Canberra has edge over states to lead the nation in urban agriculture: Regional Development Australia

Dimity May started Reid Tiny Farm this year, as COVID emptied shelves and provided the push she needed. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Dimity May started Reid Tiny Farm this year, as COVID emptied shelves and provided the push she needed. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Supermarket shelves emptied last March, sending Canberrans around town to fill their pantries.

The shift towards small and local suppliers has led a push for the ACT to better invest in its own food production.

The Bush Capital has a unique edge over Australia's other jurisdictions, according to Regional Development Australia, and could lead the nation in urban agriculture if the government prioritised investment.

RDA director Michael Claessens said with just one level of government, Canberra had less red tape to deal with than other jurisdictions.

An urban agriculture movement would also reflect, and assist, the city in meeting nation-leading emissions targets.

He said propping up locally-sourced food would aid the ACT in lowering emissions and provides certainty in a climate crisis.

Canberra was dependent on long supply chains, Mr Claessens said. Coronavirus magnified the issue of having little food close to home.

"Cities need to think beyond the supply chain which is driven mostly by the duopoly of the supermarkets," he said.

The RDA argue supporting urban farmers and backyard gardeners would lessen food insecurity, reduce grocery bills, create at least 3000 jobs and provide a unique tourism opportunity.

Mr Claessens admits it's a long game. To have the ACT produce 20 per cent of its own food would require significant government investment and take at least a decade.

But the movement has begun on a small scale, with more urban farmers popping up throughout Canberra.

"[There are] small urban farms who have been working so hard and not being heard," Mr Claessens said.

"They have proven it, but just need the leg up to deliver much more food locally.

"It's not the purview of hobbyist ... although there is a place for that as well, it is actually becoming essential. It's becoming mainstream in cities around the world."

Canberra can learn from Singapore, Vermont, Paris and Toronto and our urban farmers say better education and land access can help them continue to grow agricultural potential.

ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti is keen to get behind the ACT as an urban agricultural haven, saying money wasn't the barrier - imagination was.

"In a community like Canberra, it makes a lot of sense," she said.

ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"[Throughout] COVID-19 we were worried looking at supply chains of food, it creates an opportunity for us to think about what are the new opportunities in a city that does import so much of its food."

The Greens came into the October election with a spate of policies to grow Canberra's local food production, including introducing street orchards, mandating space for community gardens, piloting larger urban farming projects like rooftop gardens and introducing food education in schools.

Greens minister, Ms Vassarotti, said discussion would begin soon to determine which of those ideas she wanted to prioritise in her first term of government.

"Part of the work we need to do is work out, what are the drivers? There will be economic drivers, there will also be social drivers and there will be environmental drivers," she said.

"If we really decide we want urban agriculture to be a significant economic driver, we'd need significant investment in that."

Dimity May of Reid Tiny Farm, is one of several urban farmers in the inner-north. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Dimity May of Reid Tiny Farm, is one of several urban farmers in the inner-north. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Dimity May joined the flourishing community of urban farmers in Canberra's inner-north amid lockdown.

Ms May wanted to start an urban farm for years but coronavirus provided the push she needed as people tried their hand at gardening and nurseries sold out of seedlings, giving her an opportunity to edge into the market.

"It's the most rewarding life-affirming thing to do. Watching something grow and producing your own food, having seen it come from this tiny little seed it feels like magic every time," she said.

Ms May now offers a subscription service from Reid Tiny Farm, providing customers with a range of home-grown seedlings suited to the season.

Just around the corner, Fiona Buining has been running the Ainslie Urban Farm for more than four years.

Fiona Buining runs Ainslie Urban Farm and will soon travel overseas to bring back ideas to improve urban agriculture and education in Australia. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Fiona Buining runs Ainslie Urban Farm and will soon travel overseas to bring back ideas to improve urban agriculture and education in Australia. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

She is passionate about growing her own produce and was recently awarded a fellowship which will allow her to travel overseas when borders open to learn from countries like the United States and Canada, where urban farms thrive.

"There is a lack of skills training and there is a lack of land [in Canberra], it's really hard unless you have a lot of money to find land in urban areas you can use to grow food, even through in Canberra we have heaps of land that could be used," she said.

"My fellowship is aiming to find the answers to those two questions and then come back and set something up in Canberra, that actually trains our next generation of urban farmers."

The former horticulture teacher says urban farming doesn't fit into existing agriculture or horticulture courses.

"I would love to see more people growing food but I want to provide training ... it's a undervalued skill, I think it's a skill that is in demand."

UNSW landscape architect Joshua Zeunert believes urban agriculture can be installed directly into the city's streets and parks through edible plants and orchards.

"Public spaces are public and should be seen as common land," he said. "We have access to not just recreate but if we want to grow food as citizens, we should do these things."

He said replacing current flora with edible options may come at a higher cost due to higher maintenance, but were outweighed by the social, environmental and health benefits.

"It depends on the way we model our economics, protecting the environment might cost more money but the benefits in the end are greater," he said.

Mr Zeunert said "precious" land suitable for agriculture was undervalued in Australia, particularly in urban centres where development took priority.

"It's really important people do these things so they have more respect for food systems, more respect for farmers and how skilled they are at producing food, it's a really hard thing to do," he said.

For Canberra to start producing more of its own food, urban environments must coexist with broad-acre farmers in the city's surrounds.

Fred Mcgrath Weber from Majura Valley Free Range Eggs believes the two sides can compliment each other.

Mr McGrath Weber has a bold vision for his farm which produces eggs and lamb. He wants to develop a sheep milk diary, a farm produce shop, cafe and a micro-brewery on the site.

Mr McGrath Weber said the Majura Valley wasn't recognised for the sprawling farms it hosts which have potential "as a food bowl for the city".

Ann McGrath and Fred McGrath Weber at their Majura Valley farm. Picture: Matt Loxton

Ann McGrath and Fred McGrath Weber at their Majura Valley farm. Picture: Matt Loxton

"It's got really high-quality soil, great access to water, access to transport and labour," he said.

"It does have a lot of productive capabilities and the time is ripe."

Farmers on Majura Road are locked in a battle with government, which has not renewed their leases, meaning they can be pushed out of their properties at any time with just 90 days' notice.

Mr McGrath Weber says without certainty farmers have no incentive to invest in their land.

"Food production is normally a long-term endeavour over several years. You want security that will be there," he said.

"If you went to bank [it] isn't going to support your loan because your farm isn't really worth anything."

He argues supporting farmers not only benefits food production but tourism potential.

He is working with the neighbouring vineyard and truffle farm to create an agriculture "tourism trail", an experience just 10 kilometres from the city centre.

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This story 'Becoming essential': ACT could lead the nation in local food production first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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