This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
I believe I’ve mentioned that the gardens here at the Cottage are very good at growing weeds. I’d been working hard to get rid of them up until a couple of months ago when I decided to stop enforcing my idea of order on this patch of earth and work with nature a little more closely. That meant leaving some weeds in place to protect the soils and provide habitat for the creepy-crawlies that will help my garden to grow. So although the mirror-bush seedlings are yanked out as soon as they appear, lesser weeds are allowed to grow where other plants won’t and I started thinking about what makes a plant a weed and wondering what I could do with what the land was providing. So I got to reading, and realised that (along with the fennel) two of my garden weeds were perfectly edible: dandelions and stinging nettles.
Does this look like dinner? Dandelion & fennel from my weedy garden.
I started with the dandelions first, partly because there were more of them, but largely because the stinging part of stinging nettles concerned me. I took to plucking the young dandelion leaves and adding them to my backyard garden salads, pleasantly surprised by the flavour. They taste all green and zingy, something like a cross between rocket (arugula) and nasturtium leaves. Definitely edible, dandelion greens are now part of my culinary world.
The nettles I was less sure what to do with, until Rohan over at Whole Larder Love wrote about making nettle pesto (and if you don’t read Rohan’s blog already, you should. He’s awesome). I was sold on the idea with pesto. All I had to do was let the nettle patch grow until I had enough to try. Then the idea hit: why not mix the nettles with dandelion greens, and throw in some of that fennel that comes up everywhere too? Pest pesto: I had to make it a reality, and so I did.
Nasty spiky stinging nettles: surely not destined for dinner?
I collected all the young dandelion leaves I could find and pulled up fennel seedlings from the front garden, then I donned my trusty gardening gloves and plucked all the nettles (and still managed to sting myself somehow). The ‘lion leaves and fennel were simply washed and chopped, but the nettles needed de-stinging. I simply boiled the kettle and poured the hot, hot water over the spiny things and was hit by the most amazing smell! Like spinach, but earthier, and my senses were telling me most definitely edible! I gingerly poked at the blanched greens to confirm successful de-stinging, then chopped those up too and got on with the pesto-making.
A few cloves of garlic, a good slug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt, pepper and a handful of sunflower seeds later, I had a jug of pest pesto ready to go. Conveniently, it was lunch time, so I threw some gluten-free pasta in the pot, chopped up some other tasty bits and stirred through a couple of generous spoons of my weedy green goo. The verdict? Delicious! Next time though, more nettles and less dandies.
Now I’m waiting for enough nettles to come up to make a second batch. Instead of pulling out the bastards when they pop out of the soil I leave the nettles be and dream of meals to come. From pest to prime ingredient, who’d have thought it?
Hey presto, it’s pest pesto!
Here are a few more benefits to be had from the weeds in your veggie garden:
- Legume weeds like clover add nitrogen to the soil, making more nutrients available for your plants.[1, 2]
- Plants with deep tap roots, like dandelions, break up compacted soils and help your veggies dig themselves in deeper. [3, 2]
- Spiky or pungent weeds can act as pest control, keeping furry and insect nibblers away. [1, 4]
- Some weeds, particularly native species, help to attract beneficial insects into the garden. [1,4]
- Weeds provide vital cover on what would otherwise be bare soils, retaining moisture and adding organic matter, as well as preventing soil compaction and erosion. [3, 2]
- Weeds can confuse pest insects by making it harder for them to find your tasty target plants. 
- Left to grow and then pulled before seeding, weeds can be a free source of mulch and compost. [5, 3]
- Manageable “nice” weeds can out-compete nastier weeds that are harder to control. I’ll take dandelions over thistles any day! 
And of course, leaving selected weeds be means less work for me, and another reason to avoid using herbicides in the garden. A free meal, better soil, happy bugs and more free time? Sounds rather sustainable to me!
What weeds have you learnt to live with, and why?
