Ngatha (food) for my soul

For the last 8 years I’ve had the rare and special privilege of visiting a remote community in northeast Arnhem Land called Mapuru, and getting to know the community there. As my body readjusts from daily tops of 34° to the central Victorian winter frosts again, I take a moment to reflect on my limited understanding of the relationship to food and place that I have experienced in the community there.

When we talk about ‘local food’ in the cities and hipster circles, it’s like it’s a new concept, something funky and edgy and somehow morally righteous. But we are seriously behind the times! If we want to learn about truly local and sustainable food in this country, then we need to learn from the indigenous people of our country who hold 60,000 years of existing experience, research, management and knowledge of local food.

The majority of the food we grow in Australia today is food of another land and climate. We’ve adapted them to grow here and suit the exotic tastes of our ancestors’ original homelands, but there is a huge diversity of food plants that already grow here and are native to Australian soils and climates that have been cultivated and eaten for thousands of years.

I can’t speak for my ancestors’ relationship to plants, growing and food because I am so many generations removed from them and that land, but my sense is that in modern times our relationship to food and the growing of it has become fairly superficial. Its about mass production and selling, about nutritional values and calorie counts, markets, transport and storage….

Over the years as I’ve been tip-toeing through the mangroves, sitting by the estuaries and walking through the forests around Mapuru, my adopted mothers, aunties, sisters, children and cousins up there have shown me and patiently tried to teach me another way of relating to each other and to Country. For them there is no separation between distinctions of plants, animals, places and people. Everything is connected in a vast and intricate web of kinship and relationship. An example of this is walking through the pandanus forest with my sister, axe in hand, bare feet stepping quietly and gently over the dried spiky leaves on the ground and her telling me gently how I am related to that place: “This place, you call it waku (son/daughter); that gunga (pandanus tree), you call it mari (grandmother); that green ant, you call it dhuway (husband); and that dog, he’s your ngapipi (uncle).”

After 8 years of getting to know my generous, patient and good humoured adopted family in Mapuru, the kinship system is something I am only just scratching the surface of understanding. It is so vast, all-encompassing and deep that we really have nothing to compare it to or understand it by in our Balanda (western) brains. But what I do understand is that it immediately connects every person to every other person and every other creature and thing on the planet. That connection is one of kinship and with each particular kinship relationship comes certain responsibilities and ways of caring for that family member. This includes the food that is eaten and the way it is cared for, cultivated and shared. It has ensured that over 60,000 years the land has been intricately cared for as a mother, sister, aunty, brother, grandfather, and uncle and in turn it has provided food and shelter to countless generations.

If I started calling carrots my grandmother and cabbages my child, most people around here would think that I was a sandwich short of a picnic, but I think there is some fundamental wisdom here for us to learn from. If we could even begin to just treat one thing—the soil—with the nurture we would give our own child….imagine.

Sas

Gung Hoe Growers
69 Danns Rd Harcourt

An autumn reflection on the summer that wasn’t…

Hi there,

Hope this finds you well out in the world. It’s officially the first week of autumn, but the garden looks like its finally hitting its summer stride…hmmm.

unnamed-5-5I’m very aware that I’m very green (young) in this business of growing food on a productive scale in order to feed the community that surrounds our ‘patch’. And this odd season has definitely got me thinking about it all, again, in a slightly different way. Reflecting this morning on the moment that made me truly wanna do this, I remembered that the feeling of not being able to control the elements was something that I relished. I loved that we had to work with it all, if you fought and resisted it or even worse tried to control it, you would be waging war with something that would never work.

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Ultimately, I still hold this value deep down, but I do have to laugh at myself looking at the moment now. It’s easy to soak up all the extremes when you don’t have to pay rent with tomatoes that were meant to come on 7 weeks ago. I’ve struggled this crazy season, and if people have asked I’ve told them, “It’s a slow season, I want summer to arrive!” I shocked myself by feeling a tiny bit of anger towards the joy people were having towards the mild summer. No, I thought! You don’t understand! We need it to be hot! (I’m not asking for a drought, please don’t misunderstand me!!) Another reaction people had was to look at me as if I was dumb…”Well, that’s farming, isn’t it?” and then they’d walk on their way. I was left standing there wanting to keep talking, but we did everything right, we were on time, we spent a lot of money on the good inputs, the good mulch, the irrigation, the seedlings, dedicated more time to be at the patch…

Haha! unnamed-3-3

Another part of the moment I mentioned before that solidified my desire to keep growing (pun intended) my knowledge, resilience and skills around productively growing food WITH the land is that I cannot deny how much it teaches us about ourselves. Seriously, this whole weather thing has made me look, once again, at how I deal with expectations, control, disappointment, bouncing back, coping techniques, taking a breath (lots actually) and being content with my true place in the world.  It teaches me so much.

