ISSUE 5 | FEATURE STORY
Transforming our food systems ~ small-scale farmers with big dreams
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So Honey, Teegan and I crawled out of bed at our rented Melbourne apartment VERY early in the morning, got super rugged up, and headed south of the city well before the sun came up.
We were all excited. But nothing could have prepared us for the experience we were about to have.
Arriving at Transition Farm we were immediately taken with the place. We pulled up next to the packing shed and gazed at row upon row of a large variety of vegetables – capsicum, carrots, celery, cauliflower, leek, kale, sweet potato, and in the distance, large stems of corn swaying in the breeze. The packing shed at the side of the property was decorated with several huge pumpkins and timber crates. It was picture perfect, though quite basic, and looked unlike any other farm I had ever visited.
We were greeted by owners of the farm Peter Carlyon and Robin Koster-Carlyon. Within about 5 minutes of meeting Robin, I had a massive girl-crush. This woman was amazing. She was warm, welcoming, nurturing, patient and filled with a passion that just emanated from inside of her. And she was so knowledgeable and interesting! I didn’t want to miss a thing she said.
Robin and Peter started Transition Farm six years ago on five acres near Gunnamatta Beach, later adding a further two acres. They now grow over 150 varieties of seasonal fruit and vegetables using biodynamic and organic farming practices. Their produce is supplied to 85 local families in a weekly box based on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. All crops are started from seed on the farm and produce is delivered within 24 hours of harvest. I think you call that ‘fresh’!
If you do a Google search on CSA you’ll find numerous explanations of what it means. But in a nutshell, a Community Supported Agriculture model is based on a relationship between the people who grow the food and the people who eat the food. It consists of a group of individuals who commit financially to supporting a farm, so that the farm itself almost becomes the community’s farm – the farmer and those that consume the food share both the risks and the bounty.
In the case of Transition Farm, in return for a seasonal membership fee to help cover the production costs of the farm, CSA members receive a weekly share of quality, organically-grown produce. “We are trying to promote small-scale agriculture as being a viable and sustainable method of feeding local communities …as it used to be,” says Robin.
Robin explains that “we believe that our CSA members are involved in this endeavour because they want to eat nutrient dense, chemical free produce; to localise their food consumption; to eat seasonally; to move away from big business monopoly and control over our food system; and to know how their food production is impacting their whole community.”
On Transition Farm’s website is a quote which sums up the CSA system from Elizabeth Henderson….
“As I see it, reducing CSA to a mere food box subscription scheme would castrate the CSA model, taking away its power to create lasting relationships between the people who grow and eat food. As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini would say, CSAs allow citizens to become “co-producers” with their farmers, rather than passive consumers. At their best, authentic CSAs are a win-win-win. Farmers get living wages and freedom from worry about profits and losses. Everyone weathers the tough times and benefits from the good times. Nothing goes to waste, and community investments help pay for land and equipment. Most of all, eaters get healthy food, good company, and the deep — if not always “convenient” — satisfaction that comes from playing an immediate role in transforming the food system.”
Robin told me about the first farm they ever owned …a potato farm. Being young and inexperienced at farming potatoes, they relied on help from a neighbouring farmer to get them through their first season. So when the price of potatoes went through the roof and the neighbour advised them to sell their potatoes quick smart to take advantage of the high prices, they wanted to oblige. The problem was, the potatoes weren’t ready to be harvested yet.
“The wholesaler didn’t want them until the skins were hard, and the skins don’t harden until the tops of the plants die back,” explains Robin, “so there was nothing we could do, we just had to wait until they were ready.”
Not so, according to their neighbour. “He told us that we just had to get them out of the ground now because ‘the market is going to get flooded and the price is going to drop, and you’ve got a house mortgage’ …he was totally thinking about us!”
So he said “Robin, you just put a little bit of Roundup in your spray tank and run over the crop, the tops die back, the skins harden, and you harvest. Who’s going to know? They don’t test anything, they don’t pick anyone’s food up.”
Robin and Peter were understandably horrified.
“These are the things that the economy does to the best practice of farmers. Instead of growing food in a way that they know is a good way to grow it, they base it on the price, and they do things that even they might think is compromising, but they don’t know who’s eating the food, they don’t know anything about these people. It’s very impersonal.”
Lightbulb moment: we hear so much about how consumers are disconnected from the farmers that grow their food. Turns out it’s a two-way street. The farmers are also disconnected from the people that eat the food they grow. Oh dear. No wonder the system is so broken.
“With the CSA model, none of that matters. What we’ve worked out, or what we’re trying to work out - we’re still very new at this – is the true cost of growing food this way and then work out how much a share will cost, based on the fact that this is how much it costs to grow.
If you can do that then you have a totally sustainable system – economically sustainable, socially sustainable because you’re looking after the people in your community and everyone’s getting healthier, environmentally sustainable because you’re looking after the earth …the whole system will work. Yes it’s idealistic, but I think it’s good to have a goal,” smiles Robin.
Yes it is Robin, yes it is. Especially when the goal is this grand, the result is this wonderful, and the alternative is, well, not good at all.
Transition Farm is not certified organic and as Robin explains, “we don’t feel the need to because we have direct accountability with the people that eat our food.”
“I’m not trying to knock certified growers at all. We respect the amount of work that they go through – it’s a time consuming process and very expensive. But I don’t care if I’m organic, I don’t care if I’m biodynamic, what I care about is that our food is nutrient dense. And I know that the only way to do that is by being biodynamic, which is even more than organic, and that’s my commitment.
I feel like everyone is here on this planet for a reason, and if they can eat good food they’ll actually start to live to be their full potential and maybe this planet will start to be a better place! And so that’s like my give back – I’ll give you the food and you just go be the best that you can be.”
Girl-crush rapidly growing.
The whole time I’m ‘interviewing’ Robin she’s on the move – pulling up carrots, cutting bunches of the most delicious, peppery tasting celery, briskly walking back to the farmhouse to throw an apple tea cake into the oven that will go with the homemade vegetable soup she’s prepared for all the farmhands. This woman doesn’t stop.
“I recently attended a seminar with Allan Savory who spoke about the effects our farming practices are having on the earth. It’s really depressing and I get overwhelmed with the state of the earth. We are killing soil at an alarming rate. I feel very disempowered to do anything because I’m just so little. But the one tangible thing I came up with is if people could just meet their farmers, and know where their food is coming from, it would make the world of difference.”
“Maybe they can’t physically meet them, but we have this great tool, the internet, and we can use it to research how farmers are growing things, know how they’re treating their stock, how they’re treating the earth. Then we can support people who are growing things in great ways, responsible ways. It would make a huge difference. Because how our food is grown or raised is one of the leading contributors to climate change.
And the thing is if you start doing it and then you share that information with a friend, and then other people start doing it, talking about it at dinner parties, it can actually be really trendy and really cool to know your farmer, because you’re no longer just contributing to mass consumerism, you’re directly supporting the people that are growing in a way that supports and cares for the earth.”
By people taking that first step, and meeting their farmers, and going down that road, there’s no going back. Knowing more of the story of your food, what’s seasonal – you actually can’t have carrots in October – then hopefully people will start to want to care more for the earth because they finally realise the enormity of it – that this is where their food is coming from.”www.transitionfarm.com