In November 2019, Ann Stanley interviewed Morgan Koegel, General Manager of 3000acres.
Recently I chatted with Morgan Koegel, General Manager of 3000acres, about her background, the state of urban agriculture in Melbourne and about what’s living and growing in her backyard in Northcote.
I was born in Ohio in the mid-west of the US and I’ve lived in Australia since I was 9 years old. I moved here with my mum’s job and I’ve been a citizen since I was 16. We thought we would stay three years but loved it so much we’ve stayed much longer. I consider myself 99% Australian.
Did you come from a farming background?
Not at all. I was raised by two mums, one a microbiologist and the other a lawyer, so I definitely did not grow up growing food, and I did not even grow up cooking food! My mums were really busy. I did not cook an onion until I was 22 years old. So I think I am the ultimate example of the urbanite who has gone on the adventure of growing food. Now in my backyard in the warm months, around 50% of our fruit and veg comes from food that we are grow ourselves. In the winter, this drops off to 20% or 30%.
Tell me now about 3000acres.
3000acres is a Melbourne-based not-for-profit that’s been around since 2014 – I’ve only been there since 2018 – and its mission is to help people grow more food in more places. That can mean a lot of different things so our work can be quite diverse. We’re looking at creating healthy, more resilient, communities right across Melbourne in urban and peri-urban areas with different council areas for different clients. So that’s everything from starting a new community garden, through helping community groups get incorporated, to community composting, workshops and education. The projects are diverse but they all have the central mission of making urban agriculture and growing food in urban areas an ordinary part of everyday life.
So does the diverse nature of the work mean that there have to be diverse skills in the people working for you?
I come from a legal background myself. I first got into gardening when I was halfway through law school. I grew a tomato on my balcony and thought, “Wow, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life!” So my job is really the melding of my personal experience with my passion as a food grower who is interested in climate change adaptation and mitigation. My colleagues at 3000acres come from urban agriculture backgrounds in the US and the UK so they’ve seen urban agriculture environments that are little more developed than we have in Melbourne, which is helpful to learn from.
Our initial model, whereby we were trying to map under-utilised land and to support communities to access this land, is something we’ve built on over the years as we realised that actually the barriers to growing are much higher than we originally anticipated. 3000acres was originally based on a New York model, 596 Acres, where they were trying to unlock under-utilised land. High density living is more common in the US and the UK, which has put pressure on the governments to create those public spaces in a way that hasn’t happened here. And they also have roof top growing because their roofs can withstand snow; by contrast, in Melbourne there is a big push for rooftop gardens but the roofs are often not appropriate for them.
Tell me a bit about how 3000acres was founded.
Kate Dundas, our founder, wanted to join a local community garden when she moved to Australia from Scotland. But she found that there were none in her area and, drawing on her experience in urban planning, she thought that community gardens were something everyone should have access to in urban areas.
There are currently three of us on the team but we’re supported by volunteers and contractors. The truth is we are really small. The volunteers help us with running events such as backyard openings, as well as with some of the back end stuff in our office space. We like to collaborate with facilitators and designers. This space will not be successful if we don’t collaborate.
Can you describe some of your work in more detail?
Often a group will come to us and say that they want to start a community garden. The truth is that people usually only start one community garden in their lives so its hard to become an expert at it. They need to know how to talk to council, what insurance they need, whether they need to go through a process of incorporation, whether they need a planning permit, etc. So, there is often a bureaucratic, complex series of questions that can be quite a tricky process that can defeat a lot of community gardens. So, we as an organisation have tried to become experts on this so that we can guide people through it. Understanding land is a big one. Is it likely to be contaminated? Is that statutory body likely to give us access? That does require a little bit of legal knowledge but mainly its just knowing people and how they operate.
Tell me more about urban agriculture.
What’s interesting about the urban agriculture space is that people grow food for so many different reasons, including: to have some food in their own backyards, because of concerns about sustainability and climate change, because of concerns about health, and to give their kids a connection to nature. And that’s what I really love about my job: not everyone is doing it for the same reasons and we’re all stronger for it.
