Tag Archives: Food self-sufficiency

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.

Rooftop Farming

Urban agriculture heading up

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 9th November, 2013

‘We are today part of a new revolution, The Urban Revolution. Cities that housed 200 million people, or ten percent of the world’s population in 1900 now accommodate 3.5 billion people, or fifty percent of the world’s population, and will, by 2050, accommodate 64 billion people or seventy percent of the world’s population… More than 80% of Australians already live in cities that are projected to double their size in the next 40 years.’

These are the opening words of the City of Melbourne’s, Transforming Australian Cities For a More Financially Viable and Sustainable Future, first published in May 2009 and updated in March 2010. For anyone who has spent time in Sydney or Melbourne recently, the prospect of these megalopolises doubling their size by 2050 is rather alarming, to put it mildly. Which no doubt explains the steady flow of urban refugees, the tree changers and sea changers, only too happy to exchange peak hour on Hogbin Drive for the daily grind of the M4 or the South-eastern freeway.

As Australia’s big cities double in size, how will they be fed?

From my perspective, it was doubly surprising that the word ‘food’ did not appear once in the Transforming Australian Cities strategic document. At the heart of the strategy for ‘sustainable growth’ (an oxymoron, arguably) of our big cities was the concept of ‘productive suburbs’, with the iconic ¼ acre blocks forming corridors to become the new ‘green wedge’ zones of Sydney and Melbourne. There was discussion of ‘making backyards productive’ through installation of rainwater tanks and greywater recycling systems. This, combined with the rollout of solar PV panels and other forms of domestic-scale renewable energy generation would, it was claimed, help Australian households move closer to ‘self-sufficiency’ and therefore ‘sustainability’.

But what about food? Given that some of the projections of climate change anticipate a reduction in productivity of our major foodbowl regions – the Murray-Darling in particular – of as much as 60% by 2050 – surely any strategy for the sustainability of our cities must integrate as a matter of highest priority how the residents are going to be fed?

Or perhaps, more to the point, how they are going to start feeding themselves, if we are serious in talking about ‘self-sufficiency’.

This conundrum of feeding growing cities is not of course a uniquely Australian issue. Indeed it is driving the burgeoning urban agriculture movement in North America. New York City now has an estimated 700 urban farms. Some of these are familiar community gardens, where groups of residents work small plots to produce food for themselves and their families.

Urban agriculture goes commercial – and up to the roof

Increasingly, many others are commercial-scale operations that have negotiated supply contracts with restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets. And one of the recent trends is for commercial-scale farming to take place on the flat roofs of high-rise office and apartment blocks.


Rooftop Farming in New York City
Rooftop Farming in New York City

One of these is the 555 m2 Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, based on a warehouse on the East River in Brooklyn. Eagle Street is an open-air intensive market garden which supplies organic vegetables to nearby restaurants by bicycle, and operates a farmers’ market onsite during the growing season.

Other rooftop farms operate year-round, by erecting greenhouses and using aquaponic and hydroponic growing techniques.

Office and apartment blocks in a city like New York are inherently more suited for this type of production than similar buildings in Australia, because their roofs are already built to a higher load-bearing capacity because of snowfall. But that’s not to say that this type of ‘farming’ can’t happen in Australia. In fact recently I was lucky enough to visit what is one of the very first attempts to do it, at the Mesa Verde rooftop bar and cinema at 252 Swanston St, Melbourne. It’s the brainchild of Mr ‘WormLover’, Richard Thomas, and I’ll tell that story next time.


An Australia Day resolution

An Australia Day resolution

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 24th January, 2013

The traditional and conventional thing is to make resolutions on New Year’s Day, or shortly thereafter.

That makes perfect sense. Start the year off on a positive note, turn over a new leaf, and all that.

But resolutions can be made at any time. So why not make an Australia Day resolution? Something that each of us decides that we can do to help make this country a better place to live in, and leave it a better place for our kids.

My resolution is to keep working, in the ways that I can, for a fairer and more sustainable food and farming system for our region, and our country. So that our soils are regenerated, rather than degraded. So that our water tables are replenished, rather than depleted and polluted. So that our cities are full of food growing and producing areas, in schools, in childcare and aged care centres, in streets, parks, vacant lots and rooftops. In backyards, frontyards, and community gardens. So that everyone, no matter who they are or how much money they have in their pocket or bank account, can enjoy healthy, nourishing food, every day.

