Each month, Claire Hetzel, Josie Andrews, Michelle Calleja, Merrin Layden or Morgan Koegel, all from 3000acres, discuss an issue that the local food movement should be thinking about.
- Through food we come together.
- Barriers to homegrown resilience.
- A reading list for you.
- Biophilic design.
- Land use inheritance and soil contamination.
- Carbon farming.
- Urban food production and crop diversity.
- The enablers and barriers to community garden participation.
- How much food does urban agriculture produce?
- Council support of local food production.
- To fence or not to fence – a council conundrum.
- Renters and food growing.
Through food we come together (May 2020)
At the peak of the olive season, we’re feeling pretty gutted that Olives to Oil, our annual communal harvest event, had to be cancelled and we’ve received lots of messages from people feeling the same. But, even at a distance, food still has the ability to bring us together.
Celebrating the harvest is a powerful ritual in many cultures and we’ve been reflecting on some of the beautiful festivals we’ve seen here and around the world. I (Merrin) previously worked in London where our orchard team exchanged apple traditions with a group based at Tolstoy’s orchard in Russia. Returning to Melbourne, I saw that my idea of re-creating this tradition through the bountiful urban ‘olive grove’ of our suburbs already had a proud history in the Darebin Parklands Association Olive Days.
Of course, Indigenous Australians have observed their own food celebrations for millennia and it is such a privilege to be able to learn and share in this through the annual Merri Murnong Gathering – now a fixture in my year.
Barriers to homegrown resilience (April 2020)
There’s been a massive surge in interest in home food growing thanks to the recent crisis. From empty Bunnings shelves to Diggers closing their seed orders, people are thinking about growing food at home as an act of personal resilience. While this renewed interest could be a good sign for the continued growth of urban agriculture, we at 3000acres have been thinking about the barriers to growing success now that time is less of a factor.
Knowledge: With lots of people more disconnected from how their food is grown than ever before, first time gardeners have a steep learning curve. We’ve noticed lots of questions coming in that show people are starting to get their heads around things like soil fertility, seasonality and sun access for the first time. Without this knowledge, there is a risk that a ‘disappointment effect’ sets in and people stop trying to grow food after an initial failed attempt.
Resources: All food growers know that a lot of inputs are needed for a great harvest, including good soil and compost as well as seeds and seedlings. Other than some of these inputs being scarce at the moment, and financially inaccessible for some, generating them at a home level takes time. People starting composts and worm farms now is good but it will be some time before they can benefit from the end product. For us, this demonstrates the need for the localisation of these resources: community composts rather than food waste travelling far away; and seed libraries that are community run.
Space to grow: In urban areas, average backyard size has continued to shrink. In addition, more and more people’s residency is more transient through renting. Plus higher buildings packed more tightly has resulted in limited solar access for many properties. With these limitations, it is essential that we collectively think creatively about shared spaces where people can still connect with food. At 3000acres, we’ve seen an increase in interest in plots at the community gardens that we manage since the lockdown began, with people looking for a destination outside of their apartment that is non-commercial in nature. Coming out of the crisis, we think that there will be a need to invest in high quality communal growing spaces that can bring people together when safe to do so, and provide a respite for those otherwise without any place to get their hands dirty.
The current crisis is an opportunity to reflect on a lot of aspects of how we live our day-to-day lives, including how communities access essential things such as food. Both individuals and governments – local all the way up to federal – could usefully contemplate on what can changes could help people feel more resilient, communities feel more connected and our country more prepared for future uncertainty.
A reading list for you (February 2020)
We know that your shelves are already probably stocked full of books about how to grow food, but what about books about why we grow food? Here are some of our favourite reads about the broader food system:
- Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe: a re-defining of pre-colonial, Aboriginal Australians as hunter-gatherers. An awe inspiring book full of historical agricultural evidence.
- Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy: a truly inspirational and radical read, exploring the grass-roots revolution of transformative and regenerative agriculture for the survival of our health, communities, soils, the Australian landscape, and our planet.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals by Michael Pollan: an inquiry into how the answer to the simple question of ‘what should we have for dinner?’ can affect our species’ survival. Learn how the right thing to eat often turns out to be the tastiest thing too.
- Reclaiming the Urban Commons: the past, present, and future of food growing in Australian towns and cities – Andrea Gaynor and Nick Rose (editors): a collection of chapters from some of Australia’s leaders in the urban agriculture space. Their stories of what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why are surprisingly diverse.
- Supermarket Monsters by Malcolm Knox: a hard-hitting investigative piece on the rise of Australia’s mega-retailers to dominate the food market. Is the price of a cheap carton of milk worth the devastating loss of quality, diversity and community we see today?
- Wilding by Isabella Tree: a true story of how an economically unsustainable piece of degraded agricultural land was transformed into a functioning ecosystem once again by letting nature take over.
- Retrosuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future by David Holmgren: a must-read 500 page manual by Australia’s very own co-originator of permaculture, on how to retrofit your home, garden, community, and self to become more resilient in this uncertain future we’ve designed for ourselves.
Going Green Solutions also has a recommended reading list. In addition to Retrosuburbia, their list includes Live Green: 52 steps for a more sustainable life by Jen Chillingsworth, Grow Harvest Cook: 280 recipes from the ground up by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair, Slice of Organic Life by Sheherazade Goldsmith (editor), Less Stuff: simple zero – waste steps to a joyful and clutter-free life by Lindsay Miles and Root to Bloom: a modern guide to whole plant use by Mat Pember.
Biophilic design (November 2019)
Recently I (Michelle) attended a lecture on biophilia by Dr Neil de Wet at the Melbourne School of Design. If the concept is new to you (as it was me), biophilia is the innate human tendency to seek connections with nature. Or, more simply put, a love of living things!
This concept is intuitively relatable to urban dwellers as we find ourselves seeking out every available crumb of nature in our daily lives. However, as our cities grow more dense and urban, our contemporary daily experiences of place are at threat of becoming increasingly disconnected from nature.
The intent of biophilic design is to restore or weave nature back into places as a kind of antidote to urban living. As described by Dr de Wet, this ‘urban greening’ employs a diverse range of passive and active interventions or ‘patterns’ to connect people with nature, place and one another. The aimed-for restorative side effects are improved natural environments, and better health and wellbeing for people and the communities (both human and little critters) that inhabit them.
So, what is the role of urban food production in biophilic design? It was interesting to learn that urban food growing is an important component of biophilic design’s multilayered approach given its ability to connect people to local, seasonal foods while supporting active engagement with nature, living organisms, and community.
If we measure our cities and the places we inhabit by their biophilic qualities, then urban food growing sits comfortably at the ‘nature loving’ end of the biophilic design spectrum.
Land use inheritance and soil contamination (October 2019)
Healthy plants are grown on productive soils and, while it is important to note that not all soils are ‘born equal’, we can influence soil/plant health factors by how we manage land and grow our food.
Soils contaminated with toxins are perhaps the hardest land use ‘inheritance’ to remediate. Urban soils often contain substances that are toxic to plants and/or humans at certain concentrations. The presence of these contaminants may relate to a history of industrial activity, heavy road or rail traffic, pesticide use or applications of lead-based paint on buildings.
It is important to investigate soil contamination risks before beginning a new growing project. Be sure to research the history of your site, investigate the physical soil make-up, and undertake a low-cost test for heavy metal contaminants.
If land is found to be contaminated, there are a range of strategies available to minimise the potential for harm, including:
- Installing raised beds or ‘no dig’ gardens with soil barriers.
- Raising pH levels above 5.5 to limit the bioavailability of toxins e.g. by applying lime, biochar or manure.
- Reducing contact with the soil by wearing gloves, growing ground covers and applying mulch.
- Choosing crops that are less likely to uptake contaminants (whilst fruits and seeds are largely protected from metal accumulation, plants grown for their leaves and roots are at higher risk).