And much food growing is actually to help develop community. It’s so people talk to their neighbours and are more resilient in the face of climate shocks and so they understand food and have respect for the farmers who grew it. I always use the example of how, when someone has slaved away producing a pumpkin over months, it becomes so much harder to buy a $2 pumpkin and let it go to waste in the fridge.
This change in perspective has sustainability repercussions about food miles and food packaging, and it’s the learning that makes you think “What is this system? How can food be produced this cheaply? How far has that food travelled to get to me?” Even seasonality: we meet people in community gardens who want to plant a tomato in May. So its helping people go through that journey of learning new skills.
In your work with 3000acres what experiences have inspired hope for the future?
What you get to see most actively in community gardens is community connections. One of these was watching a 90 year old Greek man teach an apartment dweller how to grow tomatoes for the first time. It was one of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen. I just wanted to bottle the moment! Another was a woman, where her son who had early sensory difficulties and he had become really particular about food. She had never grown food and wanted to be part of the garden and I got to work a little with her sons, touching worms for the first time and things like that and, on the day when the radishes were ready to harvest for the first time, I taught her son how to pull them up. He pulled one up and he went “yum!” His mother cried because this gave her some hope that maybe her son was going to come through his difficulties. Now she sends me pictures of her backyard and it’s all apple trees and veggie beds.
And what have been some of the challenging things?
I think that many councils have come a long way in the last 18 months. A lot more councils are having the conversation about what it looks like to support their residents to grow food. Some are using the language of ‘food security’, others the language of ‘urban sustainability’. A lot are coming at it from a waste perspective. As a result of people watching ABC’s War on Waste, some are asking more of their councils in terms of handling waste and recycling.
But change moves slowly.
At a time when people are losing space to grow at home, having smaller and smaller backyards and less and less access to light, there is an increasing need for public growing spaces. That means urban farms and community gardens (of every type, including both communal and allotments). But some councils want to limit their efforts to only supporting backyard gardening.
We find accessing land very difficult. When it’s council-owned land, the council might not yet have a perspective on what they want it to be and the property department might want to sell it in a decade or so and not have a community garden there in the meantime. If it’s a statutory body, like Melbourne Water or VicRoads, some of them are quite supportive in principle but either the land is inappropriate, perhaps contaminated, or you don’t have water access and you’re looking at a twenty thousand dollar bill to get mains water.
Another problem is that councils sometimes have an really high expectation of what a community group can do. For example, having a rule that any graffiti on the site has to be removed within 48 hours is really hard for a community group to organise for. Also no one wants to give long tenure. They’ll say “we’ll sign a lease for a year and we’ll see what happens after that“, which is difficult for developing a community garden.
And, finally, there is funding. Some people think that a community group can just put some soil down and start growing. But actually, no, they might have to install mains water, install a water tank, or have raised beds because of soil contamination. So suddenly they’re going to have a large bill to create a space appropriate for growing but there’s typically little investment, I would say, in creating those spaces.
So what are you relying on for funding?
We’re very grateful when we get occasional donations for the work that we’re doing but the vast majority of our funding comes through project work – we’ll be hired by a council to do a community consultation or build a garden or whatever it might be – and that’s how we’re funded as an organisation. We also receive grants from organisations like the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation to run particular projects. I would say the hardest thing is that all the funding is project-based and so there isn’t a lot of investment in the blue-sky thinking about what needs to happen in urban agriculture. At any given time, we have a list of a hundred things we’d like to do but we don’t have money for.
So you guys see yourself as doing the blue-sky thinking?
We would love to be. With my colleagues having worked overseas in this space, they’ve seen some projects that have been transformational in the UK and the US and we have spent some time thinking about what that would look like in the Melbourne context. So we have it sitting on the shelf ready to go! Now we need funding and not just from a one-year grant. It’s multi-year funding that is required so that we can demonstrate what we can do.
