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The long road in the far north – on the local food speakers trail in northern NSW

Story & photos: Russ Grayson.

MARCH DAYS ARE MILD DAYS in the sleepy northern NSW town of Lismore. And this year they were no different. What was different was that the subtropical city of 28,000 played host to a rather unusual conference, a conference about food… local food.

The conference was the reason for Lismore City Council bringing me to town. I’m no stranger to the place and I sort of like it despite its steamy summer days when the sun beats down mercilessly and the sweat streams off the skin.Sort of like summer in Brisbane, only a little less extreme.

Arriving in town, I made my way to my council contact. Council is up on the hill, isolated from the city and well above flood level. Walking into the office, I was immediately cajoled into two radio interviews about food localisation and the conference, one on the ABC and the other on local radio. Although I once worked in radio, I still find something vague about telephone interviews, something disembodied, especially when I’m not the one asking the questions.

Northern Rivers locally produced food - adding up the kilometres.
Northern Rivers locally produced food – adding up the kilometres.

Down the road and on the coast

First off, though, was participation on a panel three days before the Feeding Our Future conference in a town just 30 downhill kilometres from the Lismore metropolis.

There, the editor of Kindred magazine, Kali Weirdorf — Kindred is a parenting magazine with a heavy emphasis on sustainability — and Ken McLeod from the Ethos Foundation, a sustainability education organisation active in the northern region, had invited me to join Brisbane Food Connects’ Robert Pekin, a former farmer — and the manager of Byron Farmers’ Market who is an organic farmer — in a panel to have a conversation with Cuban urban agriculturist, Roberto Perez.

Robert just made it to the Byron Bay seminar, having hitched up from a Food Connect meeting in Yamba and waiting 275 cars for a lift (yes, he counted them). When he made it to the later Lismore conference, he accounted for the surfboard that he had squeezed into his car by telling the rather tall tale that it was required at the meeting to serve as a table, their being none of those in Yamba. There was something less than credible about his explanation.

Byron Bay Community Centre was packed for Roberto’s session. The video, The Power of Community, was screened first, then the panel asked questions of Roberto about Cuba’s experience in adjusting to its own peak oil crisis.

Permaculture educators, Tim Winton (Permaforest Trust) , who is also on the Permaculture International board of directors, and Robyn Francis (Permaculture Education) were present. Robyn, through the Cuba-Australia Permaculture Exchange, was hosting Roberto in Australia.

Northern Rivers imported food - adding up the kilometres.
Northern Rivers imported food – adding up the kilometres.

The Byron event went well. Locally owned organics food company, Santos, co-sponsored the event.

At a meeting with Ken McLeod and Robert just up the highway in sunny Brunswick Heads next day, we lunched at the Riverside Café in view of the town’s shallow but broad river. At Riverside, the owners attempt to use as much locally produced food as possible. That, they say, can be a challenge as sourcing the locally grown is not all that easy. In part, that’s because the market for local food is only in its infancy and because there is no local foods logo or other means of eater assurance that what is claimed as local really is that.

The road west to localisation

It’s a nice drive along the winding two-way, following the asphalt from Byron to Lismore. The road twists around some wonderfully curvacaous bends just outside of Banlgalow, then passes below an arch of tree canopy that brings a refreshing coolness to the air before climbing up to the small town of Clunes. A place of old weatherboard homes juxtaposed with more recent urban brick houses, the road passes through town, past the sign on the outskirts advertising local coffee and then its more or less a downward trend (in topography, not quality of town or countryside) to the flats on the Lismore ourskirts.

The Feeding Our Future conference was held at Southern Cross University, one of the sponsors and organisers (that was done through Leigh Davidson, greywater expert and longtime resident of one of Australia’s oldest intentional communities). Other organisers were Tropo, the local organic farming agency, and Lismore City Council.

The lecture hall was packed. What had started as 80 registrations (registration was necessary to attend) a week or so before the conference had swollen to 200 in the days immediately prior. And, on the morning, there were many people turning up, cash in hand, wanting to attend. Their money was accepted, though they missed out on the tasty lunch of local food. People arriving were greeted with free coffee grown within 30km of Lismore as well as free passionfruit, similarly grown. All food on display at the stalls carried food miles on their signs.

Roberto, who was first speaker up, is a young Cuban with good English and a clear speaking voice, his accent not so pronounced that it gets in the way of understanding. It is said that he is perhaps the only Cuban speaking English with an Australian accent. That is attributable to the Australian PGAN (Permaculture Global Assistance Network) team that went to Havana in the 1990s to teach Cubans about urban agriculture and permaculture. A biologist, Roberto is an easy going and non-dogmatic person whose curly black hair falls to his shoulders, enclosing a trimmed beard and glasses. Could Roberto be, if it’s not stretching a likeness too far, the Che Geuvara of Cuba’s urban agricultural revolution?

Other speakers included Dr Leigh Davidson from SCU, Rebecca Lines-Kelly of NSW DPI (on the UK response to the recent food crisis), Alan Roberts of TROPO (who spoke on food miles and energy costs), David Roberts from TROPO (organic growing options), Jude Fanton from the Seed Savers Network and myself,  speaking on food localisation and community gardening’s role in it.

Immediately prior to the proceedings and again during lunch, Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond’s 15 minute video, Think Global, Eat Local, was screened. The video is designed as a conversation starter for discussions on food localisation and I think it succeeds in this goal quite well.


Growing soon in Lismore

This was a busy few days in the north. The next day saw a meeting with the local community garden crew, Rainbow Region Community Farms Inc. They are a capable bunch who have already operated a work for the dole farming skills project. We took a look at the spacious site that they may be able to acquire access to for a community garden.

We met at one of the few cafes open of a Sunday, the Goanna Bakery (in the city at 171 Keen Street), where you can get a good vego feed any day of the week, good coffee and a fresh loaf of bread. We bought a loaf of spelt and pumpkin, which I have to say was delicious, and carried it back to Sydney. Now, that’s food miles.

Rest asssured that Lismore, that flood-prone, sleepy town tucked into a valley inland of Byron Bay, is about to see a resurgence of community-based food activity. The town already has an organic farmers’ market and the presence of a focus such as the proposed community garden can only add impetus to the food localisation scene in the far north. That’s a scene boosted region-wide by farmers’ markets in, not only Lismore, but Bangalow, Byron Bay and New Brunswick.

So what has participating in these events and talking to these people shown? Well, I think that some of what I saw, some of the people I met, some of the organisations they are involved in leave me with the impression that the localisatiion idea is set to grow on the East Coast, and soon. There are ideas in the wind to stimulate this.

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