There is one issue that is becoming increasingly apparent to those in the front line of food production in Australia – there aren’t enough growers in Australia; their average age is close to 60, 60% will retire in the next 5 years, and there are precious few real farmers being trained and provided with pathways to grow the food we eat. Have a look around at the average age of the genuine farmers (not the resellers) at your local farmers’ market and you will see what I mean. Our agricultural colleges are proudly training “agri-buisness executives” as fodder for the industrial food system, and the bulk of these couldn’t grow a tomato if their lives depended on it.
As a result Australia is simultaneously a food-importing nation and a bulk food commodity-exporting nation. What does this mean? We export predominantly bulk grains and meats as commodities, and import most of our fruits, vegetables and processed foods – the things we actually eat. Losing our farmers and importing foods means it is increasingly difficult to buy locally, seasonally and to savour the diversity that our regions can and ought to offer.
What is to be done? Well a small group of local growers are taking direct action and taking on interns. The interns are being experientially taught the art and science of growing good food and some are learning how to be a field to fork producer. Allsun Farm at Gundaroo, Mulloon Creek Natural Farms between Bungedore and Braidwood, and Mountain Creek Farms at Uriarra have started the process and more farms are keen to join in. The idea is quite simple; have a selection process that chooses the best of an enthusiastic group of wannabe farmers and have them work side by side with you for three months or more depending on the crop or produce. This gives the interns a taste of what is in store for them if they opt for growing food as a life choice.
One area where all training programs fail (there are no exceptions in Australia) is in providing pathways for the graduates to follow. “We’ve shown you how to do it, now it’s up to you” is not feasible or realistic in an industry that requires a minimum of a million dollars to set up shop. So we are working on a system that will facilitate the access to periurban land at peppercorn rents so that the interns can put their skills to work without the massive financial burden associated with farming in Australia. From little things big things grow.
So what has this got to do with good clean and fair food for all? Everything. Good clean and fair food is produced by good clean and fair farmers. Without them our food choices and gastronomic delights are severely diminished. Those farmers who honour the soil to produce good food, honour you with their produce, and the way to close the loop is support these same farmers.
Michael Croft is a farmer specializing in rare breeds and Slow Food Canberra joint Convivium Leader.