 Wikipedia on beneficial weeds
 Cocannouer JA (1950) Weeds: Guardians of the Soil; The Devin-Adair Company; Connecticut, USA
 Dave’s Garden Guide
 Hillocks RJ (1998) The potential benefits of weeds with reference to small holder agriculture in Africa; Integrated Pest Management Reviews 3, 155-167
 Gardening Organic UK
It’s early spring here in southern Tasmania; no doubt about it. The bulbs have pushed their green fingers through wet soil, the daffodils have thrust their cheerful faces towards the sky and the garden is gently unfurling itself, seeking the warming sun. The nights are still chilly but the days are lighter and warmer, and this weekend the first bees appeared, contentedly buzzing among the bright blue flowers of my borage.
It’s the lean season in the garden: winter crops of brassicas are going to seed and falling victim to the aphids that manage to appear out of nowhere. My spring greens, freshly planted, are little more than shoots and sprouts and the summer veg still lie in coiled potential within their seeds, sleeping in the warmth of my tiny greenhouse. The lack of local produce at this time of year can be felt at the grocery store and at the market. Winter root vegetables are past their best, with potatoes threatening to sprout in the cupboard and parsnips turning woody. There’s still kale about, but after 4 months of kale feast I’ve had my fill until next winter. At my local grocer the shelves are stocked with eggplant from north Queensland ($14 a kilo!), strawberries from Western Australia and green beans from somewhere in northern New South Wales. It’s all food that’s travelled a long way from market, by boat or plane, or spent months in cold storage, before it reaches our plates.
Me, I like to eat fresh local produce that reflects the seasons. There’s a whole load of good reasons to do this:
- Local food gets to you sooner, so the food is fresher, tastes better and has peak nutrient content.
- It’s more energy efficient, as less energy has been used to store and transplant the food.
- Seasonal growing also requires fewer resources as we’re working with nature: no lighting, no heating, less fertilizers, less pesticides and less irrigation.
- Seasonal eating allows us to taste the changing seasons and be more connected with the world around us.
- It supports local growers and brings local products to market, improving food security and helping to build community.
- It’s cheaper, as you’re not paying for the transport, storage, and other resources, plus you can grow a lot to eat yourself!
So what to eat in Hobart in September, when the pickings are slim and the shops full of imports? It turns out that there’s quite a lot! Between my little garden and Farm Gate Market I’m managing surprisingly well. You just might need to broaden your definition of vegetables to get the most out of early spring. A 10 minute forage in my still-establishing garden yielded the array of tasty goodies pictured above:
- The last tiny shoots of sprouting broccoli, surprisingly sweet and just bite-sized.
- Delicate fronds of salad burnet, rapidly unfurling new spring growth.
- The first pickable leaves of oak lettuce, a self self-sown surprise in the berry bed.
- The last few leaves of my winter crop of rocket (arugula), now in full flower.
- “Rocketini” – the whole seedling thinnings from the spring crop of rocket – densely packed with nutrients and flavour.
- Soft new leaves of the nasturtiams - such a lovely peppery taste.
- A few sprigs of salad-friendly herbs: coriander shoots, sea celery and deep green mint.
- a beautiful selection of edible blooms: bright yellow kale, maroon and cream rocket, borage blue and the cheery orange of nasturtiam.
Edible flowers are one of my favourite spring garden things, and this evening’s pickings turned my garden fresh salad into a delicious, nutritious work of art. With the addition of avocado donated by a friend with a bumper crop, some baby radish greens* from the incredible new season radishes I picked up at the Market (thanks Provenance Growers!), some Huon Valley smoked salmon and a splash of local raspberry vinegar for dressing, everything on my plate this evening came from this little isle and most of it came from my back yard, a new patch that’s only just beginning its kitchen-garden journey.
