I LOVE CHOOKS. I love that I can wander down to my back yard and collect a fresh egg and have it for breakfast within minutes of it being laid. The high nutrient-density is matched only by the joy in eating food I’ve had a hand in producing.
Chooks are amazing creatures (and far more intelligent than they are often credited for). They provide manure, feathers and meat, manage bugs, spread mulch, give companionship and entertainment, as well as lay an egg almost every day.
Perhaps the thing I love the most about my chooks is that they remind me on a daily basis of my connection to the land. I’m not a green thumb – our farm was all about protein production rather than growing plants – but I have an affinity with my girls (I love cows, too). They remind me that food does indeed come from the soil and the sun, and is born out of care, commitment and hard work.
It’s a connection that is missing for many consumers. As the final link in a food chain that involves many processes and stages, it is easy to walk the aisles of a supermarket and assume that the pretty packages and glossy products manifest magically on the shelves. The reality is, of course, quite different. Think about a recent terrible weather that kept you inside, huddled by the fire or snuggled under your doona. Then think about the farmers who are out in that weather tending to animals or crops that won’t wait for attention. Most o us are glad it’s not us.
Farmers and growers are a special breed and for too long in this country they have been taken for granted. We expect them to keep producing perfect food at ever-slimmer margins with ever- expanding competition from cheap imports.
Especially for small scale producers, the compliance burden is almost impossible to bear: there are few opportunities for an extended break and their job description includes being a proficient producer, processor, marketer, distributor and bookkeeper. It’s a largely thankless task and it’s no wonder that farmers are leaving the land in alarming numbers – 40 farmers left the Queensland dairy industry in the past year alone.
Currently there is only a small overlap between what we consume and what we produce locally. Most of our fresh produce leaves the area for a centralised market with a small percentage returning eventually to a local retail store, re-packaged and re-priced – the mark-up funding all the processes in the middle. In Australia, for every dollar spent at the supermarket farmers and growers receive on average as little as ten cents.
It’s not all doom and gloom, but the situation requires some proactivity from all stakeholders – government at all levels, industry, community groups and consumers.
Let’s support small-to- medium, diversified, integrated, well-managed, peri-urban farms by reducing the onerous regulation and prohibitive red- tape processes. Policies need to be farmer-centric, rather than bureaucratically self-serving.
What’s needed are a range of measures that stimulate more local food production by making it easier for new growers to enter the industry: easier access to land, subsidised loans for start-ups, appropriate training and advice. Let’s help existing farmers transfer knowledge – before they retire or exit their industry – by involving them as mentors and supporting them in sharing their land with intending farmers.
As a region, we need to eat more of what we can grow well in this climate and grow more of what we like to eat. We enjoy an enormous range of microclimates here with a growing season that extends year-round. Let’s service our own needs first. If we grow more of our own open- pollinated seed and cut our dependence on chemically treated imported seed, we can transform this region into full organic production and meet the growing demand for clean, nutritious food.
As consumers we can be more interactive: ask questions about the origins of our food, demand more local products wherever we shop and give constructive feedback about the quality and range.
We can liberate ourselves from the depressing mindset of passive consumerism and become co-producers – those who bring the food chain full-circle by directly supporting and communicating with the special people who produce our food for us.
There are numerous good initiatives happening at the moment that are taking all of these steps in small but genuine ways – Finding Common Ground, Regional Foodie Magazine, community-supported agriculture, edible school gardens, community gardens, seed savers etc.
Let’s celebrate our existing farmers and make a career on the land sexy once again.
The Real Food Festival, to be held on September 8-9 , brings together everyone involved in the Sunshine Coast local food scene, from seed to sauté pan. The Real Food Festival demonstrates our pride in our region’s food in all its forms and connections. By enhancing our food tourism capacity, we can use that industry as a vehicle for developing our local food economy for visitors and locals alike. www.realfoodfestival.com.au And we can rediscover the pleasure of good food by growing more food ourselves, and growing it together with others. It doesn’t require a lot of space or skill to have a backyard garden, and gardening with others is a joyful occupation.
Love your chooks; love your garden. Together with hundreds of others get involved to ensure the future of good food in this region.