Network big on growing your own food - and optimism

Karleigh O’Connor (22), left, and Emma Lunniss (23) check vegetables at McArthurs Berry Farm Outram’s stall at the Otago Farmers Market at Dunedin Railway Station. Photos by Linda Robertson.
Karleigh O’Connor (22), left, and Emma Lunniss (23) check vegetables at McArthurs Berry Farm Outram’s stall at the Otago Farmers Market at Dunedin Railway Station. Photos by Linda Robertson.
Wild Smokehouse owner Joe Ruka demonstrates his products at Otago Farmers Market.
Wild Smokehouse owner Joe Ruka demonstrates his products at Otago Farmers Market.

Local food has become fashionable in the past decade or so with initiatives popping up in all sorts of places. Farmers markets and community gardens are but two of its obvious manifestations, Charmian Smith writes.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith

When you think about local food you first think about distance, but local food is more than just eating something that comes from within 100km of where you live, according to Andy Barrett of Our Food Network Dunedin.

The network emerged out of forums in 2012 and 2013 and is a group of people interested in promoting local food. It has a Facebook page and email contact list to let people know what is going on, such as community harvests and plans to set up a seed saving network, the former academic-turned-small organic farmer explains.

''Local food touches on all sorts of important aspects of our lives. It touches on things like community and how food can operate as something that actually connects people,'' he says.

''It's also about food rights. How can we actually ensure that all of our citizens have access to good healthy food?

''It's also concerned about the local economy. For example, if we had a vibrant local food industry what might that mean in terms of holding and circulating more money within the community rather than having that money dispersed elsewhere?''

For many people, local food also has to do with things such as knowing how their food is produced and what effects its production has on the soil, water and the place it is produced, as well as animal welfare issues, he says.

But what is often forgotten is that local food is also about growing your own. This is one of the strongest movements now.

''You only have to look at NZ Gardener magazine. Back in the 1990s it was all about pot plants on your patio. Now it's all about how you can convert your lawn to growing vegetables.

''Growing your own gives you some sort of ground for feeling optimistic about things. There's nothing better than going out in your garden and looking at a cabbage you've grown and knowing these things are good for us, and it's actually reminding us we live in a world now which is so highly mediated the whole time. It's one way you can be fully in touch with something that's absolutely real and important to our lives in the most basic sense: you till the soil, you plant the seed, you harvest the food and you eat it.''

Because some people may not have backyards to grow vegetables, he would like to see a landshare scheme where people offer to garden someone else's patch and share the produce. However, he warns it's important to make sure the soil you are using is not contaminated.

But domestic and community vegetable plots and micro producers are not going to produce enough food to feed the local population and there are very few medium-sized producers left in the region.

Ironically, just as consumer interest is growing in local food, established market gardens are closing. It may be the cost of land but Barratt thinks the main reason is that farming is not attractive to young people.

''Getting young people to grow things as fulltime farmers or market gardeners is very difficult internationally. Most are going to say 'I can earn 10 times as much being a website designer or corporate lawyer'. A lot of younger people enter the workforce already with a debt hanging round their neck so they are already struggling, so why would you be encouraged to go into something that is hard work, that is risky and which doesn't offer necessarily very good rewards,'' he asks

''The commodity economy and the move towards consumer culture has been a race to the bottom. You just keep pushing the food prices down to the point where even for large operators the margins are absolutely minuscule, so you've got to produce 10,000 cabbages to make enough money to make it worth your while.''

A move back to mixed farming, which is happening in the United Kingdom, is something he'd like to see here.

''Sooner or later we are going to have to give up these monocultures and think about how we get integrated farming systems. For example, with dairying, there's no problem with having dairy cows but there is a problem with having all dairy cows and nothing else and on massive scales.''

He believes we need to think about the choices we make and realise that we may need to pay more for our food to ensure it is local, fresh and sustainably produced.

But there are many people who simply can't afford to spend more on food, and others are pressed for time and rely on the convenience of supermarkets.

''A lot of people involved in local food like me are real idealists but you realise you are pushing water uphill. At the moment all the impetus is going the other way. We have to realise we aren't going to change the world tomorrow, but I do think local food could be one of the pressure points that leads towards what I would consider to be change for the better.''


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