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Revitalising Food Systems on the Far South Coast

 

My cousins grew up in Moruya. When we were kids, during the school holidays, my brother, my mum and I would make the drive down from Wollongong to see them, along the South Coast. We had great times together in beautiful surroundings. From the clear beaches and rivers to the rolling mountains around Araluen, the region was a paradise for us as kids.

Yet, my brother and I also became aware that Moruya was a place with problems, especially for young people. Like many towns along the South Coast, it suffered from high rates of youth unemployment. Most young people would leave town after finishing high school (as all of my cousins eventually did) and those who didn’t move out would be left feeling abandoned, disconnected and directionless. Drug abuse was common and, at one period, five of my cousins’ peers committed suicide in the space of two years.

It was, therefore, with great interest that I learned about the SAGE Project, an initiative aiming to revitalise the food systems along the South Coast. In the few short years it has been active, SAGE has been highly successful in generating local employment and strengthening communities. From a ‘forgetten’ regional town, Moruya is now emerging as a major hub (if not the hub) of the local food movement in Australia. I met with Stuart Whitelaw, former President and founding member of the SAGE Project, at his home in Bingie, to learn more about this exciting initiative and what lessons it can offer to other local food movements around the world.

 

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The Moruya Flats were blessed with rich alluvial soil and supported a prosperous rural economy up until as late as the 1960s. The flats were perfectly suited to corn production and the town of Moruya became a hub of the corn market. As Stuart explained, this thriving local food economy collapsed in the late 1960s, when the crop was infested with serious weevil outbreak. In order to combat the grub, farmers heavily sprayed the flats with the now banned pesticide DDT. The lands became so thoroughly poisoned in the process that much of it was deemed unfit for growing food for human consumption. They were left fallow for almost 50 years before a series of tests were able to declare they were safe for use again. They stand as a reminder of the fatal consequences of excessive chemical consumption and the unsustainability of drastic short-term solutions to agricultural problems.

The Moruya Flats

The Moruya Flats

The nearby Tuross Valley suffered similar losses to its local food system, during roughly the same period. In the 1930s, a number of estates had been established as commercial pea and bean farms, which where the major suppliers for NSW. These estates provided hundreds of jobs for the local Aboriginal population and, during peak season, also brought in large numbers of itinerant workers from outside (White, 2010). By the 1960s, however, as production becoming increasingly liberalised, bean growers were forced to compete with other growers from Queensland, which were using more intensive cultivation methods. Unable to work the land so heavily without destroying it, by the 1970s the Tuross bean and pea growers entered into fatal decline. Now the land is used mostly for grazing.

With the corn and bean markets effectively gone, the biggest source of local employment had evaporated and did not recover. Agriculture did continue in the region, but only in the form of dairy farms and large grazing properties, which provide little employment and very small profit margins for farmers. The money that dairy farms generate is extracted further down the supply chain by Woolworths and Coles – they leave little wealth for the benefit of the local community.

 

Origins of SAGE

Stuart Whitelaw, the Chairman of SAGE, moved to the small locality of Bingi, just south of Moruya, in the late 1980s. An architect from Sydney, he was part of a long wave of artists, intellectuals, hippies and dreamers, who moved to the region from the 1970s onwards. Drawn by the natural beauty, relaxed pace of life and relatively cheap land, they sought to establish a new lifestyle for themselves. Many began holistic sustainable farming practices, such as permaculture, and over the years they became an important sub-community within the region.

Before starting SAGE, Stuart joined a local ‘slow food’ convivium that some of his friends had set up in the region. This network sought to realise the ideals of the global slow food movement of establishing integrated agro-ecosystems, promoting a sense of community and developing sustainable local economies. Though they were meeting regularly for quite some time, Stuart ultimately felt that the group was a little insular and limited to a small fringe of people interested in alternative living, as he explained:

The whole idea of slow foods just didn’t resonate with people, at all. They still thought it was casseroles – it was just slow cooking, you know? And it was a bit of a wank, really. There was just twenty of us in the convivium and we’d go to each others’ houses and people would talk about and do stuff that we already knew about. How to make quince paste or some bloody thing. Most of us were already fairly literate in terms of how to grow stuff and how to make stuff.

