Castlemaine in Central Victoria has a long history of permaculture and it’s no accident that Growing Abundance (GA) emerged here. GA is a great example of people in a country town combining to grow and share sustainable food. Each element of GA performs many important functions, and each function supports others. GA is part permaculture group, part Transition Town and part social enterprise.
Put another way, GA is more than the sum of its parts. When different projects combine in complementary ways special things happen: people rediscover an enthusiasm for their fruit trees, they meet their neighbours, they learn new skills, and tonnes of fruit that might otherwise go to waste gets harvested, eaten or preserved.
By 2009, after years of dry weather, our reservoirs were almost empty, and the bush fires of February 2009 had a major impact on the environment and communities. The fires, drought and the news of global warming were distressing and pointed to our fragile existence.
GA emerged after the fires, partly from a workshop on community gardening and partly from discussions about Transition Towns. At the workshop we listed seventeen ways to make more food in our community more sustainable – we wanted the town to become a farm, as well as have the ‘traditional’ community garden in a public space.
Slowly but surely, with the unpaid efforts of local people and the committee of Castlemaine Community House, a ‘fair food’ project emerged. It was designed to minimise waste, reduce food miles, support local farmers and strengthen the local community and economy. It was about food, produce, skills, education, information and practical services; and designed to be creative.
Small amounts and then larger grants of philanthropic support provided the core of part-time staff, along with abundant volunteer effort. GA has become a series of interdependent projects, drawing on traditional farming expertise and the knowledge of the tree changers who have come to town over recent decades. In a shire of 18 000 people, over 600 now receive the email newsletter each week.
From the start, the support of Castlemaine Community House (CCH) has been central. Victoria has over 100 neighbourhood/ community houses which nurture innovative projects like this. CCH runs training courses, including two Permaculture Design Courses, each year and works in partnership with others to run workshops, including to build wicking beds in community settings. Public gardening in Castlemaine is a new Facebook group with photographs of these – see www.facebook.com/groups/252351251587543/
Growing Abundance’s Main Projects
The Harvest Group – which is probably what GA is best known for – involves harvesting and sharing excess home-grown fruit, then following up with winter pruning and spring spraying for curly leaf control. The owner of the fruit trees gets about one third of the produce, the pickers get a third and the remainder goes to schools and community groups, or gets bottled and preserved at workshops.
Despite low rainfall and increasing numbers of hungry parrots, during the 2013 season we harvested 7.5 tonnes of fruit at thirtyeight harvests with over 270 people attending. Over 150 kg of fruit was distributed each week to local schools and community organisations, with the remainder going to harvest volunteers, community ‘food jams’ and fruit tree owners. Around 1000 stone fruit trees were sprayed to prevent curly leaf.
Fruit tree pruning and maintenance is done by a team of volunteers at weekly ‘prune along’ sessions, and in 2013 there were nine fruit tree maintenance workshops. From the start GA set out to train others, and now there are a dozen volunteer Pruning Team Leaders and Harvest Team Leaders, which has greatly increased the program’s capacity and efficiency.
Castlemaine Abundance Kitchen Enterprise (CAKE) – which is a social enterprise that does catering, workshops and seasonal feasts using locally sourced, healthy and delicious ingredients.
This year CAKE won the tender to run the canteen at Castlemaine Secondary College. While the change is gradual, the transition to healthy and sustainable options for the canteen means both college campuses are already enjoying more locally sourced and organic ingredients in their food.
CCH has signed an agreement with the new owners of the old Castlemaine Gaol to provide CAKE with a base from which to cater to the hungry hordes; a space in which to cook, teach workshops and store equipment and ingredients. CAKE has access to the old gaol’s commercial kitchen, and eight wicking beds were built and planted during a CCH training course.
CAKE runs ‘food jams’, bringing people together to bottle or preserve seasonal gluts. Apple juicing continues to be fruitful, processing 400 kg of apples each time we gather, with between fifteen to forty participants. CAKE also: caters seasonal feasts and fundraising events; provides ‘cook fresh, cook local’ training for caterers; runs workshops on simple preserving (e.g. making tomato sauce, rhubarb relish and citrus marmalade, and preserving olives); and runs seasonal cooking workshops and specialist classes on making cider, sourdough bread and miso, and using edible weeds.
The Mount Alexander Local Produce Guide. One of the earliest hopes for GA was to produce a guide to who was already selling local food and wine. The guide was launched in late 2011 and is available online. The area also has a local food logo, which makes it easier to recognise, source and buy locally produced food.
Food for Thought is a series of dynamic lunchtime events which showcase local food advocates. Around forty to fifty people attend each event, and they help to keep us in touch with the bigger picture. A recent highlight was feasting among the blossom of Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens.
A combination of community effort and some funding of core staff have been central to the success of GA. Now there are more people and cafes, shops and restaurants who want to buy, eat and serve local food. Discussions are emerging about whether there is a job for a ‘food broker’ to get growers and buyers to work more cooperatively on increasing local food supply at a commercial level. We also need a real estate agent to match up tree changers wanting to buy land to grow food, with farmers selling out of traditional farming because their blocks are considered too small to be viable.
There’s a long way to go before our 18 000 people become ‘food secure’, but we think we’re testing a model that can be replicated in larger towns, and even suburbs of cities, so that much more fresh food comes from gardens and community spaces instead of from the supermarket.
See more about Castlemaine Community House and its activities at www.cch.org.au/growing-abundance