(It seems there are some tax incentives for urban agriculture projects in California. Watch this video for some examples of food growing in cities.)
What then are the next steps?
As I said earlier, some councils are moving forward rapidly. And people are also starting to see climate change as broader than solar panels – they’re seeing it as system change as well and food plays a role in that. Many of the right conversations are now happening and our role is to be advocating aggressively for what needs to happen in order for us to have a sustainable future.
For us, that means more conversations at more levels of government, not just local government but state and federal as well. It means a broader attitudinal shift towards agriculture and urban agriculture so that people don’t see it as “I live here and farming happens over there” but, rather, “Maybe I should have some meaningful interactions with farming that informs the food that I buy and how much I pay for it“. That has to do with more people growing and understanding growing in urban areas, but also some of the planning around how often people end up interacting with food growing.
So we plan on facilitating that shift. We’re trying to work on the community on one side and the decision-makers on the other, helping both of those groups shift attitudes through the programs that we’re running.
Here’s an example. We run an annual olive festival where we press olives all around Melbourne. This year, we had around 2,500Kg of olives from 500 people who went around harvesting in their communities from backyards, street trees and parks. People are already looking forward to next year’s festival. So it’s creating an attitudinal shift towards “We have these great resources in urban areas. Lets keep working on that.“
Tell me about bees
I love bees. I got into beekeeping after becoming a food grower and understanding their significance. My mum and I keep bees together so we have four hives at her house in Warrandyte and one here in my backyard in Northcote. This is a rental but I don’t think that this should be a barrier to making the space our own for growing food. Our landlord actually buys honey from us so its a good relationship that way. We’ve also got quails down the back for their eggs, their compost and their company, and we went from this backyard having absolutely no food growing when we moved in, other than an old fig tree, to creating some raised garden beds and growing lots of fruit trees in pots.
Morgan took me on a tour of her garden. Her words capture beautifully the experimental nature of gardening.
Down the back, you can see some warrigal greens and our worm farms and some herbs along here, fig trees that I’ve propagated, my strawberry wall, then passionfruit to protect the bees, stopping them from getting too hot against the brick wall. The blueberries are doing quite well. I’ve used azalea mix as the potting mix. I’ve been waiting to see what the birds are going to steal before I start netting them.
The soil is not contaminated out here at the back but it is out front. That’s why I don’t grow leafy greens out there. It’s mildly contaminated with lead.
The raised beds are made from used bricks from the Good Karma network and from Gumtree.
Our male quail is called Quinton d’Quail. All the rest are females, all named after historical leaders: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra’. They are shaded by our fig tree – it belongs to the neighbour over the fence but we get a good harvest on this side. The quail eat the weeds (like mallow) and leftover crops (like silverbeet that’s gone to seed). They’re very quiet. I use recycled materials for their water and food containers and shredded cardboard and leaf litter for their bedding.
A lot of the crop has just gone in. You can see I’ve got some build up of pathogen in the soil with the tomatoes. That was an eggplant but the leaves are being skeletised by earwigs. They hide in the corners of the pots. They like to live in the celery just here. But the quails love the earwigs. We don’t get many snails, which is lucky, but the earwigs are out of control around here.
I leave a lot of the weeds because it’s all the same to the bees.
The strawberries went in this year and they have been absolutely prolific. The backyard faces north which is helpful and this west facing wall gets very hot in the afternoon which the passionfruit loves.
Ideally the bees would prefer to be over out of the sun a little but have been successful in their spot. The hives are made of rammed styrofoam. It’s a Finnish design and it allows them to keep their temperature regulated. We’ve been doing a little bit of citizen science to see how the bees enjoy the different types of hives!
Thank you, Morgan.
So there it is, urban agriculture in Melbourne, one piece of land at a time. As Morgan says of her productive garden, “it’s a moving, changing picture“.