That said, I still find myself yearning for a glossy dark eggplant (aubergine) or a bright red capsicum (bell pepper). I grew up in Queensland where European veg grows through the winters and summers are full of south-east Asian flavours, but I have learnt that the well-travelled specimens that grace our southern shores are a poor echo of the flavours I’m dreaming of. Better off waiting for the long days of late summer, when the locally grown stuff appears and life is Mediterranean-flavoured. For now I’ll celebrate the flavours of Tasmanian spring in all its fresh green glory, and preserve the few excesses of the season to flavour the summer to come.
Want to know what’s in season where you are? There are lots of great, region-specific seasonal food guides available on-line, or wander down to your local produce market and see for yourself!
* Yes, radish leaves are perfectly edible! So are beetroot leaves. Both can be used as salad or lightly stir-fried but the youngest, freshest leaves are best.
The lovely Pauline Mak recently requested that I discuss the science behind my opposition to the FV Margiris “super-trawler” in a little more detail. Specifically, she quite rightly asked me to explain why I felt the quota was unsustainable given that respected fisheries scientists like Professor Colin Buxton and Dr Bob Kearney have spoken out in defence of the quota. If I’m going to cite my science degree to claim an informed perspective on the super-trawler issue I really ought to be backing it up with facts!
> You can read my original entry here.
First off, let me clarify that I am not a fisheries scientist. I’m an aquatic ecologist who specialised in freshwater systems and integrative ecology. Once upon a dim, dark undergraduate past I studied fisheries science before deciding that messing about in rivers was much more my thing. Fish ecology and aquatic ecosystems are, however, things I’m passionate about and I’d like to think I’m reasonably well-informed. Plus being a systems/integrative ecologist I’m trained to think in terms ecological interactions and broader ecosystem changes, which I think is relevant to the Margiris case.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
The quota currently set for the Margiris is 18 000 tonnes, or 7.5 % of the total estimated population of jack mackerel and redbait. Is this sustainable? My honest answer is: possibly.
7.5 % is a very conservative quota. For many fisheries a quota around 10 to 15 % is considered sustainable, and for some quickly reproducing species in productive waters, takes of up to 30 % may be managed. The species to be targeted – jack mackerel and redbait – are fairly short-lived species that do breed quickly and have bounced back from previous fishery activity, suggesting the populations are fairly resilient. On the face of things, 7.5 % seems ok, but when I think about it a little more, concerns start to surface.
The first big worry is where the stock estimates come from. Some of the data used to set the fishery quota dates back to studies done in 2002-2004. Normally, the age of the data would not be a concern since there has been no commercial fishing activity in that time, thus no reason for fish numbers to have decreased. Normally: we’ve never really had to think about the impacts of climate change on fish populations before.
Recent CSIRO studies have revealed that fish populations in southern Australian waters are changing in response to climate change, and changing faster than predicted. The ranges of temperate species like jack mackerel and redbait are shrinking. On top of this, tropical species are shifting further south and no one knows yet how the changing species interactions are impacting on predator-prey relationships and marine food webs. Given this environment of rapid, unpredictable change, 8-year old data doesn’t really seem good enough.
Is 7.5 % of an estimated fish population sustainable, in light of the impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems? Uncertain! We simply don’t have the data or ecological knowledge to say for certain, one way or another. Throw in the uncertainties around local fish depletion, the amount and species of by-catch and potential issues regulating the vessel and you start to understand why some scientists are concerned. Sure, the Margiris is unlikely to cause a catastrophic fishery crash but there’s enough uncertainty there to be questioning if the quota poses an acceptable risk.
So what is an acceptable risk? It all comes down to error: Type I or Type II.
We have 2 potential outcomes: the null hypothesis, that the quota is sustainable, and the alternative hypothesis, that the quota is not sustainable. The fisheries science to date suggests that the null hypothesis is correct, but there is a concerning level of uncertainty around that data. What are the consequences if we’re wrong?
|Null hypothesis is true:
Margiris quota is sustainable
|Null hypothesis is false:
Margiris quota is unsustainable
|Reject null hypothesis:
Stop the trawler
|Type 1 error:
Fishery could have sustained quota but remains unfished
Fishery unsustainable and trawler stopped
|Accept null hypothesis:
Allow the trawler
Fishery sustainable and successfully fished
|Type II error:
Fishery exploited beyond sustainable yields
So, if my concerns are false but the trawler is stopped or the quota reduced, a Type I error has occurred, but the consequences of that error are pretty minor. SeaFish Tasmania loses some money, AFMA (www.afma.gov.au ) loses a contract and the Margiris’s European owners lose a potential market selling the catch to Africa. Forty theoretical Tasmanian jobs disappear.
