers have achieved over the past year. For more details, visit the Facebook page of the Bellingen Community Gardens Association.

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.

Our shrinking trust horizon

The ‘trust horizon’, and what it means for the future

A version of this article appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 11th February 2012

Politicians typically make a bad situation worse, as quickly as possible. The [economic and political] systems that we have established have become sclerotic and unresponsive. Hostage to vested interests. They have no ability to adapt quickly to provide for changes that happen very rapidly… So I don’t look for solutions from there….There aren’t really any mechanisms for these large bureaucratic institutions to offer anything that will help…­­­What they’re far more likely to do is suck resources to maintain the centre, like a body that’s hypothermic, cuts off circulation to the fingers and toes to preserve the temperature of the core…Unfortunately for us, we’re the fingers and toes, we have to look after ourselves, nothing is coming from the top down.”

Nicole Foss, speaking with Italian interviewers in January 2012.  

Nicole speaks of the diminishing ‘trust horizon’: how large, centralised political institutions that have evolved over the last few hundred years are losing, and will continue to lose, their legitimacy; and with it, the ability to impose norms and rules that most people will accept. “The response these institutions typically have”, says Nicole, is “surveillance, coercion and repression”. Recent police actions towards the Occupy movement in the United States would seem to confirm this assessment.

The solutions Nicole proposes to the converging financial and energy crises – and she stresses that these are not solutions to maintain “business as usual”, which is “no longer possible”  – are grassroots, “from the bottom up”. The starting point is the recognition that the large centralised systems on which we have come to depend will, over time, begin to fail to “deliver the goods and services that we have come to rely on”.

Grassroots initatives, on the other hand, will work, according to Nicole, because they are based within the ‘trust horizon’.  “Where trust still exists”, says Nicole, “systems working within it can operate really quite well. The critical thing is that they’re small, they’re not bureaucratic, they’re responsive, they make the best use of very small amounts of resources, because there’s no enormous administrative overhead…It is amazing what can be done at a very small scale.”

Hearing this, I’m reminded of the concept of ‘square foot gardening’, popularised by Mel Bartholemew, who claims that his raised bed intensive method achieves the same yields as conventional gardening, but at half the cost, a fifth of the space, a tenth of the water, five per cent of the seeds, and two per cent of the work. Such claims might appear exaggerated, but there are impressive examples of substantial food production in small spaces with less inputs. And just last week, we learned that backyard chooks are producing as much as 12 per cent of the nation’s total egg production, according to the Australian Egg Corporation.

The Square Foot Garden
The Square Foot Garden

But there’s no time to lose in building local economies and social systems: “The key point is, we have to do it right now, because we don’t have a lot of time before we start to see centralised systems failing to deliver what they have delivered in the past.”

What’s the glue underpinning the newly configured trust horizons? Relationships and community. “It’s the strongest approach”, says Nicole. “We do need to do things at an individual level, because if we are on a solid foundation ourselves, we can help others. But we must build community: relationships of trust are the foundation of society.”

“So we need to know, and work with, our neighbours”, Nicole continues. “ We need connections, family and community, so that we’re less dependent on money. In many parts of the world where people have little or no money, their societies function entirely on barter and gifts, working together, exchange of skills – this works as a model, at a small scale. It’s this kind of structure that we need to rebuild.”

Nicole Foss will be speaking at the Cavanbah Centre, this coming Saturday, 11th February, from 12 pm to 2.30 pm. Gold coin entry, light lunch for $5.


Backyard Aquaponics

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 12.11.10.

Aquaponics in Coffs Harbour

Last weekend I was at the Sustainable Living Festival at the Coffs Harbour Botanical Gardens. I was there with Kirsten Larsen, Research Manager of the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL), which is run out of Melbourne University.

VEIL have produced some quality research over recent years around food-sensitive urban planning and design, and food supply scenarios assuming certain policy settings and priorities, e.g. ‘business-as-usual’ vs. local and government adaptations taking changed circumstances into account.

In its submission to the Federal Government on the proposed National Food Plan, VEIL stated that ‘substantial, unavoidable and imminent changes in our food supply systems require fundamental shifts in how we manage land and resources for food production and other critical needs’. The combination of a series of key drivers, including increasing constraints in the availability of oil and fresh water, climate instability, soil degradation, and the ongoing loss of farmers and good farmland, led VEIL to conclude that ‘our existing systems of food production and distribution [are] increasingly brittle’.

All of which means, as Kirsten pointed out last weekend, that we are entering a period of probably large volatility, in which there is no guarantee that the future will look like the past or the present.

Those listening to Kirsten certainly took this message to heart, and many were motivated, like thousands more around the country and around the world, to start taking matters into their own hands.

As I’ve written previously in this column, the coordinator of the new Coffs Harbour Community Garden at Combine Street, Steve McGrane, is a pioneer in showing what can be achieved in a small urban setting.

Steve’s latest project is aquaponics: the combination of small-scale (i.e. back-yard) aquaculture with the hydroponic growing of vegetables.  His system involves three ponds, each raised above the other, connected by halved lengths of long-lasting PVC pipe in which the vegies grow on a base on gravel, drawing their nutrients from the fish waste. Depending on the numbers of fish, plant growth can be remarkable: ‘as much as seven times faster than vegies grown in ordinary soil’, according to Steve.

Aquaponics 1

The water flow, whose purpose is also to return adequate amounts of dissolved oxygen to the fish, is regulated by a 20-watt pump, powered from a 40-watt solar panel, with four lithium batteries of 4 watts each. Running at lower rates of intensity, these can last for as long as 40 years. The entire micro-energy system cost $500 to set up.

