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PacificEdge | October 17, 2017

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Let’s make farming cool

Let’s make farming cool
Russ Grayson

IF YOU ARE ASKED to describe Jo Baker and you say that she is tall, blonde, slim, intelligent, articulate, well dressed and very knowledgeable about Australia’s food system, you get full points.

It was the latter quality that brought more then 40 people together at Transition Bondi’s weekly gathering to hear Jo talk about the organisation she co-founded, the Youth Food Movement, and the watch the video, Greenhorns, about young farmers in the US. It’s a movie with with a positive tone and it’s inspiring.

Jo met the producers of Greenhorns while on a nine country ‘pilgrimage’ looking at food initiatives last year. “Surly there are farmers like that in Australia”, she said. In a country where the average age of farmers is 55 or more, I could think of only a couple that I knew of. But, as Jo speculated, surely there are more.

And that stat about our farmers’ average age — what does that mean for what happens to all that land they farm when they retire? Will it become incorporated into larger farms as the Productivity Commission pointed out is already happening, with farm production increasingly concentrated on larger farms with a comparative few of them accounting for the majority of output while many farms account for only a small share of national agricultural production? Let’s put it this way: over the 20 years before 2003, farm numbers in Australia declined by around one quarter (Productivity Commission 2005, Trends in Australian Agriculture, Research Paper,Canberra).

Let’s make farming cool
For Jo and her colleagues, farming needs be made to look cool if it is to attract a younger cohort with ideas as innovative and fresh as the food they would produce. One way to do that, said Jo, is to build the buyer base that would support a new generation of young farmers. And that’s what the Youth Food Movement is doing in improving the food literacy of the 6000 or so people it connects with mainly through social media an at events.

“Young farmers are our greatest hope for change as are young consumers”, she said.

A social media strategy supplemented by events is proving a successful combination, as the Pedal Powered Video Night at Sydney Food Connect’s depot in Rozelle proved (Sydney Food Connect is a community supported agriculture scheme supplying urban eaters with food produced mainly in the greater Sydney food bowl, the farmland close to the city — sydney.foodconnect.com.au).

“The event was so successful that tickets soon sold out and we had to turn away about 250 people at the door”, said Jo.

Then there are the RideOnLunch events where participants bicycle from food venue to venue, stopping at the last for lunch. I recall doing a talk for one such tour at the Chippendale footpath food gardens and being impressed with their pedal-powered fruit blender mounted on a bike carrier by which they turned oranges into juice for their break in Peace Park.

The not-so-secret secret to building a strong Youth Food Movement and getting young people back onto the land is, according to Jo, to frame food issues in engaging ways. That way, you get people’s attention. It seems that you also get people wanting to reproduce your movement. There have been requests to set up branches from different regions of the country and the Youth Food Movement is currently thinking about how best to go about this.

And engage with people is just what Jo and her colleagues did in asking people to brainstorm ideas to popularise farming among young people and to build a strong, land-based youth food industry.

Suggestions included:

  • getting around the high cost of farmable land by introducing something like the HECS scheme (HECS is a tertiary education funding scheme for students); those obtaining farming startup funds needed to buy land and equipment and make a start would pay back the loans when they started to generate sufficient income
  • for training new farmers, what about something akin to an apprenticeship scheme with experienced farmers?
  • to ease people into a farming livelihood there was the suggestion of part time farming and a scheme to make small areas of land available through a rental scheme; it was pointed out that many people today have a number of part time jobs and farming a small area could become one of them
  • working holidays on farms — farm camps — was another idea for acquainting people with the farming life
  • similarly to the internet-enabled community-based sharing economy, known as the collaborative economy or collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer sharing of farm machinery could be instituted
  • farms in schools was another suggestion
  • the Landshare model, which presently links people with land to spare with those wanting land to grow food in in urban backyards might be extended to farming scale.
  • getting around the high cost of farmable land by introducing something like the HECS scheme (HECS is a tertiary education funding scheme for students); those obtaining farming startup funds needed to buy land and equipment and make a start would pay back the loans when they started to generate sufficient income
  • for training new farmers, what about something akin to an apprenticeship scheme with experienced farmers?
  • to ease people into a farming livelihood there was the suggestion of part time farming and a scheme to make small areas of land available through a rental scheme; it was pointed out that many people today have a number of part time jobs and farming a small area could become one of them
  • working holidays on farms — farm camps — was another idea for acquainting people with the farming life
  • similarly to the internet-enabled community-based sharing economy, known as the collaborative economy or collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer sharing of farm machinery could be instituted
  • farms in schools was another suggestion
  • the Landshare model, which presently links people with land to spare with those wanting land to grow food in in urban backyards might be extended to farming scale.

The hidden presence of the past
The brainstorm was a lively feature of the evening and as it progressed I was reminded of past initiatives similar to some of those suggested. It was clear that many of those present didn’t know of these attempts of the recent past and it made me wonder how often we try to reinvent something without knowing that it had once existed.

Take the idea of farms in schools. Since the mid-1990s there has been a move to starting food gardens in school grounds. The longest running in Australia, at Black Forest Primary in Adelaide, is over 30 years old and links with curricula content. The idea started to take off when Brisbane teacher, Carolyn Nuttall, wrote The Childrens’ Food Forest in the early 1990s, based on her experience in developing a food forest with her students. New Zealander, Robina McCurdy popularised the idea in the mid-1990s and it was spread initially through people active in the permaculture design system before getting a life of its own.

For decades now we have had the WWOOFinf scheme — Willing Workers on Organic Farms — providing both rural working holiday and farm learning opportunities.

As for training new farmers, it was just a coincidence that I had been speaking on social media just that afternoon with Milkwood Permaculture, based in the Mudgee district, to congratulate them on making new market gardening internships available. I suggested that enticing young people into a farming life was the best thing they could do and was more important than the permaculture design and other courses they offer.

The brainstorm also threw up the idea of making small areas of land available for food production through a rental scheme. What the person suggesting this didn’t know was that, when it was based near Tyalgum in northern NSW, the Permaculture Institute had done just this through their Commonworks scheme. I recall visiting the Institute a number of times and seeing the fish farm in a big farm dam, the market garden, bamboo aboretum and free range chook system in operation.

Although the Commonworks didn’t endure, possibly, in part, because of its distance from markets such as Murwillumbah, it served as a prototype of the idea of making land available for part time livelihoods in farming.

For Jo, her role in leadership of the Youth Food Movement is an enhancement of her formal training as a nutritionist. What she says in this regard is interesting — that education in nutrition fails to take into account the origin of the foods nutritionists recommend.

For all of us at this most interesting and engaging of Transition Bondi gatherings one of the take-aways was not just the delicious meal made of Sydney region farmers’ produce but the knowledge that a new, young cohort, the Youth Food Movement, is set to reinterpret food issues for modern times and to lead us along new, innovative and edible paths to a fresh food future.

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