If my concerns are true and the trawler fishery goes ahead as planned, a Type II error has occurred. The consequences here are a little uncertain but potentially much more serious. We could see local fish stock depletion, changes in marine food webs, loss of local predatory fish species, changes in fish communities and impacts on local fisheries. We could see jack mackerel and redbait numbers crash, with unknown ecosystem consequences. It’s not certain to happen. It may not even be likely to happen, but the uncertainty is high enough that I believe it’s a significant risk.
I don’t believe we’ll see an orange roughy scale disaster with the Margiris, but I do believe there are serious risks related to her operations and quota and think we should apply a precautionary approach. Personally, I’d like to see the quota lowered to 5 % with monitoring of fish populations over next 3 years to:
- Confirm stock estimates, including identifying any evidence of shifts in response to climate change;
- Confirm no evidence of localised depletion or loss of genetic diversity; and
- Confirm no resultant shifts in predator populations.
When I take into consideration my other concerns about the Margiris – that she and ships like her have been implicated in fishery collapse in European and African waters, that she is a vector for the spread of marine diseases and invasive species, and that the industrial nature of her operations means she’ll only provide employment for 40 locals – I believe the risks outweigh any potential benefits. Add to that the environmental impact of sending a ship from Europe to operate in Australia for fish to sell in Africa and it doesn’t look sustainable at all; environmentally, socially, financially or ethically.
This is why I still say no. Pauline, I hope this answers your questions!
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.
These days I think most everyone who’s interesting in food – from either a taste or a sustainability perspective – has discovered the benefits of shopping at local farmer’s markets*. Fresh, local produce that tastes great and supports the local community: what’s not to love?
There’s a lot of good information out there about the benefits of shopping at your local market and avoiding the supermarket produce aisles:
- The food is fresher, thus packed with more nutrients and will keep fresh for longer.
- You can get a broader range of varieties, bred for flavour and to suit local conditions, rather than shelf-life and supermarket aesthetics.
- You’re supporting smaller farmers who tend to manage their land more sustainably than the big agri-business growers that supply the supermarkets (where often decisions are made too far away from the land).
- You’re supporting the local economy, investing directly into your own community instead of creating profits for multi-national corporations.
- You’re shrinking your carbon footprint by purchasing food that’s locally grown and in season, avoiding energy use for storage and transport.
These are all very good reasons to consider shopping at farmer’s markets (though there are potential down-sides in terms of global food security, affordability and global distribution of wealth, but that’s a complicated discussion for another day) and what originally got me out of bed on a Sunday morning to head down to Farm Gate, but it’s not the main thing that keeps me coming back.
What keeps me supporting my local market is the sense of community this simple activity builds. Sometimes I’ll wander the market with a friend, making new connections as we meet people they know, but often I’m happy to wander alone and strike up conversations as I go, a question about growing techniques or flavour combinations turning into a connection over shared interests. Over time I’ve come to know a few of my favourite stall holders and growers, learning about their businesses and the passions that drive them to produce small-scale, high quality food.
There’s Ross and Matt with their free-range heritage-breed pork products, who have made me finally understand what the fuss over bacon is about. There’s the amazing Paulette of Provenance Growers, with her near-encyclopaedic knowledge of unusual edibles and native herbs who is enabling my ever-expanding herb collection (and her mum, who keeps me happily supplied with finger limes). Mark of the Naked Carrot and grower of tasty micro-veg has a ready smile and says nice things about my photography, and Masaaki Koyama makes the best sushi I’ve ever eaten (and has cooked for Iron Chef Sakai!).
