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Bendigo Adventures – Growers and Eaters Forum 2012

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Well, what a day.  Today I stumbled out of bed at 5am and tripped on down to Bendigo for the Growers and Eaters Forum 2012.  There were inspiring and informative speeches, I met some great people and had a delicious lunch!  Here are some of my notes and reflections on the day.

Michael Ableman started off the day.  I have to admit before I heard him speak, I had no idea who this guy was or why he’s so special.  Having heard him talk, I recommend you take any opportunity you can to meet him, or hear him present.  While he was talking, gospel-like murmurs started running through the crowd, people were nodding their heads in approval and were obviously moved by the stories he told.  Enthusiasm in the group was as crisp as the apples we had for morning tea.  True to the nature of Farmers, they stubbornly refused to run on time, and stopped Ableman from leaving the podium when his time was up.

And so they should have.My new idol

Here is a man who weaves landscapes with his words so vivid you can feel them.  From the cliffs of Jamaica to Foxglove farm in British Columbia, Ableman brought his passion, his experience and his knowledge to life.  His dedication to this area is kind of mind blowing, as are his achievements.  Not only that, but after lunch I said hello and turns out he’s also a total charmer!

Today we heard about two problems in society – neglected land, and neglected people.  Ableman is finding inspiring ways to reinvigorate them both. He brushed on some big ideas relevant to Australia including ‘feedback loops’.  The consequences that come back to us from our lifestyle choices, and the way that Australia as an island, and human kind as an island cannot escape these. It should be something at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and there certainly are already some inspiring examples of changing these loops – take A Plastic Free Year for example.

According to Ableman, ‘stories we tell ourselves allow us to accept the things we believe we cannot change.  These issues then become invisible, like wallpaper.’ He says that by doing this, we stop looking for alternatives and stop ourselves from seeing other possibilities.  One of the first things that came to mind when I heard this, was the Carbon tax.  Now I’m no expert on the topic but so much of the opposition to the tax seemed to come from the industries that would have to change.  These are the industries that are built into our economy, and that feel comfortable thanks to the dependence we currently have on them.  For some people the fact that things are and have been like this for ages, stops them from seeing the chance we have to create new positive systems. Yes it’s a big job to change…but it doesn’t mean we CAN’T.Everyone outside for Lunch

Something that I’ve started to come across more and more lately is the idea of taking responsibility for yourself – and I mean on a big scale.  It’s often called the survivalist movement.  I know this seems like an unrelated tangent, but it’s really not.  Recently I read a book called Emergency by Neil Strauss (he’s the guy who wrote The Game), and it wasn’t what I expected.  It was mostly the story of his progression into a paranoid American trying to find as many ways as he could to prepare for some kind of apocalypse.  To be honest, I kind of dismissed the book as unrealistic and not very helpful.  But after reading the book, survivalist ideas have cropped up again twice this week.  First I heard about them here, when I was listening to an episode of Big Ideas on ABC Radio National and secondly, from Michael Ableman today, albiet in a smaller capacity.  The basic idea is, that in an emergency situation like a natural disaster, no one is coming for at least the first 72 hours.  All you have to rely on is your community, your resources, and yourself.  Are any of us prepared for that?  Translate this to the food sector – any instability, disturbance or disruption, and what would we do without the supply we take for granted?

This comes down to the greater problem – that there are simply not enough people involved in producing our food.  According to Ableman, only 2-3% of the population is currently producing all of the food for the rest of us. This is all happening while Australian wages have risen up to 70% and farmer’s wages have decreased by 40%.  Food input costs continue to rise, while the value of food does not. How can we take for granted that this small group will continue to shoulder our heavy burden, when there are not any obvious economic incentives for them to do so?

Monopolies like Coles and Safeway stay competitive by dropping prices.  They do this by simplifying and working in volume. Selected suppliers need to get bigger quickly, and everyone who cannot satisfy this need or is not chosen to, is out of the race.

Dessert!The solution needs to be supporting smaller scale, local and independent growth.  We need to find a way to get people on the land and keep them there.  Things are changing, with 150 farmers markets around Australia and 70 of these in Victoria alone.  But it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be all about the farmers.  At the beginning of the 1800s, people spent around 90% of their time earning their food.  Nowadays, it’s about 17%.  Yes, this sort of system allows us time to have an education, to better ourselves and therefore our society, but convenience is ruling our lives.  The corners we cut by buying cheap, mass produced food  are coming back to bite us in the butt.  And they’re going to bite hard.

There is the problem of course that many people can’t afford to shop at organic farmer’s markets. But that shouldn’t be seen as an excuse – we should see it as an opportunity to build capacity. Today I met a lady who gives workshops in the Ashwood College Permaculture Garden, focusing on doing exactly that.  She teaches people who don’t have enough to eat how to grow their own food, and begin to support themselves.

I also saw Jamie Oliver speak in Melbourne last month, and something he said stuck with me.  He said that he’s never met a child who was involved in the growing and cooking of a vegetable who wouldn’t eat it.  Another point he made was that many poorer families or individuals simply lack the knowledge to shop for, prepare, and serve their familier healthy and nutritious food.  Oliver believes that food and cooking classes should be as mandatory as Maths and English in our schools and today Ableman suggested the same for learning about land and producing food. Should we be looking at a whole revolution of our education system?  Are we already moving towards this, with programs like Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation? I can’t wait to see what else is going to come out in the next few years.

There are amazing steps being taken, but the crux of it comes down to Michael’s closing point: That revolutions can be talked about online, but they cannot be manifested there.  Hands on participation is vital for our farmers, our food, our health and our planet.  The best bit is it’s not hard to take that first step!  There is so much support out there, regardless of whether you’re a complete novice or already a greenthumb. And you’ll feel it, once your hands are in that soil.  The connection to something big.  To something powerful.

As another one of the speakers Katie Finaly said, “I’m a farmer, because I love what I do.”   Farming, and providing people with the food they need is a noble and amazing thing.

If you wonder why I blog about food so much – go outside, dig a hole and plant something in it. When you see the results, you’ll find that connection I’m talking about.  When you take it inside and cook it, you’ll the find the joy I’m talking about.  And when you serve it to the people you love, you’ll feel the pride and the satisfaction and just like me, you’ll never want to stop.

I really had an incredible day, and feel inspired by what I heard today.  I hope I’ve managed to share some of that with you, and if you’re interested in learning more get on the Slow Food Melbourne website.  They’re a great group of people – thanks for a wonderful day!