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Nat Wiseman: Wagtail Urban Farm


Clockwise from top: Urban bounty. The stall at The Market Shed on Holland St. Nat Wiseman with the produce. Fresh tomatoes. Photos by Wagtail Urban Farm


Who started Wagtail Urban Farm?

Steven Hoepfner, Brett Young and I set up Wagtail in 2013. After completing an internship with Allsun Farm (near Gundaroo NSW) in 2011, my partner and I started looking for land in Adelaide to start up a small urban farm. Steven joined an urban farming interest group I’d set up, and mentioned he’d been offered land in Mitchell Park, about ten kilometres from the CBD. Along with Brett, we decided to start Wagtail together.

What inspired you?

The idea of trying to make a livelihood from growing vegetables in the suburbs; to see if we could make it work on a small scale and learn from our mistakes before we started something bigger.

How would you describe Wagtail?

Wagtail Urban Farm is a highly productive micro urban farm set in the inner southern suburbs of Adelaide, producing vegetables for market on only 180sq meters of land (about the size of a suburban back garden). We’re not certified organic, but use organic inputs and don’t spray with nasty chemicals. We use a biologically intensive approach championed by American market gardener, Eliot Coleman, which focuses on healthy soil, careful crop planning and efficient and ergonomic hand tools to make the work quick and enjoyable.

What are the main philosophies behind what you do?

We want to pursue ‘right livelihoods’ that care for the earth and people around us; growing vegetables really does that for us! We believe that the suburbs provide an amazing opportunity to supply the bulk of fresh food for local communities. A future of energy descent may force this on us. It makes sense to grow perishable crops close to where they’re consumed, and storable crops further away, to save on fossil fuels for refrigeration and transport. It also reconnects people with their food sources.

What are your aims and longterm vision for Wagtail?

My aim is to scale up to make a viable enterprise growing organic vegetables, but I have had difficulty finding enough land in the suburbs. We’re agreed that to provide a living wage we need to scale up by a factor of ten, to about 2000 square metres minimum; if we only doubled in size it would stop being an enjoyable hobby and start being a very low paid job! Given this, I’ve started a new project – Village Greens of Willunga Creek, at the Aldinga Arts EcoVillage south of Adelaide – which will be a 2000 square metre garden supplying vegies to the EcoVillage members and local markets. Steven will keep running Wagtail with our amazing crew of helpers. We have had so much support from so many different people, I think there is definitely a future for it. As a model – for growing a lot of food in a small space – it has been really successful.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

Lack of time! We all work other part-time jobs, and manage to squeeze planting and weeding into Monday afternoons, picking on Saturday mornings and markets on Sundays. It doesn’t leave much time to sit back and assess things from a distance – what Joel Salatin calls ‘working on the business’ rather than just ‘working in the business’. Although limited time has made us efficient.

What would you change to make your systems work better?

Better record keeping! The first year we were flying by the seat of our pants and didn’t have time to record things like days to maturity, crop failures, what worked at markets and when, and best varieties. While I spent a lot of time planning, I neglected day-to-day record keeping. With that we could have focused on our mistakes rather than just guessing/ remembering at the end of the season.

What led you to where you are now?

We’ve each integrated Wagtail into our busy lives. I started out growing herbs in pots in a rental house. My dad lent me his copy of Permaculture one (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Tagari Publications 1978), and that got me hooked! I read up on sustainable agriculture, did my PDC at The Food Forest (Gawler SA) in 2008 and WWOOFed there, helping Annemarie Brookman, where I saw her copy of The new organic grower: a master’s manual of tools and techniques for the home and market gardener (Eliot Coleman, Gardener’s Supply 1995) – a light switched on. It has been a ten-year journey to get where I am, and there is still much to learn.

What advice would you give others?

Start small: 200 square metres is a lot of land if you’re managing it intensively, and it can produce a lot of vegetables! Iron out the inevitable mistakes and then scale up, based on your experience and market contacts (vital). And never stop reading and researching – I’m always coming across new ideas from other farms, journals, blogs …

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