Through these talented cooks and growers I’ve learnt more about where my food comes from and the challenges local farmers face. I’ve learnt what to do with broad beans and mizuna, eaten purple spuds and slippery-jack mushrooms and ditched growing parsley for the tastier native sea celery. From the market I’m learning what to sow and harvest each season in my own little patch, when dairy goats produce the best milk and how to cook a cassoulet, but more than that I’m making friends with the people who feed me, connecting a little deeper with my local community.
From the corner store to your favourite café, food has an enormous power to draw people together, and no-where have I found that more strongly illustrated than at the market. These days I look forward to catching up with my favourite market people as much as to the delicious produce I’m going to be bringing home.
Have you nurtured a sense of community through food? Got any ideas of how we can connect our communities through food in places without farmer’s markets or where socio-economic drivers keep people away? I’d love to hear about community gardens, co-ops and other projects that grow more than just food and feed more than our bellies.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve finally been able to get a start on the gardens here at the Cottage. What a sorry state they are in! The soil’s horribly compacted and woefully lacking in organic matter (with the exception of last year’s potato bed and a spot where mint had gone feral) and decidedly lacking in worms. There are a few of the lovely crawly things about though, and I noticed lots of tiny little wormlings when I gave the compost a good a stir on Sunday.
Aside from planting out a few potted herbs that desperately needed proper dirt and transplanting some self-sown seedlings I’ve discovered about the place, my gardening activities have largely focussed on weeding. Not your usual keeping-the-garden-beds-clear type work, but serious weeding on the slash-and-burn scale. You see, like many older rental properties my garden is home to grand collection of well established declared and noxious weeds.
What is a declared weed? One that’s listed under relevant legislation banning it from sale and requiring active management to control it’s spread. Here in Tassie it’s the Weed Management Act 1999, and legislation decrees that:
(a) A person must not import, or allow to be imported, into the State any declared weed except with the written approval of the Secretary.
(b) The tolerance level for declared weed seed in imported grain will be 0 seeds per kilogram.
(c) Landowners and managers must take all reasonable measures to control the impact and spread of a declared weed.
(d) A person must not propagate, trade or otherwise distribute declared weeds or anything carrying declared weeds except -
I. transport for purposes of disposal and
II. sale or transport for purposes other than disposal where authorised by the Secretary.
(e) A declared weed must be disposed of in a manner which will not result in further infestation.
(f) A declared weed must be eradicated from areas of the State where this is considered feasible.
(emphasis is mine)
So far I’ve found 4 weed species in my garden that are listed as declared or of concern in Tasmania: fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), mirror bush (Coprosma repens), English ivy (Hedera helix) and cottoneaster (Cottoneaster sp.). It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I’m determined to do my best to get rid of them. The mirror bush is fairly easy: cut it down and paint with poison (likely many times over). The ivy and fennel present more of a problem as they’ll keep coming up from runners and seeds. The cottoneaster I’m afraid I’m going to have to live with, as it’s a 5 m tall tree and felling that is going a little too far as a renter!
It is worth remembering that I rent, when I’m out there labouring away in the garden. Sometimes I think I’m a little insane putting so much hard work into someone else’s garden with no long-term reward. After all, there are reasons weeds are so common on rental properties: they’re hardy, almost impossible to kill and will survive even the most neglectful and brown-thumbed of tenants. When I feel like giving up, though, I remember the impact of weeds on the environment.
Weeds take over, choking both native vegetation and agricultural land. They reduce the habitat available for native animals and often provide a competitive advantage for feral animals. They change the structure and function of an ecosystem, altering soil structure and chemistry, water flows, food chains and biodiversity. Some are poisonous to native animals and livestock: introduced onion weed is causing a horrible liver disease that is killing wombats in the Riverlands. The Australian Government estimates the cost of weeds to agriculture alone at $4 billion per year (cost of control plus lost production). Weeds are bad news!