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I’m at peace now with the season that was, and kinda wasn’t, and have accepted that these extremes, I think, will just become more and more commonplace. Unfortunately. My job is to learn how to produce food within that reality.

So, happy autumn, and may you listen to the natures around you.

Mel.

Wannabe an organic farmer?

Since we started sharing our farm with the Gung Hoe Growers and their market garden, we’ve suspected that there’s a groundswell of people out there who would love to do what we’re doing – running slightly too small (by commercial standards) organic farms for profit or love.

ggf-facebook-pageSo to test our theory, recently we wrote a post on our Facebook page inviting comments from people who want to be organic farmers or live a self-sustaining lifestyle, asking what’s stopping them? What are the biggest barriers that get in the way of people realising their goals and ‘living the dream’?

Well, what a massive response! We got an outpouring from many people who expressed in equal measure their passion and desire to be growing their own food, along with the frustration and disappointment of how hard it can be to make it work.

Here’s just a selection of what people had to say about…

unnamed-1…their dreams and aspirations:

  • to become semi self-sufficient and trade with others nearby
  • just for home use…I would like to be able to supply family
  • I want to set up an organic/permaculture veggie garden and orchard integrating traditional fruit and vegies as well as bush tucker foods
  • I want to start my own organic market garden, buying land and a house somewhere cheaper, I think I know what I need and have the funds to do it, I just need help with a business plan and would love a mentor. I know what to do, just need support. I love growing organic vegies!
  • It’s a dream to one day have a patch that we can live off sustainably
  • implementing food garden and chooks, animals
  • I want to make a living out of my farm – but I don’t know how

img3494…the biggest challenges and barriers:

  • lack of infrastructure
  • lack of machinery
  • lack of TIME
  • having to work full time to pay for the farm
  • knowing what you want to get out of it
  • knowing what you need to do to get the best return from your soil type
  • understanding how to use organic principles
  • the skills to be water wise and knowing how to improve an old, outdated, inefficient irrigation system
  • weed control
  • pest control
  • compost making
  • setting up networks for support and marketing
  • planning and working with what is there with progression plan
  • structure, fencing, water
METADATA-START
METADATA-START

…the questions people need answered:

  • what can we produce what there is a demand for?
  • how do we know if there will be a market for what we want to grow?
  • how to develop a small farm into a profit-generating enterprise?
  • how do I engage neighbours in productive conversation re spray drift and chemicals in waterways?
  • how do I improve soil as quickly as possible?

…and the wishlist of what people want or need to help them realise their dreams:

  • I need a business plan and a mentor
  • being able to read the wisdom of weeds
  • the money to buy the farm
  • designing farm layout (keyline principles)
  • I need a basic design

Wow. Basically, these guys wrote our life story. We have shared these dreams, asked those questions and felt frustration at all those barriers.

But when we look back over the last 20 years, we’re also incredibly lucky that the pathway that this farm has taken us on has answered so many of those questions. We’ve done courses, read books, had mentors, employed business consultants, done farm planning, done market research, established marketing supply chains and networks, learned to value and understand our weeds, and learned the wisdom of continuously working on improving our soil.

Not that we would ever claim to ‘know it all’ – far from it! After all this time, we’re still learning and evolving. But what we do have is many years of experience, lots of runs on the board, and the successful experiment of Mel and Sas starting a micro-farm at our place, which has opened our eyes to a whole new way of farming, where we can use our land, resources and experience to provide a pathway for a new generation of farmers and food growers.

And judging by the recent outpouring on Facebook, this is just the beginning!blog-2015-08-27-1