Upper Murray man Josh Collings holds a bunch of radishes high in the air triumphantly. "We can feed a town," says the filmmaker turned market gardener. I wasn't too long ago, when the 2020 fires engulfed land surrounding the remote town of Corryong, that Collings saw people in his community go hungry.
"With trees down and roads damaged, deliveries of fresh food were unable to reach people in the district," he says. "In one of the nation's most fertile areas, we had a food crisis."
With a population of around 1300 people, the valley town of Corryong is located near the Murray River headwaters, 120 kilometres east of Albury-Wodonga.
The fires gave Collings the idea to create a system of community microfarms that could turn bare earth into food within a fortnight. These farms could bring fresh, healthy food not only to Corryong, but to other vulnerable communities across the nation.
Collings named the project Acres and Acres, formed a co-operative of like-minded people, and raised funds to give local residents with growing skills access to land, water, and farming equipment.
"There are a lot of people with great food growing skills in this valley," says local stonemason and Acres and Acres co-op member Griffin Cook.
Collings says he hopes to see the model replicated down the Murray Valley and across North East Victoria in a few years. "And anywhere else people's fresh food supply is vulnerable," adds Cook.
It's an achievable goal too. By the middle of last year, Collings had raised enough money for "Omar", a caravan-sized trailer filled with $50,000 worth of tools and all the seeds and seedlings needed for planting. "
"With Omar we can go anywhere where fresh food is needed and turn bare earth into leafy greens within weeks," says Cook.
Collings opens the trailer to reveal trestle tables built into the doors and an awning that swings out. "It's also fully accessible for our older members," he says with unstoppable enthusiasm.
Omar was meant to make its retail debut last weekend at the Upper Murray Farmers' Market. However, the snap COVID lockdown meant the co-op team were forced to sell their first significant harvest – more than 250 kilograms of fresh vegetables – door-to-door around Corryong. They sold everything and more orders have been non-stop ever since.
The project officially began in spring at a derelict site near the town centre, which Collings acquired to turbocharge the project. The biggest problem to date with expanding has been the lack of available healthy dirt.
"There is a lot of land around here degraded by chemical farming practices," says Cook. "We need to get organic matter into the soil."
In what has been described as the market gardening equivalent of an Amish barn-raising, the Acres and Acres members, along with local farmers who donated old hay, silage, and cattle manure, have now turned three Upper Murray Valley sites into productive gardens.
One site is on a private property just outside of Corryong, while another is in a paddock next to the Tintaldra Hotel 30 kilometres north. Here the co-op grows plump eggplants and tomatoes that make their way into the pub's counter meals.
"It took a while to get going," says Collings, "But now we are really feeding people."
The Acres and Acres co-operative has grown to boast around 100 participants. It also sells fresh fruit and vegetables to the Corryong Community Bakery, Macca's Takeaway (famous for its lasagne), and the Pickled Parrot Providore across the NSW border in Khancoban.
Cook is now considering a site in his nearby hometown of Towong to grow vegetables commercially. It's a hamlet with a historic racetrack but no food store.
"This region used to be self-sufficient," he says. "But nowadays most of the food we grow gets trucked out of the valley and into the cities."