To make a bigger change, Stuart recognised that the principles of the slow food network would need to be of interest to the mainstream community, and that meant appealing to commercial growers. Thus, in 2008, he and some of these slow food enthusiasts began SAGE in order to offer practical demonstrations of the potential of commercial growing for the local market.

Their first step was to acquire some land to run as a kind of community garden. They found that there was an existing community garden that had been operating on an allotment system. For whatever reason, these gardens had not been successful and had fallen into almost complete disuse. Thus, when the licence for the existing gardens expired, council offered the licence to SAGE, which they enthusiastically took up.

The land, which covered about a third of a hectare, was over-grown with weeds. SAGE hired machines and equipment from council to clear it back and assess what was possible. Despite its dishevelled condition, the land was positioned right in the alluvial flats of Moruya. SAGE suspected that they would not have much trouble growing there, and they were not mistaken.

Rather than follow the approach of their forebears of allowing community members to hire small beds on an allotment basis, SAGE decided to establish the land as a demonstration farm. This would not be a demonstration farm in a conventional sense, however. Although the crops grown on this land would be grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, the point was not to demonstrate the principles of organic farming. The point was to demonstrate the viability of small-scale commercial farming in the region, if the farmer sold their goods to local consumers.

It was demonstrating that there was a dollar in it. In growing local food, for the local market and selling it locally. Not doing it at a scale that you need to do to market through Homebush on wholesale markets.

The point SAGE hoped to demonstrate was that where selling food on wholesale markets worked to the benefit of large farming estates, selling to the local market could be far more profitable for growers with small land holdings. Selling on the wholesale markets, farmers could only secure a tiny fraction of the market price for their goods – the rest was lost in the supply chain. This renders a small operation unviable. SAGE hoped to demonstrate that by selling locally, it was possible for the grower to take up to 95 per cent of the market price, and thereby make a decent livelihood from just a couple of acres of land. It’s worth noting that this is also good for maximising food output from the land, since small farms are generally more productive on a per acre basis than large estates and plantations. They are also almost always more ecologically sustainable.

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The SAGE demonstration farm, Queens Street, Moruya.

The 40-50 initial SAGE members planned out a vision for the farm and collectively set out to implement it. Given the amazing quality of the soils, they were generating successful crops in no time, which they were able to sell to local restaurants, cafés, businesses, SAGE members and anyone else who would buy them. Profits that were made were re-invested on the farm, and when people saw the farm grow based on its own commercial success this had a powerful demonstration effect. After a year, SAGE had grown a garlic crop that earned them over four thousand dollars – money that was used to build a roof for their on-site centre. ‘Four grand just like that, you know’ Stuart explained, snapping his fingers. ‘And people thought “oh shit, that’s money, that’s serious money!”’

More and more people became interested in the gardens. SAGE began running regular workshops to demonstrate methods of small-scale commercial farming and other aspects of food growing and preparation. For a small yearly membership fee, anyone could attend these workshops and gain skills and inspiration to use on their own commercial projects or just for growing veggies for domestic consumption in their backyard. People began to take up the challenge and started planning commercial ventures in agriculture. One SAGE member purchased just 2 acres of land to begin growing vegetables for the local market. He is now earning enough to support his family of four.

 

Game Changer: The SAGE Farmers’ Market

After working at the SAGE demonstration garden for several years, it became apparent that things had hit a plateau. People were enjoying participating in workshops and activities at the garden, and many had begun attempting to grow fresh produce for their families and to sell locally. The problem was that those who had begun growing lacked regular, reliable access to local consumers. At best, they could sell to local restaurants and other small businesses, but this would eventually reach its limit. It was essential to begin building direct relations with consumers and thus the idea of a farmers’ market came into being.