So that our farmers get a fairer deal, and are not up to their necks in debt. So that five Australian farmers don’t continue to leave the land every day. And so that our children will want to embrace farming and food production, and caring for the land, as a fufilling and dignified life choice.

Because what we have forgotten, in our modern, information age and consumer economy, is that any civilization, anywhere, is ultimately founded on agriculture. If we don’t get the food production right, if we don’t look after the land, the water and the men and women who do the work of producing the food, then we may as well forget about all the rest.

I think these resolutions chime with the sentiments of a great many Australians. In fact, I know they do, because last September, in my role as national co-ordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, I was approached by the Australia Institute to include some questions in their regular national attitudes and behaviours survey.

These surveys go out to around 1,400 Australians, being a representative cross-section of men and women, city and country dwellers, different political affiliations, age groupings and so on.

We asked three questions in the October 2012 survey. The first was, ‘What top two measures should Australia adopt to ensure that sufficient quantitites of fresh, healthy and affordable foods are available to all?’, 86% nominated ‘Support local farmers to produce more’, and 63% nominated ‘Protect our best farmland from different uses, e.g. mining / housing’. 25% said ‘support people to grow more of their own food’, and a mere 5% nominated ‘import more of our basic food requirements’ as one of their top two choices.

The second question was, ‘How important is it to you that Australian family farmers and small-to-medium sized food businesses are economically viable?’. 62% said ‘very important’, and 30% said ‘quite important’. 2.3% said ‘not very important’ and a tiny 0.4% said ‘not important at all.’

Finally, when asked ‘What do you think should be the main two goals of Australia’s food system?’, a whopping 85% nominated ‘Promote and support regional / local food production and access to locally produced food’. 43.5% nominated ‘Achieve a globally competitive food industry and new export markets’, and 35.6% said ‘Ensure ecosystem integrity’.

Should any government or political party choose to take notice, these figures speak to a massive national consensus in favour of policies and public investment in regional and local food economies, and for support for our local farmers and food producers. Such policies enjoy twice the level of support of the goal of building ‘a globally competitive food industry and new export markets’.

Can you guess which is the primary objective of the Federal Government’s National Food Plan, due out shortly?

Community Garden Road Trip, North from Coffs Harbour

Community garden road-trip

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 22nd December 2012

Last month, Steve McGrane, President of the Coffs Harbour Regional Community Gardens Association, and a team of fellow gardeners headed north for a few days’ exploration.

They were on a mission, to visit half a dozen community gardens between here and Brisbane, in order to see what others were doing, learn from their experiences, and lay down a vision and goals for the Coffs garden at Combine St over the next few years.

The trip exceeded all expectations. “It was amazing to visit so many community gardens in such a short space of time. There were such big contrasts”, said Matt Downie, co-cordinator of the Combine St garden.

Among the lasting impressions the team took home, the presence of garden art, such as murals, sculptures, ceramic displays and decorative signage, was especially striking. Clear notice boards introducing the garden and its key people, as well as tasks, projects and how to get involved, are also now on the Coffs ‘to-do’ list.

Ceramic artwork Northey St
Ceramic artwork Northey St

Even though most of the gardens were thriving sites of diverse food production, the team felt that it was the social aspects that were most important. Community gardens are all about building community, and activities like ‘swap meets’, where gardeners exchange surplus produce, is just one way in which this happens. They are also multi-functional sites with a strong educational focus, places where gardeners and visitors alike can get to know where their food comes from, and rediscover their connection to it.

The team visited gardens in Lismore, Nimbin, Tuntable Falls, Mullumbimby, Northey St City Farm in Brisbane, the Seed Savers’ Network in Byron Bay (run by Michel and Jude Fenton), and Yamba. They also briefly stopped by the combined market and community garden run by Gold Coast Permaculture in Ferry Rd, Southport.

Yamba Community Garden

The gardens varied in longevity, with Northey St, now in its 20th year, the oldest. So one of its most attractive features, which makes it a great place to spend time, are the well-established fruit trees, such as large mangoes, that provide excellent shade areas, for meeting and socialising.

Most of the gardens were considerably younger. The garden in Lismore, like Coffs, had been set up in the last couple of years, while Nimbin’s garden, located in a church on the main street, had been going for about 10 years.

But, according to the team, Nimbin’s garden appeared to be on its last legs. The garden looked dilapidated and un-cared for. Through talking to some locals, the team discovered the reason for the decline: political in-fighting. Things had gotten so bad that a virtual state of civil war had broken out, with one group actively sabotaging the garden projects and efforts of the other.

