I’ve recently spoken to a few market gardeners in our region for my new podcast and I am deeply impressed. All of them are small-scale farmers: Matt Grogan and Tamsin Greenwood at Staghorn Flat, Jack and Ari Herry at North Wangaratta, and Ada and Pat Mickan in Beechworth. Later I’ll speak to Bernie and Felicity Kennedy in Murmungee.
Matt’s also a lawyer. Jack’s also a speech therapist. Ada is also a physiotherapist. Bernie is also an engineer and Felicity is also a public health practitioner. They’re all in their 20s and 30s and have young families. They’re all educated young people who could be pursuing full-time careers and ticking boxes for professional and financial success. Instead, they’re emblematic of a growing number of younger Australians discovering the alchemy of working the earth to produce food for local eaters. They seek a quality of life that’s reflected in living true to their principles of environmental sustainability. They’re driven by a sense of intergenerational responsibility and an awareness of fresh, healthy, locally-grown food’s ability to deliver the social change they want.
Economic and social diversity matters. Diversity delivers strength, adaptability and resilience in the face of change. With an often overweening Commonwealth and state political focus on the needs and imperatives of distant metropolises, rural Australians need to retain some level of ownership and control to respond to our specific needs.
Bigger and smaller scale farming are important. We’re often presented with a picture of Australian farming painted in purely economic metrics: export value, size and diversity of overseas markets and economic and labour efficiencies. These are usually expressed in national (or sometimes state-wide) financial metrics with “million” or “billion” at the end of the dollar figure.
While these figures are indeed important, we often lack a clear understanding about what these values mean to our region of North East Victoria. As such, it’s important to acknowledge smaller local farmers and other metrics that support and reflect community strength and quality of life.
As a net food exporter, Australians are frequently told we don’t need to worry about our food supplies. A picture is painted of Australia being in a position of great strength and that no-one needs to be concerned about our overall food system. While many of us are okay, even through Covid, we don’t have to look far to see that that’s not the case for everyone.
A few current examples from around the nation show that there are lots of people experiencing food insecurity even in our own region (in fact numbers are growing), we’ve experienced empty shelves and purchase limits for particular items in our supermarkets, the federal government is conducting an inquiry into food pricing and availability in remote communities and there are many news stories about the vulnerability of our food supply to Covid restrictions from labour shortages to abattoir de-staffing in Victoria.
As long as our food supply isn’t serving everyone’s needs, there’s room for improvement.
If small growers are ignored, they’re not measured. And if they’re not measured, they are frequently not seen by policy makers. Lots of work has been going on in the North East to highlight and understand the motives and needs of smaller producers but more needs to be done to support connectivity, awareness and recognition of their value.
With Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that the average farmer in Australia is 56 years old, the stories, motivations and values of our younger farmers, and in this case our local market gardeners, are important to recognise and understand. These market gardeners and their choices directly support stronger rural communities in our region: young families for local schools, economic strength through scale and diversity of North East Victoria’s food enterprises, resilient local communities, creating interesting and beautiful landscapes and growing regional foods that satisfy us and underpin our tourism industry. Understanding their motivations is critical to supporting them and establishing sustainable pathways for others.
It’s important we don’t put all our eggs in one (big) basket. Nothing is more critical than food and both long and short supply chains are necessary to ensure resilience in the face of challenges such as Covid.
Local food is available, you just need to ask for it. Every person asking for local food sends signals that there’s a market for it and it’s important. Every time you consciously buy local, you’re supporting local families, local schools, local job opportunities and a more diverse and resilient local economy.