Moruya had already had various markets over the years, but these were not farmers’ markets in the strict sense of the term. Though it was sporting a popular Saturday market, this, for the most part, was selling art and craft goods, with very little food being sold. Furthermore, at the previous markets, many of the food items sold were not produced locally – they were bought from wholesalers or from outside. (Incidentally, this is true of many markets that call themselves ‘farmers’ markets’ throughout Australia).

This was where the SAGE Farmers’ Market would be different. It would be a market exclusively for local food products, so that it could directly serve the purpose of revitalising the local food system. Some strict rules were set in place to prevent the market from straying from this agenda. Of the goods sold at the markets, at least two thirds had to be reserved for primary produce (primarily fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, honey and mushrooms). The remaining third of stalls could sell value-added food goods, such as breads and jams, under the condition that the raw materials used to make their sale items were sourced locally.

Selling locally grown veggies at the SAGE farmers' markets

Selling locally grown veggies at the SAGE farmers’ markets

The timing of the farmers’ markets proved to be a crucial decision. Markets are often held on weekends and in the mornings, but this is not necessarily the time most congruent with the local farming cycle. Growers like to take time off on the weekends like the rest of us, so SAGE decided to put the markets on during the week. More importantly, SAGE wanted the markets to emphasise the importance of freshly picked local produce. Afternoons were thus the ideal time, as it made it possible for growers to sell the produce that they had picked on the very same morning. Furthermore, they did not want to encroach too much on the Saturday market, so felt it was best to place the market sometime in the mid-week. With this in mind, SAGE decided on Tuesday afternoons. The farmers’ markets start at 3pm and are open until 5pm, giving people a chance to drop in on their way home from work or after picking up the kids from school.

The SAGE farmers’ markets have provided an alternative model for local economic development, providing abundant options for self-employment. Where growing for the wholesale market requires large amounts of land and generates very little employment, growing fresh fruit and vegetables for the local farmers’ market empowers people to start their own profitable ventures with even a tiny amount of land. With over 20 stalls being present on average each week, this is a significant contribution to local livelihoods and is helping to revive the concept of local, small-holding, ecologically integrated farming. This is a model of living that has been common to agrarian societies throughout the world, but largely absent in Australia since the time of colonisation, where the focus was always large-scale farms and plantations.

The money being injected into Moruya through the markets is no small potatoes. An economic impact assessment of the markets found that in 2014, more than 1.7 million dollars were spent at the market. In addition to this, it was found that people who came to visit Moruya to shop at the markets were also spending money at other local shops, to a total sum of approximately 1.4 million dollars. The markets have thus made an immediate yearly contribution of more than 3 million dollars to the town and, what’s more, this is money that is more likely to stay and circulate within the town than money spent at Woolworths or IGA.

Demonstrating this economic impact of the markets has been incredibly important in shoring up support. As Stuart explains:

We did that [the economic impact assessment] to try to get the market taken seriously and to show that this local food thing wasn’t just some bloody boutiquey fashion – it was real. And every store that’s there is a job – it’s as simple as that! It’s a full-time job that’s been created out of nothing more than soil and water and somebody’s effort. 

Stuart emphasises, however, that the impact of the markets is not only economic. There is an important social impact, as forming direct relationships with growers helps to build an integrated and cohesive community. In terms of agro-ecological awareness, where Woolworths and Coles give us the impression that food arrives from no-where, buying at the local market gives a clear sense that the food that one purchases has its origins in the local landscape. In this way, the markets help to build a more socially and ecologically mindful community.

