Sydney's real food heroes

Jill Dupleix
Sustainability expert: Michael Mobbs.
Sustainability expert: Michael Mobbs. 

There's a buzz in the air, and it's not just about the beehives being installed on our rooftops.

It's about permaculture, chook rearing, urban fish farms, backyard beer brewing, composting, footpath gardens and worm farms, which are all part of the local real food movement.

Celebrity chefs in white jackets seem oddly out of place in such a landscape. Instead, knowledge and inspiration come from community gardeners, dairy farmers, apiarists, indigenous Australians, and green-thumbed neighbours who can tell you what's eating holes in your basil.

At what point does a multitude of small, independent actions become a movement? Hundreds, if not thousands, of ethical, natural, sustainable-food producers have been quietly going about their business in Sydney and its food basin for years but, suddenly, people are coming together and the ground is shifting. It's a generational change, driven by young people confronted with old food systems.

This new tribe, easily connected and naturally collaborative, has the will, the energy and the technology to challenge the status quo – and what was an underground movement is now very much above ground.

The Activist:.Jess Miller.
The Activist:.Jess Miller. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

"Living in the city now is like discovering the surf as a kid," says urban sustainability expert Michael Mobbs. "Each day there are eddies of new currents of ideas and projects where people are growing, buying, supporting, talking about and being passionate about local food."

Sally Hill, of Sydney's Youth Food Movement, says the American local, artisanal food movement – valued at $US4 billion ($4.17 billion) – has given us a brilliant insight into the capacity for rapid change.

"The challenge now is to use this momentum to change behaviour around genuine and 'real' food," she says, "and to support local food economies and the people who produce our food."

The Serious Backyarder: Justine Williams and her two children, Jada and Asher.
The Serious Backyarder: Justine Williams and her two children, Jada and Asher. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Local councils and even federal governments are listening. In May, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Joe Ludwig, announced a $1.5 million small grants program with grants of up to $25,000 to support farmers' markets, community gardens, city farms, food hubs, co-ops and food rescue service projects.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

So here's a round-up of the prime movers, ratbags, educators and providores on the ground floor of the Sydney real food movement.

The Stirrer: Kate Walsh.
The Stirrer: Kate Walsh. Photo: Edwina Pickles

THE ACTIVIST

Jess Miller is the bike-riding, baby-toting powerhouse behind Grow It Local, an online platform aimed at connecting backyard, balcony, community and window-sill gardeners with each other to share tips and expertise, and to encourage others to become "urban farmers". Grow partnered with TEDxSydney to "crowd-farm" the food for 2200 people at the Sydney Opera House last month, and is currently administering a vegetable garden census for the City of Sydney. "The big, audacious goal for Grow It Local is to help organise people to provide an adaptable, nimble, hyper-local and thus resilient alternative to the dominant food system," Miller says, "which here in Australia is owned by very few, and is, quite frankly, a bit broken." growitlocal.com.au.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Put your patch on the map at Grow It Local. Buy a little more from farmers' markets and a little less from supermarkets. Ask questions. Pick your nanna's brains and write down her recipes. Grow something. Anything.

The Biological Farmer: John Fairley.
The Biological Farmer: John Fairley. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

THE EDUCATORS

Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar set up Milkwood in the hills above Mudgee as a permaculture-education farm. It's a magical spot that instantly converts visitors to the principles and ethics of permaculture founded by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the 1970s. This holistic approach to managing land works with the self-sustaining, interconnected systems of nature. Classes at Milkwood and in Sydney focus on market gardening, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, aquaponics and natural building. "I think people's appreciation is rising for the interconnectedness of elements and how our actions have consequences," Bradley says. "Whether people come from the entry point of a health scare or from animal ethics or climate change, we all arrive at a similar solution: engage with your food system and keep it real and simple." milkwoodpermaculture.com.au.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Sign up for the Milkwood newsletter (it's a joy). Do a Serious Backyard Veggies course with Milkwood's Michael Hewins in Alexandria. Get involved in your local community garden – find it at communitygarden.org.au.

The Connector: Julian Lee.
The Connector: Julian Lee. Photo: Marco Del Grande

THE SERIOUS BACKYARDER

If ever you had any doubt about growing food in the city then the 25 dwarf fruit trees, 30 square metres of raised vegetable beds, aquaponic trout farm and native beehive in Justine Williams' inner-suburban backyard would convince you faster than you could gnaw a home-grown carrot. "As a mum of two small adults of the future, I know how important it is to eat what is natural and not eat processed food," Williams says. "It's not safe, and it is supporting a system that is not good for people or the planet."

