I think that if any of the readers of this magazine were asked if they ate local food most would say ‘yes, I shop at the local farmers’ market, grow my own vegies, swap with friends and support local businesses’. I would have said the same a year ago, but I decided to put my ‘eat localness’ to the test and to eat only local food for a month. I set myself a few stringent guidelines:
- eat only food produced here on the farm or traded with local growers
- cook using only the wood stove and wood I have collected locally
- no other fuel use – no car for the month!
It was our month off, so instead of going on holiday we stayed at home and lived off the land. I say ‘we’, for although my partner Do had the good sense to draw the line at giving up that morning coffee, we were in this together.
Although only recently open to the public, our Margaret River permaculture farm was established in 1995 and has extensive fruit and veg gardens as well as poultry, olives, beef cattle, a house cow (which was not producing in July), beehives and a timber plantation. Our hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters give us two growing seasons: summer crops including tomatoes, cucurbits and beans that need irrigation; and winter crops including brassicas, root veg, broad beans and a variety of greens. Our orchard has been planted so that there is something to eat pretty much all year, but water is our limiting factor.
Our decision to go locavore was made only a couple of weeks before we started, so our planning was minimal. Why did we do it? My inspiration came from ‘Plastic Free July’. Our supermarket presents us with many decisions when choosing a product: is it Australian made, GM free, organic? does it involve chopping down rainforests? is it wrapped in plastic? farmed or wild? made by a company that is pillaging the earth? Often products tick one box and not another. I find this particularly true with many new ‘super foods’, which just use too much fuel to reach us. The overwhelmed shopper. There was only one answer: don’t shop! Other commitments followed. Using no fuel for transport, heating or cooking (unless provided locally) seemed logical. And I could think of no better holiday than a month without driving.
What did we have in July (our coldest, wettest month)? In brief: abundant greens; brassicas; some root crops; plenty of citrus; olive oil; honey; eggs; jams and other preserves; some frozen meat; stored pumpkins and garlic; and a full woodshed. So began one of our best-ever learning experiences.
I have now read my blogs from that month and realise how special it was. Truly living off the land over a period of time put me in far deeper connection with it. Part of this was having the time to slow down, part was having to slow down in order to achieve it. There were no quick fixes. My day started with lighting the stove and waiting for the kettle to boil and then harvesting, foraging, hunting or swapping. Most foods that we grow take some time to prepare, so the quickest was fruit (though we only had citrus in July) and salad (and we ate lots of that).
The month was important in two ways. The slow down and eat well way, spending the time to harvest and prepare food, riding my bike to town, swapping food with neighbors. All those good things which we seldom find time to do. The other was to understand better what resources we really would have available to us if faced with a crisis.
The first week was spent opening the cupboards and realizing that I could eat almost nothing from there: rice, lentils and grains; nuts, seeds and spices; locally made muesli full of imported ingredients; locally made pasta with flour from who knows where; tea and coffee; chocolate; ginger; tamari. Fortunately I had locally collected sea salt!
We are not a grain growing area and our spuds hadn’t been in the ground long, so carbohydrates quickly became a focus. We have grown arrowroot (Canna edulis) for a number of years, and in one week they went from being a little eaten plant to my primary carb source. Stored pumpkins were the other good carb-rich food along with stored broad bean seed. The young leaves and pods of these annual legumes can be eaten in salads, the beans are rich and nutritious and their seed stores well to be rehydrated or planted again.
After a week of living only from the farm I cycled into our local farmers’ market that was brimming over with delicious, locally grown and made produce. As exciting as it was, most of the food was what we grew or had been made using imported products. But arriving home with five kilos of potatoes made a big change to our lives, and the canna lost favour very quickly.
While milk, eggs and meat are a part of our diet, we do not grow meat animals commercially, and lacked the young males (e.g. roosters and steers) that end up in the freezer. I did, however, knock off a couple of the older chooks that were no longer laying (and expensive to feed). Every animal we cooked went such a long way (as it should) being first a roast, then a stir–fry, then a soup, and then another soup.
We have good honey and olive oil which were not only great staples but also very useful barter material when living in an area rich with wine and avocados. Swapping involves people and stories. You can’t swap without having a chat, quite often a cuppa (herbal of course) or perhaps a local brew … it comes with generosity and giving, and we all know that makes us feel good.
At the end of the third week I bought a bag of Eden Valley Biodynamic flour from Dumbelyoung, a few hundred kilometres away. I convinced myself that finding the closest, ethical grain grower and buying bulk was OK, and I quickly realised how processed grain has changed lives and cultures. Easy fast food (and that’s baking it ourselves) has the potential to change a diet overnight. It was amazing having bread, home made pasta, little honey cakes and pancakes, but it sure made me think. Add sugar and there is no need to harvest and forage again. Well that was my month. Has it changed the way I do things? It’s a busy life and I’ve slipped back into a few old habits (I do love my morning coffee), but our aim to live from our local area strengthens every time we slip and eat something else … it just doesn’t taste as good anymore. We’ve also opened for a locavore lunch, so not only do our customers get the freshest local produce, they also have a great learning experience about what eating local really means.
Jodie is co founder of Fair Harvest Permaculture in Margaret River WA with her partner Dorothee. Jodie has been living and working on the property since 1995 developing permaculture systems with an everchanging group of amazing and dynamic earth caring, people sharing, fair sharing individuals. www.fairharvest.com.au