Notably, both CERES and the Melbourne Food Hub are former quarries and landfill sites with potential contamination risks. For both, effective safeguards/ workarounds have allowed for safe food growing and revitalised previously under-utilised urban spaces.
Carbon farming (September 2019)
In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report entitled Climate Change and Land. Along with presenting some stark figures on agricultural emission rates, it discusses how changes to agricultural practices can help to produce healthier land, healthier food and healthier people, while also acting to reverse climate change.
It is not alone in seeing the potential for practice change to manage risks and reduce vulnerabilities in land and food systems. Close to home, there are some examples of regenerative agriculture initiatives that not only reduce emissions but also utilise living systems to capture carbon from the atmosphere. These include Gippsland farmer Niels Olsen, who is even getting paid for his efforts!
On a smaller scale, even our choices around local food production practices can potentially support reduced emissions and active drawdown of carbon. As research demonstrates, allotment soils in cities can show higher concentrations of organic carbon than arable soils.
So, as we tend our gardens this Spring, it would seem that we can cultivate more than food through simple practices like using living mulches, incorporating compost and diversifying annuals with perennials. Happy carbon farming!
Urban food production and crop diversity (August 2019)
I (Claire) recently harvested my first crop of Oxalis tuberosa, commonly known as New Zealand yams. Washed clean, the tubers were aesthetically mesmerising, a shiny pink with dimpled skins drawn across the most unusual of shapes. Roasted beside garlic, they were out of this world!
Experimenting in my kitchen with this new found tasty, beautiful and versatile food crop made me ponder the issues that surround urban food production and crop diversity. I spoke with Dr. Chris Williams from the University of Melbourne to learn more.
Chris told me: “Across the globe there are hot spots of agro-biodiversity, places where traditional people developed diverse crops over thousands of years in landscapes as varied as the Andes, Papua New Guinea and the Middle East. Many of these crops have great potential to provide new growing opportunities for farmers and gardeners across the planet even though they are rarely seen outside their indigenous ecosystems. These crops, such as New Zealand yams, also have substantial genetic diversity which provides indigenous farmers with options for growing them in specific climatic or soil niches. It is this adaptability to the contingencies of climate, soil or altitude which is at the heart of using crop genetic diversity as a resilience strategy in the face of climate change and the genetic narrowing of mainstream crops by industrial agriculture.“
Given the multicultural nature of the city in which we live, it would seem there is great opportunity to share knowledge and experiment together about the possibilities of growing diverse crop cultivars in the face of Melbourne’s changing climate. Time to try something new?
The enablers and barriers to community garden participation (July 2019)
A recent study by a team of researchers at Swinburne University has revealed some interesting data on the why behind community gardening. 23 participants from 6 community gardens across Melbourne were asked questions exploring their motivations for joining the community gardens, and how their participation could be better facilitated given the barriers and enablers to community gardening.
The six themes emerging as enabling participation were: family history, childhood and passion for gardening; productive gardening, sustainability and growing fresh produce; building social and community connections; community and civic action; stress relief; and building identity, pride and purpose.
The barriers to participation included: time commitment; garden governance; and vandalism of the gardens.
Activities such as communal composting were cited as having strengthening effects on community connections, collaboration and enhancing leadership. One participant stated: “I’ve been working with the Council representatives … I came up with a community composting plan for other community gardens and, as a result, I’ve just been appointed to [the Council] urban agricultural consultative committee … Out of my one metre little plot, I couldn’t have anticipated anything like that.“
How much food does urban agriculture produce? (May 2019)
Many of the benefits of urban agriculture are distinct from the amount of food it produces – such as gains around human health and sustainability. Even if growing food in urban spaces were to produce a negligible contribution to gardeners diets, it would still justifiably be a beneficial pursuit and a policy driver. But for many policy makers and detractors there is that nagging question – how much food does urban agriculture really produce?
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that 800 million people worldwide are practising urban agriculture. In Australia, the Grow Your Own report asserted that around half of all Australian households grow some amount of their own food.