There was a very clear lesson here for the Coffs garden – and any community garden, for that matter: the need to maintain open channels of communication at all times, allow complaints to be aired and dealt with, and have good procedures for mediating conflict.

While in Nimbin, the team learnt of the community garden in the nearby intentional community of Tuntable Falls, which was not on their original itinerary. But it was a moment of serendipity. Not only was the Tuntable Falls garden a beautiful contrast to Nimbin, with abundant art and creative design; it was the passionate and strong community that had built it, as well as a food co-op and a huge common hall, that most impressed the team.


Mullumbimby Community Garden

The Mullumbimby garden also stood out, for its wonderful art, excellent signage and paths, and strong volunteer core, self-organised in 20 different ‘pods’. As well as smaller plots, the Mullum garden had larger spaces, up to 400m2, which were being leased on a semi-commercial basis, as a market garden.

Mullumbimby Community Garden Mural
Mullumbimby Community Garden Mural


All the gardens, the team noted, had started with some form of public grants. The most successful ones had built a strong and collaborative relationship with their local councils, and had also developed ways of becoming more self-sustaining financially. Northey St, for example, had a consultancy and design service, available to local schools and private householders; and they also ran permaculture design certificate courses several times a year. It also had a large and successful nursery.

Northey St signage
Northey St signage


As the Coffs team plan their priorities for 2013 and beyond, this trip has provided fertile material for inspiration.

To find about more information about the the Coffs Community garden and to join, visit http://www.coffscommunitygardens.org.au/.

Community-run edible streetscapes

Community Spirit alive and well in Sawtell

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 24th November, 2012

A quiet revolution is underway in Coffs Harbour and its nearby towns.

Supported by small grants from Coffs Council, first under the Local Food Futures Project and now via the ‘Our Living Coast’ Regional Sustainability Program, several primary schools and child care centres have established productive gardens for their children over the past year.

These intiatives build on longer-established school veggie gardens, such as those at Toormina Primary School and Casuarina Steiner School.

And now school veggie gardens are becoming edible streetscapes, with the planting of around 30 ctirus trees in two locations in Sawtell. First, on Friday 16th November, kindergarted and class 5 students from Sawtell Public School planted trees on the school’s boundary. Then, on Sunday 18th November, over 30 local residents of all ages worked for an hour and a half to plant lemonades, oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, cumquats, grapefruits and blood oranges on the road verge off 18th Avenue, adjacent to the Richardson’s Park sporting oval. Thus was born the very first ‘Sawtell Community Citrus Grove’.

The Sawtell Citrus Orchard team!
The Sawtell Citrus Orchard team!

Both these initiatives were spearheaded by the Sawtell Healthy Homes community group, with the organising energy provided by Peter and Erika van Schellebeck. Advice on species selection and soil preparation came from Juliet Thomas, of the Coffs Harbour Regional Community Garden. Over the past year Juliet has worked with the school principal, Michael Cheers, as well as staff, students and parents, to set up a beautiful fruit and veggie garden inside the school.



Erika highlighted the social and community-building aspects of the citrus tree plantings. “The project has been a great opportunity for us to get to know our neighbours, and I hope that the grove will become a community space where neighbours meet and walkers and cyclists stop for a rest and some shade”, said Erika. “This pathway is very popular, and so we designed a pathway through the grove to encourage people to move through it and enjoy the space. We also designed a small circular space in the middle that hopefully will one day have a seat and table to encourage neighbours to meet up in the space – maybe for Friday night drinks.”


Sawtell Public School kids planting citrus trees
Sawtell Public School kids planting citrus trees

Planting and caring for fruit trees also brings clear health and educational benefits for children. “I hope that the nature strip planting at the school will build on all the work the school is already doing to educate the students about healthy eating, and growing fresh fruit and vegies”, said Erika. This is part of raising levels of food literacy amongst children – an understanding where food comes from, how it’s grown (and raised), what healthy eating involves, and the importance of composting food scraps, so that soil fertility can be maintained and enhanced.

Erika hopes that these initiatives in Sawtell will help inspire other groups of residents in other parts of Coffs Harbour and its surrounds to also get behind the push to make this region ‘edible’ – and for the Council to support them with small grants and making the paperwork easy.

“The grove already looks great – it has turned an unloved and unused piece of swampy land into a space for the whole community to enjoy, and, in a few years, to enjoy a wide variety of free citrus. I hope that the grove and school nature strip planting will encourage Council to consider the merits of growing food in public spaces.”