My first proper job as an ecologist was monitoring the condition of creeks and rivers around Brisbane. It was a frank and depressing education in just how bad weeds can be, with waterway after waterway choked with introduced weeds, the native bank-side vegetation replaced with garden escapes and other ferals. Stopping the spread of weeds matters, and to do that we need to do our best to eliminate sources of seeds and runners. That means:
- Getting informed about what are the problem weeds in your area (your local Council is a good place to start)
- Cutting down and pulling out weeds where possible
- Trimming weed flowers and fruits before they set seed
- Disposing of garden waste properly, instead of dumping it in the bush or other places where seeds can spread
For me, it means I’m going to spend many more hours out in the garden, wrangling the weeds and fighting the never-ending battle against the invaders. I hope you will join me.
Y’know something that really annoys me? Food waste. It could be the many hours I spent working in kitchens to support my studies, or it could just be simple economics, but it riles me.
There’s little sadder than seeing the hard work of our primary producers wind up in the garbage bin, uneaten and unwanted. You’re not just throwing away your own money, but also the labour, water, nutrients, transport and storage that got that food from the farm to you. It’s not just the lost resources either. Food rotting in land fill produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more climate-affecting than CO2. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary waste!
How bad is the problem? I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in Australia we throw out around 7.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. That works out to about $ 7.8 billion in food waste, just looking at sale price alone! 40 % of our average household garbage is food waste – that’s taking out the people who compost – and in some parts of the country as much as 20% of the total food we buy is thrown away. With 30% of our population living below the poverty line how can we afford to waste so much food? I just don’t get it!
Lately I’ve come across a few organisations doing their bit for reducing food waste in Australia by taking the surplus from the fortunate and using it to feed the hungry. Here in Tasmania there’s Produce to the People, who collect the excess from backyard veggie gardens. In the bigger Australian cities groups like OzHarvest, Second Bite, Foodbank and Fare Share collect from supermarkets, restaurants and farms. Similar volunteer groups and food charities are popping up in major cities across the westernised world. These are fantastic programs, helping to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste and redistributing the surplus it to where it’s needed, but I think it’s also important to do what you can on a personal level to ensure you get the most out of the food you grow and buy.
Very little food goes to waste in my house and what does goes back into the system via my compost bin, rather than rotting away as landfill. It does take a certain amount of effort though! I have to think about what I’m buying and make myself cook even when I really don’t feel like it. I buy in smaller quantities and seek out fresher local produce, so have to hit up the shops a little more often, and when I have over-bought or have been too busy to cook I need to come up with creative ways to use up the excess before it spoils (or freeze it until I land an idea later). As a side benefit, getting the most out of my food gives me a little more disposable income to splurge on a nice wine to wash my meals down with, or the occasional gourmet treat!
Here are my favourite methods for using up food and preventing waste:
- Save any sad-looking veggies or edible offcuts for making stock. I have a bag in the freezer that scraps get thrown into as I go, then once it’s full I’ll add some dried mushrooms or the bones from a roast chook and turn it into tasty stock.
- Preserve it! Make sweet sauces from over-ripe fruit, turn a tomato glut into chutney or simply pickle extra veggies for a piquant treat to enjoy when they go out of season.
- Turn extra herbs into pesto, or chop them finely and freeze in small servings for future cooking.
- Freeze cream or plain yoghurt into icecube trays, then add a few cubes to stews or sauces when you need to.
- Poach or bake fruit that’s past it’s best and add it to your morning cereal or enjoy it as a dessert.
- Get creative in the kitchen; challenge yourself to use up everything perishable before buying fresh food and see what you can invent from the odds and ends hiding in your fridge and cupboards (I’ve made some of my favourite meals this way)
- Cook it all up into tasty meals and freeze them in portions for lunches. With a hot home-made curry or stir-fry instead of a sandwich you’ll be the envy of the work lunchroom!
- Share the love: put on a feast for friends or give away food you won’t use instead of letting it go to waste.