Energised by disruption’: 2020 sows a new way forward for food

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If Australia is known for anything in the farming world, it is the ability to produce food from a brittle environment.

We have built many of our national myths and legends around our capacity to produce primarily wheat, sheep, beef and dairy amid bushfires, drought and flood. We also have a healthy food export infrastructure, and are fond of saying we feed twice as many people abroad than we do at home.

Yet 2020 has given us a kick in the arse. The year began with drought in the eastern states and catastrophic bushfires. Losses of life, biodiversity and property were followed by reports of food shortages, as supermarkets had to close or severely limit their hours due to power restrictions and inability to receive supply. The floods that came after the fires further complicated access to basic needs for communities who were only just starting to stagger to their feet after the blazes burnt their landscapes bare. Heavy rain washed away topsoil and the power was cut again. And, just as communities were setting out on the long road to recovery, the coronavirus pandemic closed in, sending people into isolation of an uncertain duration. These colliding crises have revealed a hole in the system that takes pride of place in our national identity: our ability to provide food to market.

You couldn’t miss the weeks of empty supermarket shelves, stripped of staple items including pasta, rice and flour. But unless you were paying attention you may have missed the short, sharp political storm about whether Australia’s food security was in danger. Southern irrigators in the Murray-Darling basin used the buying panic to write to the federal government, urging the release of water as rice stocks fell. Nine’s 60 Minutes covered the story, forcing the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, to try to calm shoppers. The National Farmers; Federation quickly rolled out a campaign to remind Australians, “Don’t panic, we’ve got your back.” The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences called any food security fears “misplaced”.

The bureau is right in the sense that most of us won’t starve. But the scale of our food producers’ operations is hollowing out to either very big or very little, with the middle – family-owned farms that employ few or no staff – falling by the wayside. The statistics back that up. According to the bureau: “High-revenue farms now account for one-fifth of the broadacre population but two-thirds of land, income and output.” The mid-sized, multigenerational family farm of the Australian imagination is turning into a fantasy: our rural communities are changing as fast as the climate.

Given these trends, an interesting food subculture has emerged, one fed and watered by the disruption of 2020. In this discombobulating year, the thing people returned to was food. We grew it, we prepared it, we baked it, we ate it with family or alone. As if waking from a long sleep, we got back to the basics. Local food-supply chains were celebrated. Bakers, greengrocers, community-supported agriculture, community gardeners, millers and farm-to-table meat producers and suppliers have mostly kicked on throughout Covid-19, proving the value of being close to your customers and relying on local people for your delivery chain.

Many small outfits have told me that their sales have gone through the roof. Inquiries for regular supplies from small food producers, whether it’s meat, vegetable boxes, locally milled and baked bread, or milk, have sometimes outstripped capacity. This is particularly true in rural communities, where supplies have usually travelled some distance – even in areas surrounded by farmland. Supply chains often take a circuitous route. For example, a stonefruit grown near me in the New South Wales south-west slopes can be delivered four hours away into city markets, bought by a supermarket chain then delivered straight back to the same area, that much older and more expensive.

Nature’s role in the production of food is mostly set. Human intervention is not. I was interested to see that a drive into these bushfire-affected areas revealed green shoots – not just in the landscape but in the people and their food systems as well. People in the tiny towns and foothills of the upper Murray, trying to recover from losing their houses and town infrastructure, were making it up as they went along. This is the type of growth that comes after devastation and confusion. It is the perfect imperfection of responding to need. It is completely accidental in a way, a combination of fires and pandemic, mixed with personalities who emerge and rise to the occasion. It starts with the seed of an idea, a seed that sprouts as the interest grows and then flourishes with time, attention, money and goodwill.

A few years ago Josh Collings and Kate Crowley decided they could not afford to buy a house close to a city with kids so they drew a radius of where they wanted to live and set their search filters at $150,000. A little cottage in Cudgewa near the Murray River came up and they moved in, had a son and started renovating. They grew vegetables and Josh ran an art gallery in nearby Corryong called Show and Tell. Josh and a fellow gardener, Jacqui Beaumont, established a community food swap, which drew in others from around the upper Murray. They talked about the idea of turning it into a market garden.

When the fires approached, the family took the official advice and moved to a shelter. When they returned to the cottage, it was gone: just a tangle of iron and a shell of a burnt-out bus. The only place on the property that was not cinder-black was a square of green zucchinis in the vegetable patch. As they drove around town to survey the damage, they noticed it was a common theme. Green vegetable gardens next to burnt-out buildings.

Roadblocks ringed the town. Dried foods and staples were the only supplies coming in and out. Prices had doubled and the supermarket would only take cash. Josh and Kate bought a bag of food with change scrounged from their wallets and car. It came to a dollar more than they had. Something had to go back. It was another turning point.

“I had this dream,” Josh says. “What was going to be my tiny garden became one-acre gardens in the upper Murray to create resilience and make sure we always have fresh food. They don’t burn because they are so heavy in water and they could produce income for communities who want to be involved.”