This work in Sawtell builds on the Bellingen Edible Streetsacpes project begun in 2011, as a collaboration of Northbank Rd Community Garden, the Bellingen Chamber of Commerce, Transition Bellingen, and with funding from the Local Food Futures Project. Bellingen Council has also embraced the spirit, with a raised veggie garden at the entrance to Council Chambers.

Further afield, the trail has been well and truly blazed by Yorkshire café owner Pam Warhurst and her army of volunteers in the market town of Todmorden, with the Incredible Edible Todmorden project.  In Pam’s words, “I wondered if it was possible to take a town like Todmorden and focus on local food to re-engage people with the planet we live on, create the sort of shifts in behaviour we need to live within the resources we have, stop us thinking like disempowered victims and to start taking responsibility for our own futures.”

Amazing things have been achieved in Todmorden, and they’re just getting started. Makes you wonder what’s possible for Coffs Harbour, with our climate, water and soils.

For more info on Incredible Edible Todmorden, search for Pam Warhurst’s TED talk on www.ted.com.

Garden of Eden at Coffs Jetty

Garden of Eden – Garden by the Sea

A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 13th October, 2012

For the past 21 years, Wayne Kirkland and Mary-Ann Crowther have been living with as low an environmental footprint as it’s possible to have – on a yacht, travelling up and down the east coast of Australia.

For the last few years they’ve been coming back to Coffs, and now they’ve so fallen in love with the place, that they’ve taken over the lease for the Galley café and burger bar at Coffs Harbour jetty.

Wayne and Mary-Ann are passionate about sustainability and treading lightly on the earth, but it’s not about preaching to people. As Wayne told me, ‘I live by the philosophy of just show people how to do it’.

And now, with the help of Steve McGrane, Matt Downie and some willing volunteers from the Combine St community garden, Wayne and Mary-Ann are showing their customers, and the people who work, live near and visit the Jetty, just how amazingly productive a 6m2 veggie garden can be.

Steve McGrane (left) and Wayne Kirkland


This wasn’t a case of turning the first sod. Rather, it involved clearing out some pretty massive rocks, on the café side of the breakwater. Underneath was some gravel and fairly barren soil, laced with salt spray.

But Wayne wasn’t deterred, because he knew Steve had a very cunning plan. After years of research and trial and error in his own gardens, Steve has developed a special no-dig garden, layered lasagne-like with ’17 secret herbs and spices’, as he likes to say.

Actually, they’re not so secret. They include lucerne; sugar cane mulch; blood and bone; bags of comfrey, tansy and other leaves;  various manures; molasses (‘very important for the microbial action’); wood chip; and mineral rocks (calcium and phosphate). With the exception of the lucerne, everything’s organic.

The Garden by the Sea – early stages

The results are truly impressive. The garden is barely six weeks old, and Wayne and Mary-Ann have been eating out of it for three weeks. As Steve explains, the porosity of the mix, and the rapid action of the microbes in breaking everything down and making the nutrients available, allows the roots to grow very fast, producing very rapid growth above the ground. More than that,  the nutrients ‘aren’t leached out of the system, because the microbes hold them in suspension’.

The end result is both a super-healthy and productive garden right now; and even better, it ‘will be more fertile at the end of this growing season that it was at the beginning.’ That’s something, because what’s already growing is impressive enough: rows of broccoli, beetroot, kolrabi, lebanese cress, leeks, onions, chillies, tomatoes, a pumpkin vine, two varieties of sweet potato, several types of basil, parsley, lettuce, chinese greens, choko, taro, kumara, and flowers for companions.

The Garden - up close and personal!
The Garden – up close and personal!

The food tastes sensational, and because it’s so rich in minerals, it is very nutrient-dense.

In the next phase, Wayne will put in native wildflowers and grasses, ‘to attract the birds and bees’. He’s already got a resident blue tongue.

As for the salt, everyone told Wayne he could never have a veggie garden by the sea. He’s proved the doubters wrong, through ‘a bit of love and care, and keeping the salt spray off it – I just come and gently hose the plants down when there’s been a bit of spray, and that keeps them fresh.’

Wayne and Mary-Ann are delighted with the garden, and so are their customers. ‘People love it, they sit here and look at the plants, and talk about it.’ Some people have even anonymously put in plants after closing time: Wayne has arrived in the morning to find chillies and tomatoes that weren’t there before. And in the few short weeks of its existence, it’s already creating a web of relationships, so that it can truly be regarded as a ‘community garden’ in its own right.