Steve solar system

The system runs with special software that controls the maximum input and output of each battery, to prevent overheating.  The time the pump runs is determined according to the amount of sunlight: on cloudier days, the fish are less active, and so there will be less need for oxygen. On average, the pump runs for 10 mins every 20-30 minutes, leaving 15 minutes for the trays to empty.

aquaponics 2

Steve’s largest pond is 1500 litres, and over the summer he plans to stock it with up to 30 silver perch fingerlings, which will take approximately 12 months to reach an edible size of 500 grams. He’s also looking at installing a slightly larger system, in which he can raise up to 100 fish per year. About half of the total water surface area of the large pond, where the fish are raised, needs to be covered with plants such as water lillies, to return oxygen to the water.

aquaponics 3

Like conventional aquaculture, Steve’s fish depend on fish-meal, though he’s also looking at home-grown sources of protein like meal worms and comfrey. The fish may  not grow as fast, but that’s not the point. For Steve,  being sustainable means greater self-reliance:

“I’m all about not leaving your block to eat, having your food at your back door.”

Self-sustaining systems for the backyard gardener

Sustainability in Korora

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 11.6.11

Meet Steve McGrane. He’s the newly appointed Coordinator of the soon-to-be-inaugurated first-ever Coffs Regional Community Garden, to be constructed on 5000m2 at the Combine Street reserve.

Steve McGrane in his backyard garden in Korora
Steve McGrane in his backyard garden in Korora

Steve brings a wealth of horticultural experience and knowledge to this position, as well as a fierce passion for the principles of organic gardening and sustainable living. And not just the principles: Steve is a man who ‘walks the talk’, as anyone fortunate enough to visit his small (600m2) suburban property in Korora can attest.

He moved to the Coffs area in 2007, after working as a horticulturalist in Sydney and being involved at the community level with groups such as Permaculture North. His first intention was to set up a demonstration broadacre farm, but then it occurred to him that ‘actually it’s the domestic situation which is creating a lot of the waste [in our food system], and which is not really effective and sustainable in the way that we manage our resources.’

That realisation was the germ of inspiration for a seven-year project to demonstrate just what can be achieved, right here and now, in a 300m2 backyard, in terms of sustainable food production and biodiversity. And what Steve has achieved, largely with his own time, effort, skills and resources, plus some help from his neighbours, is quite remarkable.

When Steve talks about ‘sustainable food production’, what he means is a system that, after a period of time, doesn’t depend on purchased external inputs, i.e. it can sustain itself. His project isn’t about achieving self-sufficiency, which he sees as unrealistic and even undesirable. Rather, the aim is that after seven years, ‘the inputs which are producing the food here [will] be totally self-sustainable’, including ‘the water, the fertilisers, the mulch, and everything else’.

So how has he gone about achieving this goal? By applying permaculture and biodynamic methods ‘to prepare what was basically clay and shale soil’; and by researching what could be grown, with the aim of getting a ‘broad range of species’, especially those that would largely take care of themselves.

The starting point was to plant a lot of pioneer and support species, like acacias (Sally Wattles) and bamboo, alongside a large number of fruit trees. At first the ratio of support species to fruit trees was 90%-10%, and Steve’s aim is ‘through evolutional successioning’ to reverse that entirely over a fifteen-year period. Currently, after four years, the ratio is 60-40, support-fruit trees.

The pioneer plants have two main purposes: to fix nitrogen and improve the soil; and also as ‘sacrificial plants’ to produce mulch, via the ‘chop and drop’ method. Both purposes complement each other:

When you cut acacias and you trim the canopy, you also trim the roots, and that releases the nitrogen…Otherwise nitrogen’s not released until the plant is actually killed, and the nodules are broken open. So [this] is a way of releasing nitrogen as you go.

At the ground level, Steve’s put in other pioneers, like comfrey and vettava grass, which he uses as a border for his mandala vegie gardens.

Vettava grass is ‘used as a fodder in India for cattle’, says Steve, ‘because it’s very high in proteins, and it makes a very good mulch. It breaks down into straw, and that’s what I’m talking about in terms of not having to bring in inputs. So all I do is chop and drop it into the soil. It’s got nitrogen as well, and a high mineral uptake.’

The comfrey serves a similar purpose, and is also highly recommended for making a compost tea, together with a bit of seaweed, and the odd biodynamic prep. Another good ‘chop and drop’ is pidgeon pea, which also yields a crop of lentils. Other food-and-pioneer plants are sweet potatoes, which as a ‘ground cover [creates] a habitat for the microbes and bacteria to do their work’; and mint, which also deters pests.

The result of these years of soil preparation? ‘I now have six inches of soil’, says Steve, ‘which I didn’t have before.’

Talking of food, Steve has Decassis and Cavendish bananas, apples, peaches, pears, citrus, pawpaw, nectarines, almonds, macadamia, a dwarf pecan, hill gooseberry, South American cherry, passionfruit vines, and many other species. And that’s before we get to the vegies…

Steve’s new projects for his garden are the native bees, and aquaponics, which we’ll discuss in future columns.

If you would like to visit Steve’s garden in Korora, please put your name down for a tour with the Coffs Coast Ambassador programme, 6648 4676. For those interested in finding out more about the Coffs Regional Community Garden, please visit www.coffscommunitygardens.org.au, or contact Adam Curlis on 0424 989 979.