Permaculture practitioner Williams founded City Food Gardens, which designs and installs urban food-growing systems. Her advice to other parents is to help their kids create a vegetable garden. "Learn how to compost, and put in a worm farm," she says. "Watching them react to their own garden is wonderful." cityfoodgardens.com.au.

The Providores: Grant Hilliard and Laura Dalrymple.
The Providores: Grant Hilliard and Laura Dalrymple. Photo: Steven Siewert

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Attend a mini workshop and start producing food in your backyard, on your balcony or within your community. Check out Landshare Australia to either find or share land available for cultivating food. landshareaustralia.com.au.

THE STIRRER

Ripe tomatoes, Kate Walsh says, are the gateway drug to helping people understand the story behind their food. "One bite of a fresh, ripe tomato and I can guarantee you they will never see food the same way again." Walsh set up her Real Food Projects enterprise to connect people to the stories behind their food. "We throw great parties, hold cooking classes, do private catering, and create the occasional pop-up shop in celebration of local, seasonal and ethical food," she says. "What is so appealing about the food movement is that it gives you fun and pleasure in the fight. You can be both hedonistic and ethical at the same time." ieatrealfood.com.au.

The Beekeeper: Doug Purdie.
The Beekeeper: Doug Purdie. Photo: Mike Tsikas

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Sign up for one of Real Food's new pop-up cooking classes from July 1-21 and learn to make your own cheese, jam, pasta, tortillas or sausages (from $55 a session).

THE CONNECTOR

Sydney Food Connect delivers several hundred boxes of freshly harvested sustainable produce to pick-up points around Sydney every week. "We pay farmers a fair price, and encourage people to get their heads around seasonal eating in a way that is supportive of growers and suppliers, and good for their own health," says founder Julian Lee. For him, buying food is not a single-issue area such as "local", or "fair trade". "It's more about supporting organisations that meet your own values and not buying from organisations that don't." foodconnect.com.au.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Sign up for a sustainable, chemical-free weekly food box and support local farmers.

THE PROVIDORES

Grant Hilliard and Laura Dalrymple of Feather and Bone in Marrickville supply sustainably farmed meat, poultry and dairy products. That means free-range pigs, hams and bacon from Melanda Park, organic wagyu beef from Gundooee, and poultry from Burrawong. Hilliard believes that food security depends on biodiversity, encouraging rare breeds, animal welfare, soil health, and minimal intervention with chemical fertilisers. "In a small but meaningful way our customers enter into a 'contract' with the producer, the animal that gave its life to provide that meat, and the land that sustained it," he says. "Respect is at the heart of it." Dalrymple gets big ideas across in small, witty bites in their weekly online newsletter, and the website is worth visiting for the sound effects alone. www.featherandbone.com.au.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Find out more about where your food comes from. Choose ethically raised animals, genuinely free-range eggs such as Organic Ways, and real, cultured butter such as Pepe Saya. Find a list of ethical meat suppliers at sustainabletable.org.au.

THE BIOLOGICAL FARMER

John Fairley is a sixth-generation dairy farmer at Picton, one hour from Sydney, producing award-winning Country Valley organic milk, yoghurt and cream. Since converting the Country Valley farm to biological farming by eliminating chemical fertiliser, he says the cows' fertility has increased. Fairley buys additional milk from small farmers who would otherwise not survive in the current climate, in which supermarkets wage daily price wars on staples such as milk. "When you see cheap food you know the farmers are going broke trying to produce it," he says. countryvalley.com.au.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Be aware of the consequences of where you shop and what you purchase. The consumer has the ultimate say. Find your nearest farmers' markets from the Australian Farmers' Markets Association on farmersmarkets.org.au.

THE BEEKEEPERS

Doug Purdie of The Urban Beehive is as busy as a bee, installing hives for cafes and restaurants from Cornersmith in Marrickville to Berta in Surry Hills. "We do it because bees are under threat from urbanisation and introduced pests and diseases," he says. "And because it's fun." theurbanbeehive.com.au.

Cate Burton founded Bees in the City with apiarist and "bee whisperer" Bruce White as a natural extension of her hand-made beeswax candle business, Queen B. They've installed beehives in hotels and restaurants such as Paddington's Four in Hand, although Burton's favourite "girls" are on her balcony in Neutral Bay. "The honey they produce is so different to that of our hives in Elizabeth Bay, because the flora is different." beesinthecity.com.au.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Keep bees. Sign up for a beekeeping course at the Open Training and Education Network (oten.tafensw.edu.au). Contact the Amateur Beekeepers' Association (beekeepers.asn.au).

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