Paul Gale-Baker reports on The Australian Urban Agriculture Forum 2018. To read about the previous forum, in 2016, click here.
Organised by Sustain: the Australian Food Network, the second Urban Agriculture Forum was a wide-ranging and powerful event. Over two days, a broad cross-section of those concerned with the future of our food systems met at William Angliss College to hear the latest thinking on agriculture from the micro to the macro – from small home growers to large scale agricultural planners.
Dr Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment from Vancouver, gave the keynote address, detailing the way that region has dealt with the tension between ever-encroaching housing and the availability of suitable, fertile farm land. In 1972, in a visionary move, the province’s government passed the Agricultural Lands Reserve Act, protecting farm land with a clear firm boundary, marking off a huge tract of land and declaring it dedicated agricultural land. Tangible evidence of the success of this decision is seen in Dr Newman’s home region of Abbotsford, 45 minutes East of Vancouver, where there are 1,280 farms, directly employing 7,000 people. While this has been a great success, this land is under threat from massive estate homes, illegal hotels and soil mining, as well as governments taking up farm land for road reserves, pipelines, airports and shipping.
Having set the scene with this report on the value of farmland close to cities and the urgency of the challenges, the forum shifted focus from farms and looked at edible garden design at the backyard and community level, with a panel including Costa Georgiadis. Marrying function and aesthetic was a key point in the discussion that followed and the Forum was treated to a wonderful range of solutions used by people in small-scale backyard food production.
What was particularly impressive about the forum, was the range of highly experienced and knowledgeable speakers and the interest in agriculture in all forms, from the farm to the small backyard. Planning and public policy around food production, the maintenance of healthy soils, global agricultural initiatives, dealing with waste and the possible adaptations to climate change were some of the topics rounding off the first day.
Day 2 of the Forum began by bringing home the necessity of creating a ‘resilient city foodbowl’ which would allow the city (Melbourne in this case), to derive the majority of its food from an area close to the city. There were some exciting examples of how this can be done, such as Day’s Walk Farm in Keilor and Hurstbridge Farmgate. A number of farms are also social enterprises (Day’s Walk Farm and Green World Revolution), making a significant contribution to urban food and helping to employ young disadvantaged people.
David Holmgren’s take on urban agriculture introduced a radical note to the Forum. His new book, Retrosuburbia, brings together agriculture at the grassroots level, together with individual and community resilience in the face of what he sees as looming economic and climate change. David argued strongly for ‘retrosuburbanites’ to take what might be seen as small yet radical actions in deciding how to live a more resilient life, choosing ‘social’ permission or acceptance rather than waiting for more conventional (and legal), permission.
Other highlights of the Forum included evening sessions with Bruce Pascoe, with his groundbreaking work on indigenous farming practices and culture, and Mariam Issa, author of A Resilient Life, an inspirational speaker and community activist.
The Forum concluded with a ‘manifesto’ – a call to action for policy makers to protect and enhance our ability to grow food close to and in cities. As a draft, participants were given the opportunity to re-work the Manifesto so that the energy evident at the Forum could be translated into real action. The Manifesto underscored the urgency of action to protect and make secure urban food sources, in the face of problems such as residential pressures, climate change and soil degradation.
Above all, the Forum showed how people – from academics, to farmers, to backyard producers – all share a common goal of developing a resilient, local food system and a strong community. The Forum will be held again, either next year or the one following and I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in how and where our food is produced.