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PacificEdge | October 17, 2017

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Great speakers, great company, great food, great conviviality

Russ Grayson

First published 2007.

The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network annual conference 2007.

An unofficial report by Russ Grayson

MARCH IN MELBOURNE is a meteorologically confused time. One day, it’s hot and sticky – T-shirt weather. The next, it’s cold and windy – jackets are the order of the day. Then the rain comes, not in any great downpour but in sporadic showers, for this is a city in drought.

There’s some indefinable quality about this southern metropolis that makes it a more… how do I put it?… a more humane city than its bigger, brasher cousin to the north. It’s easier to move around, something enhanced by its frequent tram services and the long main roads that take you on long, long journeys through the suburbs.Unlike Sydney, Melbourne is not a city fractured by harbours, ridges and valleys.

This is the city that, late in March this year, hosted the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network (ACFCGN) national conference, the fourth such event. The others – the first in Bendigo’s wet cold, then in the sticky heat of the Sunshine Coast and, last year, in Adelaide’s dry heat – were more internally focused. The Melbourne ACFCGN crew – in the guise of Cultivating Community and other supporters – thought that something more ambitious was in order. And they delivered.

Ben Neal has done much to improve community food gardening on social housing estates in Melbourne. Ben was CEO of Cultivating Community.

Ben Neal has done much to improve community food gardening on social housing estates in Melbourne. Ben was CEO of Cultivating Community.

Ambitious, successful, well attended and inspring

People came from all states – and, yes, that includes those well away from the eastern seaboard – Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory. There were two from Christchurch, though I do not list them as coming from other states because New Zealanders get a bit touchy about that. Those two came from the Christchurch Community Gardens Association in that pleasant, flat, windy and otherwise freezing city.

Victoria’s Minister for Housing, Richard Wynne, opened the conference which was held in the somewhat ornate but faded Victorian (the period of history, not the state) opulence of Collingwood Town Hall. There, a changing audience numbering in the hundreds gathered to listed to speakers such as David Holmgren, co-founder of the Permaculture design system; international relocalisation and local food advocate, Helena Norberg-Hodge; gardener and author, Jackie French; ABC television’s gardener, Jerry Coleby-Williams; Indian campaigner and author, Vandana Shiva; the UK Federation of City Farm’s Mike Marston and others.

Given that the themes of the different days — school gardens and education, community gardening, seed saving (it was the Seed Savers’ Network’s annual conference) and food security— attracted the same core of attendees but a differing peripheral audience, the number in attendance may have been higher in total than that of the best-attended day.

Ian’s new book

Permaculture educator, Ian Lillington, launched his new book – TheHolistic Life – Sustainability Through Permaculture – at the conference.

The volume is a welcome addition to the design system’s library of titles. Ian speaks of how and why he became involved in the design system and how he used its principles to design and build his earth construction house at Willunga, South Australia.

Ian and family now live in Victoria where he is involved in training in the accredited Permaculture training courses.

Speakers inform, influence and inspire

David Holmgren spoke of a ” …design system coming from permaculture to look at food security in this world of less energy”. Permaculture remains relevant, he said, because “it is about people and food, about connection with nature, tools and community”.

David’s mention of ‘tools’ struck me as interesting. It reminded me of Stewart Brand and Harold Rheingold’s Whole Earth Catalog of the 1970s which focused on access to tools for self-reliant living for the ‘back to the land’ or ‘alternatives’ movement which later influenced permaculture. Just as successive editions of the Catalog made tools accessible and developed a network around itself, so too, I thought, does the sustainability movement and permaculture (which can be the same thing) bring new tools for thinking, sharing information and acting on the world.

David sees permaculture having entered a “new wave” in the new century and spoke of how localisation is the way forward, bringing with it the development of local food economies. As with global warming, ideas spread, he said, and ” …can change things quickly”. If the awakening of the last five or six years continues, David suggested, it could lead to policy change.

This, too, is an interesting point worthy of a little thought. I don’t know if anyone has documented the change in public attitude over that short period, but it seems that climate change, the potential peaking of the oil supply and other topics have come to some kind of maturity as political issues in the past five to six years. Sure, they were there in the 1990s but not with the political presence they now command. For sustainability advocates – and that includes permaculture people – the question is about how we respond to that change and seek to influence public perceptions and political policies.

David went on to say that, “The global to local message is profoundly empowering”, and that it links the local food movement to sustainability and the “economics of happiness”.