One of the most satisfying things for Wayne is that he can now send all the green waste from the café to the community garden, where Matt has established an extra worm farm to cope with it all. In return, Matt takes plants to the ‘garden by the sea’, and Wayne now gives him extra seedlings. Community garden volunteers will help out with extensions to the café garden. And Wayne is even getting donations of plants from other yacht owners; and encouraging people to pick parsley.

For Wayne and Steve, this garden is about living their vision: ‘We both have the philosophy that we should be planting every square inch that’s available. Food is essential to life, and if people got more involved in the backyard garden…That’s what stitched communities together, a generation ago. But today, you buy everything from the supermarket. A lot of young people don’t know what fresh food is, they’ve never seen it”, says Wayne.

“This is trying to show people that fast food doesn’t come from MacDonalds. This is fast food. I can take this out of the garden and put it on your plate in five minutes. That was the essence of the project, to shift people’s understanding, and thinking, of what you can do with a garden.”

If the last few weeks are anything to go by, Wayne and the team behind this garden have already achieved a lot.

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.

Kids and vegies

Permablitz in Perry St

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday  1st September, 2012

Last month, the Coffs Coast Local Food Futures Project, funded by the NSW Environmental Trust, concluded after three years.

The centrepiece of this project was the establishment of two wonderful community gardens, in Coffs Habour (Combine St) and Bellingen (Bellingen High School). Both very different, each of these gardens has already made an important contribution to community education and cohesion in their respective localities, and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Local Food Futures Project has left many other legacies, and many great stories to tell. One of the most recent is the holding of a permablitz at the Gumnut Cottage Child Care Centre in Perry Drive, Coffs Harbour.

Gumnut Cottage is a community-based, not-for-profit centre, run by the parents of the approximately 70 families who use it.

Recently a key focus for centre has been the promotion of sustainability, says Director, Donna Easey, with the installation of water tanks and a solar system.

Because the Centre supplies all the childrens’ meals and cooks for them, they have been wanting to to ‘get the kids a lot more involved, by growing [their own food], and getting them to pick and eat it themselves’, says Donna.

‘So that’s why we applied for the green grant from the Council. We’ve had gardens before, but they didn’t work, so we thought, how can we improve on this. When the grant became available, we thought, this is an opportunity to do it bigger and better, to optimise our resources, get more garden space up and running.

With a $1600 green grant from Coffs Council, and a further $1000 of their own funds, they decided that the time was right to build a great edible garden for the kids in their care.

The key ingredient  was knowledge and expertise, and that was provided by the Local Food Futures grant, in the form of a stipend for permaculture designer Matt Downie, who is an active member of both the Combine St and Bellingen High School community gardens.

Matt’s design was put out to consultation amongst the Centre’s families, and attracted a lot of interest and enthusiastic comment. Not only did it involve the construction of a highly diverse edible garden, but it also addressed some long-term structural problems the Centre had been experiencing, such as the formation of mudpits due to the slope and heavy rain.

Donna was surprised by Matt’s knowledge of species and varieties, like chocolate sapote, ice cream bean and taro, that now form part of the edible garden for the Centre.

Twenty people rolled their sleeves up and worked from 9 am to 3 pm to build six 2.2m x 1.3m corrugated steel beds, as well as extensive trellising and a further railway sleeper raised bed.


Vegie bed construction at Gumnut childcare centre
Vegie bed construction at Gumnut childcare centre


 The garden has already got the children inspired and engaged. ‘On a daily basis, the children can’t wait to come in and water the plants, and see how they’re going. It’s very exciting.

Many parents who weren’t able to attend the blitz itself have been coming in to help out. ‘The kids are very excited when mum or dad comes to pick them up in the afternoon, and they say, come and look at the garden, look at what we’ve planted’, says Donna.

There have been many donations of plants from families, and grandparents have come in to share their gardening skills with the children.

Donna is very excited about the potential the garden brings to the Centre: ‘I think it’s going to be great, for children to go and pick things for themselves. But also looking at what’s in our garden, and how we can use it – for older kids, thinking about recipes, and then cooking and eating the food themselves.’  

As well as healthy eating, just being involved in the garden has a calming effect, especially for those children who are quite active.

And it’s inspired several families to start growing food in their own homes.

Donna sees a return to previous values and practices with this sort of local food growing. ‘When I grew up, we had big vegie gardens, and you had things that you don’t see anymore, like marrows, and big squashes. They’re hard to come by these days, but we had them on our table every night’, she says.

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.