Growing the community

Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, Gerringong 2016

The annual Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering accommodates about 200… the Facebook group of the same name had around 640 members before the unconference… numbers spiked by around another 50 during and immediately after… the local food movement is alive and well. Photo courtesy of Penny Kothe, Caroola Farm

From Stuart Whitelaw, photos and captions from Kate Raymond

The bloke behind the counter at the Gerringong bottle shop probably said it best – “the town is full of organic farmers and they all wear green and brown! And they won’t take plastic bags!”

Around 200 farmers, marketeers, activists, journalists and organisers converged on the Gerringong Town Hall for the second deep winter gathering on the last weekend in July. Following pretty much the pattern of the inaugural event at Daylesford (where deep winter it truly was) the gathering started with a meet and greet on Friday night at the local pub, where an agenda of sorts was finalised for the following 2 days.

Saturday was split into 4 morning sessions at the different venues (Building Markets Building community, Market Gardening, The Human Element – staffing interns etc, Regulations and Planning) and 4 afternoon sessions (Soil Health, Farm Business Models/Structures, Processing and Value Adding, Chickens).

Last year, the whole group stayed together and discussed fewer topics, but this year break out groups used 4 different venues all within walking distance of each other

Last year, the whole group stayed together and discussed fewer topics, but this year break out groups used 4 different venues all within walking distance of each other

The art deco Town Hall was a great venue, with a decent commercial kitchen and an annexe for the very long table needed to hold the masses of donated food. Fraser Bayley welcomed the throng on Saturday morning (consensus is that the event is basically his fault) with the immortal words “G’day, I’m Fraser and I grow vegies”.

The un-conference location at Gerringong this year provided another great venue or four

The un-conference location at Gerringong this year provided another great venue or four

Short introductions along the same lines followed for the 200 strong gathering and the diversity was astonishing. At least 3 groups came from Western Australia to talk small scale farming with their peers. There were bloggers, pig farmers, bakers, doctors, city farmers, and lots of market gardeners. It was astonishing to find out how many people knew about SAGE and what was happening in our region. It is only at gatherings like this that you can get a perspective on what a community group like SAGE has achieved since 2009.

The first session on building markets and building community is at the core of the SAGE philosophy. There was considerable discussion about differing farmers market models, and the perennial questions of how does a small farmer get time to go to a market? There were examples of groups of farmers from a region sharing a market stall. This is certainly a valid model but it puts increasing pressure on the market organisers to ensure authenticity of supply.

In one session, we filled both sides of a whiteboard with notes of a very broad conversation

In one session, we filled both sides of a whiteboard with notes of a very broad conversation

Food Hubs are a buzzphrase at the moment, and it seemed that people had different ideas about how they work, or even what they are. When a food hub charges a 30% margin for distribution, it is getting close to the model of an independent fruit and veg retailer. It seems to make sense for those towns who still have such a shop to work out how they can be a bigger part of the local food system rather than re-invent the wheel. The local green grocer in Moruya can’t meet demand for local produce.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes seem to be more prominent this year and this theme was further developed on Sunday morning. The best CSA quote I heard was “I like knowing who I am growing for, and seeing children grow up eating our food. Having a CSA has made farming more enjoyable for us”.

There were several people who spoke about going down the CSA route after being shut out of their local farmers market because of their policies on number of producers of particular products. “The local market will only allow one chicken producer”. When we should be all about ramping up supply of authentic food this seems a questionable policy.

Perhaps we have just been fortunate with the SAGE Farmers Market, in that our policy of “if you grow it in the region you can sell it at the market” seems to encourage people to have a go at farming. There are periodic cases of oversupply and undersupply (eggs for example) but things seem to settle down after a period.

I forgot to take my camera this year, so wasn't in photography mode... I only took a photo of the morning tea table... you should have seen lunch!!

I forgot to take my camera this year, so wasn’t in photography mode… I only took a photo of the morning tea table… you should have seen lunch!!

Education about the value of fresh “clean” food was on many agendas. It wasn’t clear if this was partly about a lack of demand for produce or merely a general concern. Costa chimed in at the perfect time about the need to counter the message of supermarkets by using our own “super-marketing” through social media. We need a simple common message to get out there. “Know your food, know your farmer” seems to be in pretty wide use at the moment.

Of the smaller specialised group discussions on Saturday afternoon “Soil Health” had the biggest attendance, and generated both heat and light. There was a good opportunity for the Local Land Services officer Peter Piggot to inject some simple wisdom about soil biology in pastures, and the discussion about “moonscaping” (the occasional effect of pigs and chickens on pastures) got our attention. The discussion continued into extra time (soil health is at the core of everything – no cathedrals without good soil) and the session summary that was written on the whiteboard Sunday morning were the words “Soil is complex, OK?”.

There was no comparison with the agricultural heritage of the Dean Hall venue last year, but the Gerringong Town Hall still had its own charming sense of history

There was no comparison with the agricultural heritage of the Dean Hall venue last year, but the Gerringong Town Hall still had its own charming sense of history

The session on “Farm Business Models/Structures” in the Soldier’s Memorial Hall got stuck into the thorny issues of access to land, rural cooperatives, and CSA models. One big idea that has apparently got some traction in Canada and Scotland is the purchasing of arable land by community trusts. These trusts are funded by people leaving 5% of their super fund in their will. This land is then leased out to small-scale farmers on long term leases. This is one way of creating farms that can live in perpetuity, an often-voiced aspiration at the gathering.

The venue for the business models discussion was another pearler of a small town heritage building (no time for inside photos!)

The venue for the business models discussion was another pearler of a small town heritage building (no time for inside photos!)

The big ideas like this outweighed the small at the common sessions, but on Saturday night the little details of farm lives were teased apart around the fire pits, aided by sensational “pot luck” food and the odd beverage.

One conversation that made an impact that evening was the idea of having a display of local fruit and vegetables in doctor’s surgeries. This happens regularly at practices in the Southern Highlands because the doctors want to get their patients into the freshest food available.

My take home message from the weekend is that SAGE is certainly regarded as a model that has worked, and there is a lot of interest in gaining a deeper understanding of how we managed re-start a proper local food system. I don’t know how many times I heard “We need a SAGE in our town”.

If you use Instagram, trying searching #deepwinteragrarians to get a sense of how others respond to this event.

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