For all of its benefits, urban agriculture is often criticised for being inefficient in terms of energy and labour use compared with conventional agriculture. But some dedicated urban farmers have worked to interrogate this assertion by taking meticulous notes of their inputs and yields, including Angelo Eliades (from Preston) and Kat Lavers (from Northcote). Over in the UK, one man even set out to prove that his entirely concrete courtyard could provide significant yield. These are impressive statistics that, in my experience, are often surprising to policy makers.
Council support of local food production (April 2019)
Over the past decade, we’ve seen parts of local government take on a larger role in proactively reacting to social and environmental change. For example, some councils have been responding to climate change and welcoming refugees.
In some cases, this work has expanded to the facilitation of urban agriculture within council, as part of climate change mitigation/adaptation, improvements to waste services, or community development and resilience. Some councils are creating relevant policies (for example, nature-strip gardening in Darebin), offering financial and practical support to urban agriculture groups, or even employing specialised urban agriculture staff. Depending on where you live, your council might have an Urban Agriculture Strategy (e.g. see Moreland’s).
In our increasingly built-up environment, public space for urban agriculture is at a premium, and some council strategies are calling for greater collaboration between planning and community development departments. This collaboration could support forward-thinking developers and architects to design housing with incorporated urban agriculture – such as communal gardening areas and green roofs. There is no specific requirement for green roofs on buildings but, as Melbourne marches towards 8 million people by 2050, our rooftops may (hopefully!) adapt to play a larger role in our lives.
If you want to learn how your council is supporting local food production, or you want to encourage them to do more, I suggest that you start by contacting their sustainability or community development team.
[Editor’s note: from my discussions with Morgan and others, it is clear that much more is happening on all this stuff in the inner Melbourne councils than in those further east!]
To fence or not to fence – a council conundrum (March 2019)
At 3000acres, we spend a lot of time talking to councils about possible community garden projects. There are many aspects of community garden designs that councils are happy to leave to the community to decide, but one component that they sometimes have strong feelings about (on both sides!) is fencing.
Fences can represent different levels of protection for a community garden – dog-proof, possum-proof or even people-proof – but some councils are resistant to fence new community growing projects at all. For some, even if a fence is unlocked, it represents a barrier to what is intended as public space and, with allotment gardening, even a privatisation of public space.
On the other hand, in some built up areas where community gardens are desperately needed for residents without their own growing space, a fence can deter vandalism. While we haven’t yet seen a significant amount of damage in open gardens we’ve worked with, there have been issues with graffiti, theft of tools, and the systematic pulling out of seedlings by a disgruntled local.
While fencing can be polarising at a management level, we’re interested in some of the emerging compromises – such as a fenced veggie patch and unfenced surrounding orchard. West Brunswick Community Garden has an open food forest and a low fence around their garden which still allows for compost scraps to be passed over. Rushall Community Garden has both composting and growing space outside of their fenced area. We hope that these combinations of fenced and unfenced growing can serve as examples to councils newer to community garden builds.
Renters and food growing (February 2019)
More and more Australians are renting, and renting for longer. As wages fail to keep up with rising house prices, many young Australians are finding themselves priced out of the market, and instead renting properties or joining share houses. What do these changes mean for food growing on private land? Through our search for gardens to join the current program of open gardens that we have been jointly organising with Open Gardens Victoria, we were excited to find renters growing substantial food on their properties despite the lack of security. The rental gardeners had a number of interesting strategies for making their garden productive despite the temporary setting:
- Alanjohn is growing in-ground at his house in Coburg and signed an memorandum of understanding with his landlord so that there wouldn’t be any issues with the changes when he vacates.
- Alex and Julia in Clifton Hill have opted to grow a lot of their food in straw bales so that there is less work to do to return the property to its original state.
- In order to add a beehive to her Northcote rental garden, Morgan bartered home-harvested honey with her landlord.
- While many renters were managing tightly pruned fruit or espaliered trees in pots, Greg in Fawkner focussed on sharing the future garden by planting straight into the ground.