Localisation the opportunity, says Helena

The economics of happiness was also a theme of another keynote speaker who has long been an advocate of local food systems in the UK and Australia, Helena-Norberg Hodge (author, Ancient Futures; co-author Bringing the Food Economy Home).

Helena Norberg-Hodge from the International Society for Ecology and Culture spoke at the community gardens' network conference. Helena is a local food advocate who has promoted community supported agriculture in the UK and the development of local food systems in Australia..

Helena Norberg-Hodge from the International Society for Ecology and Culture spoke at the community gardens’ network conference. Helena is a local food advocate who has promoted community supported agriculture in the UK and the development of local food systems in Australia..

After three decades of educating, campaigning, writing and developing new components of localisation (Helena was influential in the establishment of Byron Bay’s weekly farmers’ market) she come to the conclusion that “the emerging localisation movement” can influence public opinion and shape government policy.

“The economics of happiness, with the cultivation of community cultures of place, are essential to combating terrorism. The consumer monoculture destroys biodiversity and people’s self-respect”, she told an enthralled audience.

Global communications enables carbon-free speakers

In keeping with the carbon-neutral objectives of the conference, Vendana Shiva spoke from Delhi by audio link and the UK Federation of City Farms Mike Marsden appeared “from the snowy northern UK” on a large screen via video phone, his talk illustrated by a synchronised Powerpoint presentation projected on an adjacent screen.

If the world chooses a reduced-carbon pathway with less international travel, and if we are to retain effective global communications, then such technologies will have to become better developed and commonplace as well as cheap, very reliable and ported to handheld devices such as mobile phones. Their use at the conference may thus turn out to be a harbinger of the future and the conference organisers are to be congratulated in deploying these new technologies rather than flying overseas speakers to Melbourne.

Workshops – too many to attend

There were workshops aplenty.

Su Dennet from Melliodora, not far from Melbourne at Hepburn Springs, gave a succinct run down on the many different ways of improving food security at home through preserving, bottling, drying and so on.

Understandably for a conference in which food was a theme, the workshop was packed.

The Illawarra and Sydney food fairness alliances teamed up with Wollongong City Council’s sustainability educator, Vanessa John, to explain their missions and activities. Council employs staff to focus on food security in the region.

The enviable record of Cultivating Community

Cultivating Community CEO, Ben Neil, described how the work of the association has grown to include 20 community gardens, two food cooperatives in low income areas and the school-based garden-to-kitchen program.

Cultivating Community, the Victorian end of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, employs a number of people to work in assisting public housing residents develop community gardens for local food production on their estates. They also assist non-estate community gardeners and were involved in the Collingwood College school-garden-to-kitchen program with local chef and author, Stephanie Alexander.

Cultivating Community is now developing its own school-garden-to-kitchen program in which students grow, harvest, prepare, cook and eat the food they grow at school.

Tours to inspire

Tours offered the choice of visiting either school or community gardens.

Evident was the high productivity and good order of the public housing estate community gardens supported by Cultivating Community, gardens which are farmed mainly by immigrant peoples.

Oh, yes – the food, the places, the people

Let me tell you how good and inspiring the annual CERES Harvest Festival was on Sunday, the last event of the week. There, I met the CERES Food Project crew and was rewarded with home made baklava and dalmados just for taking their photo for Community Harvest – the journal of the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network.

I sampled a home made red brewed by an Italian gardener from CERES allotment garden and enjoyed a rather filling Harvest Festival feast featuring foods representative of the ethnically-diverse people who come into CERES. Conspicuous were the Seed Savers’ Network’s Jude and Michel Fanton, buzzing around pointing their video camera at anything interesting as they set out on their new careers as video producers.

And let’s not forget the sumptuous morning and afternoon teas and lunches prepared by different caterers each day, and the conference dinner at Lentil as Anything, adjacent to Collingwood Children’s Farm. Lots of varied food and no fixed prices — you pay what you think the food is worth. Yes, it’s a café run on trust.
There was also the conviviality of impromptu meals at places such as the Vege Bar in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, with the crew from the Illawarra — including Dan Deighton and his wild bunch of school and community garden designer-builders.

Melbourne Slow Food people were there too, and they came on the bus tour of community food gardens. After the tours, we finished the conference on Saturday night with a party at Veg Out Community Garden in St Kilda, an exuberant place that combines food production (including cooking in the big wood-fired oven they built), the works of gardener-artists dotted through the allotments and the conviviality of good company. Unfortunately, they had none left of the crisp vintage they bottle under the Veg Out label, made partly from grapes grown in the garden and with the support of a friendly Yarra Valley vigneron.

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