He started raising money for the recovery two days after their house burnt down. He set up a GoFundMe page, which quickly raised $190,000 for much-needed generators, food, masks, fencing, tools and fuel. Along with his friends Ben Gilbert and Tristan Pierce, Josh delivered these goods to people in need. Some of the money went to keeping Cudgewa’s spirits high in the weeks immediately after the fires. Pubs were stocked with free beer, which went nicely with a donated pallet of ribs and other produce. Bands offered to play for the town and this kept people smiling as they gathered to swap stories. Josh made contact with other bushfire-hit towns including Tumbarumba, Mallacoota and Cobargo. He also asked Scott Pape, author of The Barefoot Investor, to speak to the locals. Scott encouraged him to keep going, and featured Josh’s work in a documentary for Foxtel. Pete Williams of Deloitte offered his advice on recovery and has been working with the community since January. Myriad other organisations also offered time, skills or money.

Then Covid-19 hit. Food supply contracted again. People retreated from the town centre. The fire-recovery hubs that had sprung up fell away. All levels of government stopped their recovery services in fear of spreading the disease.

Josh’s usual work shooting video and audio had dried up, so he dedicated his time to the local recovery effort. While the supermarket ensured people were fed, he kept returning to that seed of an idea about a community garden. He had friends who were into permaculture and he started researching. He created the Acres and Acres Co-op: a mash-up of a community garden and a market garden, in which the profit made from vegetables sold pays its workers, with the rest split between the cooperative and community projects.

He teamed up with fellow gardeners Pam Noonan, Jacqui Beaumont, Shelly Neale, Dee McDonald and Lysander Tyrell, and many others. The wider community has provided all of the funding so far to buy tools and equipment. The first garden sits on a piece of land behind Josh’s art gallery in Corryong, with half of that space gifted to Acres and Acres by an older Corryong resident via a pledge written on the back of a napkin. A load of rich black soil has been delivered, ready to plant with vegetables.

Rather than slow down during Covid-19, the team is expanding into other towns in case of food-chain collapse.

“The idea is a garden in different towns,” Josh says. “Cudgewa, Thowgla, Biggara, and so forth, managed by the Acres and Acres Co-op, using the shared tool library. We have fresh food, food resilience, access to jobs if [people] want them and community money for whatever they decide they need, without the painful process of grants. It would be a continuous injection of funds and provide a farm gate for tourism as well as supplying the local supermarket. I want to get all the right people connected to keep the craziness going.

“There has been so much goodwill so far. I’m not exhausted, I get energised by disruption. It has to be done. If we don’t do it now, it won’t happen. I love to see all these little businesses grow and connect and a few other businesses are forming alongside Acres and Acres, and that is the idea.”

The value of a community-building project is not just in connecting people. We are a nation built on bread and steak; only about 4% of our farms grow vegetables. Which is lucky, because only about 7% of us (and 5% of our kids) eat the daily recommended serves of vegetables, and that proportion is dropping. Similarly, the number of veggie farmers has been declining, with a third of them lost over the decade to 2018. One-third of existing veggie farmers grow their produce on less than five hectares.

It just might be that this crazy year changes that. Josh ordered his gardening equipment from James Hutchinson, a supplier in Tasmania who runs a business off the back of his farm, Longley Organic Farm, half an hour south of Hobart. He seasonally supplies 50 vegetable boxes a week, which he maintains is cheaper than the equivalent basket at Coles, and he can’t keep up with demand. He rejects the idea that microfarming doesn’t make much difference in feeding the country.

“Food deserts are very real in city and country,” James says. ‘It is about knowing farmers, and people want to know where food comes from. It’s a global phenomenon. It’s about reconnecting with food we are putting into [our] bodies. I don’t think it’s a fad, because it was definitely improving well before Covid.”

James came to food production after leaving school at 14 and “going through the wars”. He has been growing his business and teaching others for the past decade, and says there has been a noticeable uptick in the last two years, but rapid growth has set in over the past six months: “I think it’s about self-resilience and greater food security. People being more aware of food security but also responsible for where food comes from.”

Across the country, people are trying a range of micro food-production models. James has been supplying micro farmers from outside Darwin and Alice Springs, in Adelaide, Esperance, Albany and the Western Australian wheat belt. They are anything from small food-production systems to certified organic growers to community-supported agriculture, in which customers buy a share in the crop and stick by the farmer through thick and thin in return for food supply and connection to the farm via visits. Larger grazing and cropping farmers are also setting aside smaller plots to grow vegetables to diversify their income and test out the paddock-to-plate market.

Australia’s food production – and its landscape – is changing rapidly. Three decades of economic rationalism, long supply chains, open-water markets, a dearth in federal climate change policy, the commodification of food and the concentration of a few crops means we are eroding our advantages. Disregard of food production is mining our landscapes and our human communities. Covid-19 is forcing us to rethink all of our priorities – and our daily bread might be at the heart of change.