Growing our own

admin | 杭州桑拿
8 Sep 2019

SELF-SUFFICIENT: Paul Luscombe, of Newcastle Backyard Farms, far left, and Mark Brown and Kate Beveridge, of Purple Pear Farm, below. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll and Peter StoopIT’S not a new idea – being directly responsible for what we eat.
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Our forebears got by largely on what they produced themselves, but somehow, over the past 100 years, we have – en masse – handed our food security over to big business.

From about 1900 onwards, fruit trees, chicken coops and vegetable gardens gradually began to disappear from the urban landscape – possibly as blocks got smaller and women traded duties at home for increasing hours in the workplace.

That trend accelerated, along with automation of the home, after World War II.

Across the land, an accepting public shopped happily in the high streets and big malls, rather heading out the back door to pull a carrot or two from the kitchen garden.

But scroll forward 70 years and now we have entered a new era – where questions on just what we are eating have become a growing concern.

This stream of social consciousness is being borne out at every farmers’ market and in every cafe around the country – the dialogue about where food is produced and sourced. Whether it is ethically and environmentally good for both us as well as the producers and animals in the supply chain. How many kilometres it is trucked and how long it is stored before it reaches us, the consumers?

Many wish they had the ability to opt out of the food supply chain. Others are just giving it a go.

The trend to “grow your own” led to a renaissance in the 1970s when permaculture pioneers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren identified a way of growing food based on an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.

Since then “permies”, as they are known, have often been stereotyped as “mung bean-eating hippies” – a little on the wild side.

But in recent times, as the notion of sustainability has crept back into the minds of the public, permaculture has again come to the fore.

As a movement, permaculture has attracted more interest internationally than it has on Australian soil.

The reasons why are a no-brainer if you take the time to understand the science.

Modern farming methods are based on monoculture – growing just one crop in the same place, year after year – an approach which permies say leaves the farmer open to a range of problems such as soil erosion, pest plagues and disease.

By contrast, permaculture emulates how nature grows – mixing it up year on year with fewer problems and no interference.

Broadly, permaculturists aim for a balanced closed-loop system where every element influences the other in a positive way.

African website Never Ending Food (neverendingfood上海龙凤论坛) defines the four basic principles thus:

– Working with nature rather than against it.

– Thoughtful observation rather than thoughtless labour.

– Each element should perform many functions rather than one.

– Everything is connected to everything else.

Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher, Geoff Lawton, who is based in The Channon in northern NSW, has worked in 35 countries teaching people how to live and eat in a sustainable way, even in arid desert environments such as Jordan.

His online videos talk about the unnecessary disconnect that exists for many people and their personal food security and just how easy it is instead to create food and in turn, lifestyle abundance.

One case study – Lessons from the Rustbelt – profiles the systemic failure of US industrialised cities such as Holyoke in Massachusetts.

Once regarded as the industrial heartland of the US, the Rustbelt nurtured traditional manufacturing industries such as paper, cotton, steel and coal on a large scale, but it has suffered economic decline, population lows and urban decay since the mid-20th century.

Lawton believes Holyoke is a symbol of what could be our future in Australia.

The irony shouldn’t be lost on Novocastrians whose own economic history has ridden the tides of both coal and steel.

And it isn’t.

Just as Newcastle is undergoing a revitalisation in a development sense, so is consumer interest in food origins and seasonality.

Take a look at the Facebook page of restaurants such as Estabar at Newcastle Beach and you’ll know exactly where they source their eggs – from Papanui Open Range Eggs in the Hunter Valley, rather than an obscure label on a supermarket shelf.

Farmers’ markets too are well patronised now, more so than at any time for decades.

But, rather than a fleeting trend, those at the coalface of permaculture are optimistic that the attitudinal change towards home-grown, local, fresh and organic is permanent.

Two local farms doing what they can to plant these small seeds of change into our social fabric, through both education and practical application, are Newcastle Backyard Farms and Purple Pear Farm.

Newcastle Backyard Farms has a focus on helping locals grow food in their backyards.

Owned by Paul Luscombe, it specialises in urban permaculture and design, and its services include gardening advice and consultations through to the complete design and build of a sustainable, edible garden.

Luscombe, a graduate of Lawton’s Permaculture Design Course, is busy transforming a large urban garden in Cardiff into a food paradise, which will not only sustain its owner, but potentially provide farm-gate products such as jams and chutneys into the future.

When complete, the 1500-square-metre block will be filled with bird and bee-attracting natives, an orchard, a tropical pleasure garden, chickens, bees and a massive kitchen garden in a succession of wicking beds.

