Thursday, November 21, 2013

food forethought

There’s no denying it. Food is so hot right now. Especially if it’s local, organic, and held proudly  by a small child with rosy cheeks. This is good. Food is important. The revival of interest in real food and where it comes from is reflected in the snack gardens in schools filled with sugarsnap peas and lettuces, the popularity of backyard gardening, and living walls adding life to hi-rises. Please, let it be noted that I am a yea-sayer to all this activity.

But...well...sometimes, there is something important missing in this whole scene. And that’s urban farming. And I don’t just mean some school kids growing 50kg of potatoes, or you tending some herbs on your balcony -- though both things make me happy. I mean production gardens. Small farms and regular-sized farmers who grow good amounts of food to feed neighborhoods. This is a scale and an element of our food system which needs talking about, needs valuing, and needs to be realised.

When this is mentioned, there is often a respectful muttering of “cuba” and “self-sufficiency”. Yep, Cubans grow a helluva lot of food in their cities.  Millions of tonnes per year.  And they make an enviable amount of compost. Yes, they had to. Yes, they were embargoed. Yet this is often where the daydreaming ends. And we head off to buy some lettuce that travelled a few hundred kms by supermarket truck to have the privilege of being in our salad. Maybe, we wonder, the sort of city-based, well-orchestrated food system that Cuba boasts only materialises when people are starving and when there is an autocratic government to organise people into teams and land into gardens? Well, not necessarily. There’s an alternative plotline.

First, we need to start imagining our city bursting with food; good, plentiful, delicious abundance. A city dotted with farms started by enterprising, hardworking farmers dedicated to growing a lettuce which doesn’t get carsick on the way to the store. A lettuce that you pick up along with your weekly share of produce which is carried home on your bike, in your backpack. You get the point: it’s grown near where you live.  This imagining takes some work. Sometimes it’s hard to see the food forest for all the uncompromising asphalt. City farms might not look like little scenes of bucolic loveliness nestled into a hillside, surrounded by pasture and doe-eyed cows. But they will be beautiful all the same, as integrated systems that combine age-old-know-how with cutting edge technology.  Food systems that take inspiration from farmers all over the world. We have the internet and we will use it wisely. And these systems will just keep getting more elegant. People will stop measuring their food in miles and start walking and riding to their local farm, whistling cheerfully, the wind in their hair, the sun on their backs... Ok, I’ll stop now.

Seriously, these farms will not only provide gold-standard food for your mouths. They will create livelihoods for the farmers and others who make it all happen. Farming, especially on a small scale where your body is your tractor, is hard work. Days can be long, wet, hot, and exhausting. Days can also be gorgeous, warm, and filled with satisfying labour, good conversation, and bird calls. Either way, you don’t want to fit a farm enterprise around a full-time off-farm job, not when you have a few hundred mouths to feed. It needs to provide you with a livelihood.

I used to manage a community garden. Every day held new discoveries, learning and connections. The focus was on engaging kids and adults with the soil, with living plants, with cooking something grown from seed and serving it proudly to the community. That community garden remains as much a playground of ideas as anything. A place of focus where people can contribute, can argue, try new things, test something out, make mistakes, eat, get distracted, meet someone new, learn something, forget what they learned and just a place to hang around in. Especially if you don't really have anywhere else to go. And while we would load up a harvest table with whatever was ready (always plenty of silverbeet), this was not a production garden for many reasons - it’s size, it’s organisation, it’s volunteer base, and most importantly  because of the aim of the garden. This was not a garden to feed people.

It seems obvious when it’s spelled out like that. But too often the excitement (duly felt) about community gardens, pop-up mall vege patches and guerilla gardening can get in the way of thinking about what systems could, would fill our larders with enough to eat each week. And an urban farm is probably not going to pump out the food if the farm is relying on volunteer labour alone. “But what about the whole good-vibes community thing?”, you ask (perhaps more eloquently).

A farm is a community resource. Local businesses likewise. Organisations that provide a service to the people - a useful place, a place where people meet, things to be utilised. A place that provides livelihoods and lively neighborhoods. We do have examples here in Australia… just not enough of them. 

While visiting farms in the states I spent a couple of days at Sweet Land Farm, a CSA farm in Trumansberg, upstate New York, that feeds 350 families in their community. This is a farm started by a couple as a business. A business with solid ethics and an actual, written-down, list of what they are not willing to compromise, in terms of values, in their business. They employ people who learn and practice skills in crop planning, transplanting, harvesting, and produce handling. Men and women who often end up starting their own small farms. I was already impressed. But more so when it came to be CSA share pick-up day. As people rolled in, some with kids in tow (who quickly made for the U-pick strawberry patch) to collect their food for the week, I saw community. I saw people connect who met through their connection to this farm, swapping news, recipes, and smalltalk. I saw people making a tangible connection with their food choices. They can actually touch the farm (and the farmer, if they are feeling cheeky). They can pick their share of peas, and their share of blue cornflowers. They can ask the farmers about squash varieties and their plans for the future seasons. They see what food production is about. The work. The dirt. The sweat. The people.

"Farmers need a place to farm and make a viable living. Farmland needs to be enriched and nurtured so that it can yield bountiful harvests year after year. Members need a dependable source of vibrant, richly grown food. All of these needs must be kept in balance. Sweet Land Farm is a CSA-only farm, so everything that we grow is for you, the shareholders. This makes the above-mentioned balance nicely transparent"
(Sweet Land Farm member handbook)

It’s a business and a community resource. Sure, Sweet Land Farm is a pretty big farm, sitting on the outskirts of a pretty small town; but the same connection of people to place, to community, to food can happen right here in our cities, in our suburbs. People are pretty good at getting innovative and working with smaller areas. They grow stuff on rooftops, in laneways, in vacant quarter acre lots, laid out like mini farms - with wheel-hoes instead of tractors. In fact, having less space forces people to be more creative, more innovative in growing food. There are a lot of brains working on this puzzle already. 

Urban farming is not the answer to the big question of how to feed ourselves, dare I say it, sustainably. It’s just a really useful, and underutilised part of the food system. And there will be crops that will be grown on farms outside cities - grains and seed crops that make more sense on a larger scale. But perishable vegetables, those that are at their snap-juicing-sweetest heights when they travel only a metre from plant to mouth should be grown as close to that mouth as possible. Have you ever grown strawberries? Snow peas? Radishes? Try it (taste it) and prove me wrong.

So where to from here? For starters let’s start valuing farmers and farm-work. I mean individually, and as a city. In the last year, in Hobart, someone got around $27,000 in subsidies for an artificial ice skating rink business (that’s about to be superseded a year down the track). Now I like ice skating as much as the next guy (though I prefer glistening, real ice) but I care a lot more about what’s for dinner. How about support for enterprising farmers, who want to grow good food for their community? And, yes, earn a livelihood in doing so. I’m ok with my money going to that corner.

We need farmers and we need them to be able to sustain themselves and their families. We need new farmers. We need farming to be an attractive prospect to young people thinking ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’. We have the means, we have the ways, we all just need to get on board with this.  We, local and state government staff (including town planners and policy makers),  home gardeners, small-hold farmers, community/school gardeners, agricultural scientists, and eaters of food. That pretty much covers everyone, right?

Let’s not just wait patiently for our supply of food from the mainland to get held up indefinitely, for the moment when you find shelves empty and produce aisles lacking. Let’s not wait for an embargo, a disaster. That’s no time to get organised, to innovate (though invariably it will happen then too). Now is the time. It’s not simply food for thought, it’s food forethought.  

Post-script: Nov 2015. It's happening!!! Go to or to find out more about a city  farm in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.  -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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