Ben, Renae and Frankie

Ben, Renae and Frankie

by Victoria McGuin

In the foothills of the Hinterland lies the village of Palmwoods. Steeped in farming history, this area has long been a wonderful place to grow produce and benefit from the richness of the land. Renae’s Pantry is a constant reminder of just how lucky we are and how we can all prosper from sharing this edible wealth.

If you walk down Main Street in Palmwoods, you will come across a little lane tucked between popular café Homegrown and the local hairdressers. Stroll through and a welcoming vision awaits.

You’ve found Renae’s Pantry – brimming with brightly coloured local produce, jars of flour, wheat, pulses and seeds, organic dairy and a local cheese selection. Not to mention organic varieties of washing and household products.

The smell of fresh fruit mingles with the rich aroma of ground coffee beans from The Tin Shed opposite. You instantly know this is a place to nourish your body and perhaps your soul.

Renae’s Pantry has been established for two-and-a-half years, gaining a positive reputation for its community ethos and the Friday night candlelit fare on offer.

Local organic produce on ice

Local organic produce on ice

“We opened in the same month that our daughter was born,” says Renae. “We were doing two days a week, like a market, but I must admit that was hard work when I’d just given birth!”

So what was the driving force behind this venture? Renae explains, “It was partly through a great friend Hayley, who owned Sister Organic Café in Palmwoods; she really encouraged me. And it was partly due to a profound shift I had during pregnancy and my first child’s birth.

“I suddenly became really aware of what I was putting in my body; what I would be feeding my child. So I started throwing out packets of chemical-laden stuff in my pantry, I stopped going to the big supermarkets and I started baking and cooking.

“I became so excited and inspired by what I was learning I began a market stall called Conscious Being. I would package up flour, nuts and other baking goods and stick recipes on the front.

“My mission was to help mums with feeding their babies. Even now my energy is more on baking, mothering and nurturing.”

She smiles, “Ben is the fresh produce, farming, and politically-minded person. We are a classic head and heart team!”

Ben’s background lies in design and planning, whereas Renae trained as a psychologist. They met at university when, according to Ben, “There were about 40 people coming out of the lifts and I saw her.”

Baked bliss

Baked bliss

Ben convinced Renae to buy tickets to a comedy night he was promoting, and so it all began. “When we met we were classic consumers and partied a lot. Once we had Billy, Renae completely changed and I thought, ‘That’s it, we’re never going out again’!”

Ben realised he was on a new path, “Next thing you know, you’ve left your cushy air-conditioned job and become a grocer,” he grins.

Actually, he is well-suited to this change. With experience in building for the cattle and farming industries, he noticed how ridiculous it seemed to separate farming from our community, firmly believing that it is feasible to farm within our urban landscape.

This led him to manifest the Backyard Farms Project, an initiative encouraging people to grow crops and vegetables in their own gardens and acreage.

“I’m not anti broadacre farms, but I have seen the destruction they can cause; so if there is an alternative, why not do it?” Ben questions.

“On the Sunshine Coast we have the climate and community to prove urban agriculture can work.  We can reduce food waste, food miles and increase our knowledge base. And, if you have a bad season in urban agriculture, no-one loses their house.”

Renae agrees, “This has become a lovely exchange place for people to swap their produce for other grocery essentials. And some customers pay for 100% of their groceries through gardening.”

Ben dreams of this idea spreading. “Just think, if the big supermarkets didn’t exist, we would have ten-to-fifteen of these shops and markets all over Palmwoods alone, each with their own flavour. The small grocery revolution!”

Their passion for this place means they now open Tuesday – Saturday from 9am-6pm, keeping them very busy. Locals are encouraged to bring produce to be sold or swapped, and most other products available are certified organic.

Friday nights in The Lane are a celebration of delicious vegetarian food, made from scratch by new chef, Solomon Othello. “We eat meat sometimes, but we wanted these Friday nights to be a light footprint, which is why we chose a veggie menu,” explains Ben.

“Lots of people never get the chance to enjoy really wholesome vegetarian cuisine. Meat is such an over-utilised form of protein; we are rarely exposed to other alternatives,” adds Renae.

What’s on the menu? “Spicy satay tofu kebabs, melt-in-your-mouth red lentil dahl with hand-rolled spelt flour puris, roast pumpkin soup with organic sourdough, warm, wood-fired apple crumble with coconut and saffron custard…”

If you’ve never been, it is a magical experience. Tea lights dotted along the lane and up into the garden. Makeshift tables and chairs from recycled wood and hessian coffee bags, fairy lights in the trees, a fire lit in the colder weather and a sandpit for the younger children to play in.

Live music is often part of the evening, and it feels like you have stepped into a Mediterranean village to celebrate good food and great company.

As we say goodbye, Ben shares a quote from food writer and educator, Anna Lappe, which resonates with them both. “Every time you spend money you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

I leave with a bag of sweet local organic strawberries, feeling comforted that more and more people are voting for Renae’s Pantry.