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Stuart Whitelaw, grabbing some veggies at the Tuesday afternoon farmers’ market

Importantly, there is much room for the SAGE markets to grow. Demand regularly out-strips supply, particularly in the holiday season, when visiting tourists have often gobbled up the produce within half an hour of the markets opening. There is plenty of space for more markets to be set up, so as more people become inspired to take up their hand at farming and as more existing growers decide to by-pass the wholesale system, we will undoubtedly see the markets expand in the coming years.

There is also room to grow in terms of the appeal of the market to local consumers. Although there has been tremendous interest and the markets are very crowded each week, Stuart estimates that it is less than 5 per cent of the local population who are shopping there. Price may be one deterrent – preliminary investigations suggest that the cost of food at the farmers’ market is on average 20 per cent higher than at Woolworths (yet, buyers at the markets feel that any increase in price is more than compensated for by the taste and freshness of the food). Nonetheless, as word gets out, the appeal of the markets can only increase and an expanded market will mean lower prices. The future prospects of the SAGE farmers’ market are very bright indeed.

 

Keys to Success

Undeniably, the SAGE project has been a great success in terms of encouraging small-scale local food production, generating local employment and creating a sense of community. The markets have become an incredibly vibrant component of Moruya’s cultural life. What’s more, SAGE members claim that there is no reason why their success cannot be replicated elsewhere – and they encourage others to ‘steal their ideas,’ (many of which they have ‘stolen’ from elsewhere).

To my mind, at least 7 factors stand out as being instrumental to the success of the SAGE project:

  1. Having the market and the demonstration farm operating in tandem. The SAGE farm has been so important in bringing the local community together and educating people about how to grow commercially. Yet, if it weren’t for the farmers’ market, it would not have been possible for growers to make a livelihood from the local market – which was the entire point.
  2. Ensuring the market was a farmers’ market in the strict sense. No more than one third of produce sold at the SAGE markets is value added and crafts are not sold there. This ensures that the focus remains on growing food.
  3. Having growers ready-to-go before starting the market. As Stuart explained, ‘you need to start from that basis of growers. If you haven’t got growers, you need to get growers, somehow. And that’s going to vary according to where you are and how the soil is and what kind of options are available to people.’ Without this, it is possible that the markets would have needed to bring in value added goods and crafts just to fill space, compromising its principles.
  4. Implementing good systems to promote participation. Anyone can become a SAGE member for a small yearly fee, and for this they are able to attend all of its workshops throughout the year for free or at a discounted price. This ensures members remain an active part of the project.
  5. Extending beyond the hippie fringe. SAGE is not just for those interested in strictly organic cultivation and alternative ‘permi’ lifestyles. They have not been strict in saying that growers must be growing organic in order to sell at the market, though they encourage stalls to put up signs about their farming practices. The project is fundamentally about generating a livelihood for small growers, which can appeal to all local people who have an interest in farming.
  6. Providing clear demonstrations that the local economy really can support local livelihoods. As Stuart emphasises, this has been ‘the guts of SAGE’s success’: they proved to local people that it was possible to support a family through the produce of just a couple of acres of land, if one sold directly, through the farmers’ markets.
  7. Emphasising benefits through empirical evidence. SAGE has compiled data on the economic and social impact of the project. Numbers often speak louder than words.

Many are taking inspiration from SAGE and beginning similar projects along the South Coast. There are now weekly farmers’ markets being held in Kiama, Ulladulla and Bermagui, all of which have been directly inspired by SAGE’s leadership. This is further bolstering local livelihoods, as growers are starting to travel up and down the coast to sell on these various markets on different days of the week.

Have you had any involvement with the SAGE project or other similar initiatives? What do you see as the potential of farmers’ markets and local food to revitalise ecologies and regional towns throughout the world? Leave your comments in the space below.

 

Visit the SAGE Website

SAGE Project: http://sageproject.org.au/

SAGE Farmers’ Markets: http://sagefarmersmarket.org.au/

 

References

White, J. (2010). Peas, beans and riverbanks: seasonal picking and dependence in the Tuross Valley. In I. Keen (Ed.), Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

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