The essential permaculture principle – self-sustainability – is key and so the garden also includes privacy screening plants such as clumping bamboo and sugar cane which will also produce mulch for the gardens.

Weeds too have their place, given their propensity to flower profusely and provide forage for the bees.

Ground not planted to produce is left to its own devices, a principle most purveyors of “lawn culture” will struggle with.

But Luscombe suggests the sceptics give consideration to the lunacy of growing a crop just for walking on.

“Growing lawn is a lot of effort for very little return in contrast to a vegetable garden which is low on input, both financially and in ongoing maintenance, and it yields tangible returns in the form of highly nutritious food.”

Luscombe too cites cities in the US such as Detroit, where large areas have been left abandoned in the fallout of the global financial crisis.

“The urban farming movement has grown in leaps and bounds out of necessity.

“The residents there have been left without the supply chains that we all rely on in developed countries and so have had to provide for themselves,” he says.

“Now those derelict areas have thriving market gardens springing up on vacant land helping to sustain the residents left there.

“Some would argue this turn of events has seen those people’s diets take on a marked improvement thanks to the establishment of the gardens, not to mention the social capital gained by bringing people together for a mutually beneficial activity like growing food,” Luscombe says.

Food insecurity seems a world away from Australia.

But it is reality for a growing number here too. Figures released last month from FoodBank – Australia’s largest hunger relief charity – tell the story.

In 2014, low-income working families made up the largest group seeking assistance in the form of food donations.

They are followed by single-parent families and the unemployed.

The Foodbank Hunger Report 2014 reveals that it provides food relief for more than half a million Australians every month, more than a third of whom are children.

Foodbank Australia chief executive Jason Hincks says 60,000 a month are turned away, including 24,000 children.

“No child should have to worry about where their next meal will come from, yet a shocking number of Aussie kids are in this position every year,” Hincks says.

It’s an unsettling notion when one considers the sheer amount of what could be food-producing land that Australians devote to lawn-clad sporting fields, parks and street verges.

Some people are reticent about planting food on the nature strip but Luscombe said US urban permaculture practitioners were finding that once a front yard was converted to food production, they got more work in that street after people saw their neighbours harvesting food instead of mowing and hedging.

He acknowledged though that some who had tried verge gardens in Australia had had to do battle with local councils, either before or after the fact.

In some cases, good reasons did exist for saying no.

Luscombe said that in Newcastle permaculture was a tough sell because of the firmly entrenched low-maintenance “lawn culture”.

One reason could be a lack of education. Though growing food may be an ancient practice, it is one that many profess to having little knowledge of and even less confidence to try.

PURPLE Pear Farm offers courses in food production at a fully functional permaculture farm at Anambah, on the outskirts of Maitland.

Driving onto the property, visitors are greeted by a flock of noisy geese, jokingly referred to as “the doorbell” by the farmers.

Pigs, cows, chickens, a dog and guinea pigs make up Purple Pear’s menagerie, all playing their part in the farm’s production cycle.

Run by Kate Beveridge and Mark Brown, Purple Pear Farm was cultivated on arid, acidic land “to see if it was possible to make it usable”.

It was, and now Purple Pear produces all kinds of fruit and vegetables in its mandala system, a group of smaller garden beds functioning in a cyclical manner.

While one bed is ready to harvest, one is half-grown, another is newly sown, another is being eaten and turned by chickens and yet another is ready to be planted.

Broccoli, lettuce, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, rhubarb, beetroot, and a huge range of fruit trees are scattered throughout the property.

Whatever is ripe and seasonal is used by the family and the surplus is sold to regular customers – 20 local families – by the box.

The emphasis is on eating what is fresh and available.

So the farm might not be able to provide strawberries in winter, but that’s because they are not in season.

Beveridge says sometimes customers complained there was too much in the boxes so she also provides tips on how to use the produce.

The service is already fully subscribed.

The farm’s ideals centre largely around self-sufficiency and reducing the environmental impact of food growth through low food miles.

At an average of five kilometres a box, the farm is contributing to its mantra of eating and growing locally.

Farm tours and meetings are welcomed and encouraged, and Brown says the farm often attracted the interest of mothers with new babies, who were starting to really look at what went into modern food production.

Dedicated to teaching others about permaculture, Purple Pear offers all sorts of classes and experiences including a permaculture design course, introduction to permaculture, lessons on mandalas, classes on sourdough and preserving, cheese and yoghurt making, worm farming, composting and propagation, urban food production, grafting and biodynamics.

The farm even offers children’s birthday parties and gift vouchers.

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