Growing the community

Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering in Daylesford

Photo above courtesy of Michael Dempsey.

From Stuart Whitelaw, photos and captions from Kate Raymond

The truth in advertising police would have no issues with this event. It was deep winter and thermals, beanies and polyfleeces were the order of the day even inside the Dean Hall where we gathered.

Located about 20 minutes south of Daylesford, Dean Hall & Mechanics Institute is a building lost in time.

Located about 20 minutes south of Daylesford, Dean Hall & Mechanics Institute is a building lost in time.

Daylesford (Victoria) is a very long way from Moruya, about 850km. I must admit to thinking that I must have too much time on my hands to commit to driving 10 hours each way for a gathering with no structure or agenda. The other name for these events is “un-conference” and they are documented in the Transition Town handbook. The deal is that whoever turns up are the right people to turn up, and that the things that are discussed are the right things… you get the idea.

So, SAGE Farmers Market Coordinator Kate Raymond and I set off from Canberra early on a Friday morning at the end of July, heading for our super budget digs at the Daylesford Caravan Park. On the website it mentioned the word “heater” so that was good enough for us. Current SAGE President and local grower Fraser Bayley and Kirsti Wilkinson from Old Mill Road BioFarm at Turlinjah were also there. In fact, the whole event was sparked from a suggestion made by Fraser.

Friday night was a very convivial meet-and-greet at the Daylesford Hotel, where about a hundred agrarian revolutionaries dined on good pub nosh and talked. The people we met at the dinner were almost reason enough for the drive, but the real thing started the next morning in a nearby community hall.

The agricultural heritage of the area seeped from every pore of the hall.

The agricultural heritage of the area seeped from every pore of the hall.

Much to my relief (and I suspect, to the relief of the young people who made up the vast majority of the gathering) a structure was proposed and agreed to within 10 minutes of starting.

Present at the meeting were growers, aspiring growers, connectors, eaters, chefs, and academics. The producers included meat, eggs, vegetables (about 15 each category), orchardists, and a couple of people doing aquaculture.

Tammi Jonas from local pastured pig farm, Jonai Farm, was one of the coordinators of the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering. She's also President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance.

Tammi Jonas from local pastured pig farm, Jonai Farm, was one of the coordinators of the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering. She’s also President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance.

It was a gathering of (mostly) people who actually produce food. Many were there to find answers to problems or get support and gain new ideas. The problems often seemed insoluble, and were mostly centred around regulations and financial viability.

It soon became clear that this was not a room full of theorists waiting for the “system” to crash and burn. They had problems, but the people there were the ones growing our food future and dealing with the food authorities coming onto their farms and threatening closure.

Time out. Brains became quickly overloaded with information. So many people had so much to offer.

Time out. Brains became quickly overloaded with information. So many people had so much to offer.

It is probably no coincidence that Victoria, which was at the forefront of direct farmer-to-consumer sales (mostly through farmers markets) is now seeing food safety laws being used to put the sustainable agriculture movement back in its box. As the market share of the direct sales sector approaches 10% it appears on the radar of the big companies, who, as in the USA 5 years ago, use their political clout to “safeguard the public” from this threat.

The concerns of SAGE and the local food movement in Eurobodalla were common to everyone. How do we grow the growers? One answer: demonstrate how to make a living doing it. How do we create an integrated food system? A genuine farmers market is a major part of this but so is an online connecting system (like the SAGE Farmers e-Market) that connects growers and consumers.

Access to suitable land for small scale farming was a common issue, and finding land with water and infrastructure in place that could be leased or shared was on many wish lists.

Amazing venue. Hall built 1891. That beautiful scrim (not a scrim, but not a backdrop) was painted in 1925.

Amazing venue. Hall built 1891. That beautiful scrim (not a scrim, but not a backdrop) was painted in 1925.

As someone who has been in many similar group discussions since the 1970’s, it was good to see a relative lack of grey hair in the room. Young people with clear ideas and a great work ethic predominated. Pastured poultry (and integrated beef systems) were a common entry point for new farmers who all had similar problems of off-farm processing. Either small mobile abattoirs or dedicated containerised on-farm processing facilities seem to be on the way. Both poultry and pigs should be used to eat waste from other production systems — for example, spent barley from beer production.

One poultry farmer recounted his positive trial of allowing chickens to forage in a purpose planted shelter belt that featured tagasaste and acacias for heavy seed drop. This level of detailed knowledge sharing continued throughout the day and into the night around braziers as we fought the frost fall.

After talking about good food, you eat good food. With good people #DeepWinter2015 #localfood

A photo posted by SAGE Farmers Market (@sagefarmersmarket) on

The lessons for SAGE and our local food system were all very positive. We are doing the right things. To have a farmers market, you need to demonstrate that there is money in growing food, and SAGE has been doing that since 2009.

Some great success stories emerged like Food Connect in Brisbane that now sell 1000 boxes per week, have 250 lines of produce in their warehouse, and are paying farmers 50 cents in the dollar. As we were discussing food distribution models, there was a show of hands to gauge the methods used by those present. Farmers markets were used by about 80% of the growers, and were seen as the most essential element in sustainable farming prospering.

Stuart cooked up some sourdough pocketbread to add to the astonishing spread of food contributed by the people who grew the food.

Stuart cooked up some sourdough pocketbread to add to the astonishing spread of food contributed by the people who grew the food.

After the social gathering and (outdoor) long table meal at Jonai Farm we met again on Sunday morning to get to a few more burning issues around vegetable growing — wwoofers, interns and labour generally, scaling up existing small farms, and “legal” housing for farm workers.

Pennie Scott from Eat Local Thursday (Wagga Wagga) and Costa deep in conversation before resumption of the un-conference on Sunday.

Pennie Scott from Eat Local Thursday (Wagga Wagga) and Costa deep in conversation before resumption of the un-conference on Sunday.

Kate initiated a breakaway to talk farmers markets specifically which was held, quite appropriately, in the kitchen of Dean Hall. A mix of market managers and online connection people spent a very profitable hour. One very illuminating issue was the varying attitude of local Councils to new farmers markets. There needs to be a good case made for the positive impact of genuine farmers markets on regional economies, and SAGE is well placed to help with this.

SAGE President and half of Old Mill Road BioFarm, Fraser Bayley was asked to guide the Sunday morning discussion about all things vegie-growing.

SAGE President and half of Old Mill Road BioFarm, Fraser Bayley was asked to guide the Sunday morning discussion about all things vegie-growing.

I really felt that I was back in the 1960’s when someone quoted Buckminster Fuller.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Sounds familiar.

While Deep Winter was an informal gathering of people involved in growing food sustainably with no fixed agenda, there was a strong representation of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, of which SAGE is now a member. You can read their media release here.

After a full and exhausting weekend of listening, learning and sharing, it felt magical to return home in the late afternoon to see Kirsti and Fraser picking for the SAGE Farmers Market the next day from their block, quite literally on the edge of town.

After a full and exhausting weekend of listening, learning and sharing, it felt magical to return home in the late afternoon to see Kirsti and Fraser picking for the SAGE Farmers Market the next day from their block, quite literally on the edge of town.

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