OXYGEN FILES: Seven million people will be living in Melbourne by 2050 – but housing them won’t be the only problem. How to feed them is increasingly a concern for a number of organisations, including state and local government.

One of the most constraining factors is the pressure to develop good agricultural land on the peri-urban fringe of the city, primarily for residential purposes.

Competition for land from developers was identified as a key issue undermining farm viability in the Roadmap for a Resilient and Sustainable Melbourne foodbowl, published last week, from Foodprint Melbourne at the University of Melbourne. 

For a start, it pushes the price of farmland up beyond the reach of some new entrants into the agriculture space. It also creates uncertainty for existing farmers that disincentivises investment in new approaches and value-adding.

The Melbourne foodbowl includes market gardens within the city footprint, and a mix of large farms, market gardens and orchards within the peri-urban fringe and hinterlands.

The foodbowl supplies a considerable volume of the fresh produce consumed within the city, and the researchers identified the importance of the low food miles and correspondingly fewer carbon emissions associated with localised food production.

The roadmap identifies a range of key policy initiatives and infrastructure initiatives that can ensure the food supply is retained and future-proofed in terms of climate change impacts.

A win-win-win 

An integrated approach to protecting local food production has been taken that simultaneously supports the management of water resources and organic waste to enhance soil productivity and food production.

Key recommendations include the permanent protection of farmland on the city’s fringe by maintaining Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary, and introducing a new agricultural zone in planning frameworks.

This zone is also proposed to be suitable for value-adding food industries, food hubs for consumers to access local produce, and nutrient recycling facilities.

The roadmap also proposes a re-think of rate structures to incentivise sustainable farming practices, as well as the provision of extension services and direct payments.

The Victorian government is considering a ban on residential conversions of farmland

The Victorian government is already contemplating limiting the expansion of residential development into productive agricultural land, with a consultation currently underway on identifying and protecting strategic agricultural land on the peri-urban fringe.

One of the possibilities is that there will be strict conditions on identified agricultural land that will inhibit developers proposing residential developments at any significant scale.

Written submissions are being accepted until 23 April – you can read all the relevant documentation and have your say here.

Urban farming is gathering momentum

Within the city, a number of organisations have been cultivating a community appetite for food grown within the established city limits.

They include local councils, grassroots organisations and statutory authorities including VicTrack and Melbourne Water.

3000acres is an NGO that works with councils, authorities, developers, not-for-profits and community groups to stimulate urban farming, community gardens, food swaps, and other grassroots plot-to-plate initiatives.

3000acres general manager Morgan Koegel says urban agriculture is “having a moment” with increasing interest being seen from local councils, developers and the community.

It has worked on projects as diverse as the implementation of community composting hubs, formal and permanent community gardens, temporary community gardens, community co-design of gardens, and training in garden development, governance and management.

“The kinds of produce being grown are far more than the more typical inner-city leafy greens and herbs.”

Koegel says that fruit trees are a major trend, particularly with more young people renting, and finding it harder to establish and have access to permanent plantings such as food trees.

Chickens are another popular initiative, as are backyard bees.

“There are some really good examples [in the inner city] of intensive food growing,” she says.

One of the private gardens in the inner-north is growing up to 90 per cent of the household’s weekly vegetable needs.

There are also commercial market gardens, including new community supported agriculture models such as Simeon Hanscamp’s Spoke & Spade.

Hanscamp negotiated with the landlord of his rental property to be allowed to convert the front yard from lawn to a market garden, and added market gardens to two other rental property front yards also.

In line with the community supported agriculture business model, produce is sold via subscriptions for fresh vegetable boxes.

Koegel says she knows of quite a few tenants that have entered into formal or informal Memorandums of Understanding with their landlords to enable them to take up urban agriculture in exchange for the landlord receiving a share of the produce such as honey from backyard bees or fresh fruit and vegetables.

For the landlords, where they seek to retain a tenant long-term, the tenant’s commitment to building up the soil and cultivating a productive garden can be a positive sign the tenant is in the property for the long haul.

Developers are showing interest

Koegel says there is increasing interest from developers in urban growing. 

3000acres has worked on temporary garden projects with developers including Evolve and Milieu where the site has been used for a community garden pending construction and completion of the planned development.

It also worked with Villawood on a long-term, permanent garden for one of its residential developments in Clyde North, where the garden is part of a community hub and focal point for the whole new community.

Drivers for urban agriculture include a reaction to the War on Waste ABC documentary series, which has given new impetus to compositing of organic food waste.

Consumers are also concerned about the “supermarket duopoly”, the security of the food supply due to the impacts of climate change, and the carbon emissions associated with food miles, Koegel says.

A large proportion of the organisation’s work is with local councils.

Koegel says the councils recognise the benefits of urban agriculture for mental and physical health, and also as a way of bringing disparate groups together.

For communities where residents are first- or second-generation Australians, Koegel says there can be an interest in growing “food from home” that is not readily available in the supermarkets.

“Food has a way of connecting people to each other.”

Her organisation has been participating in trials of some of the food plants from West Africa and Papua New Guinea, for example, such as sweet potatoes.

Most of its work with councils recognises the benefits to physical and mental heath, and bringing disparate communities together, since the councils have an interest in this.

Three Melbourne councils have active urban agriculture strategies: the City of Yarra, City of Moreland and City of Darebin.

Darebin will soon be hosting a Backyard Harvest Festival to showcase urban agriculture, with workshops and tours, and translators on hand for key community languages to ensure inclusivity.

Koegel says the councils are active in establishing food growing on their own land, particularly in conjunction with key community hubs such as libraries and neighbourhood houses.

Melbourne City Council has also been active in the food production space. 3000acres worked with it to establish gardens and a composting hub at the Kensington Stockyard. 

The site is subject to heritage requirements, so raised garden beds were co-designed that sit on, but do not affect, the bluestone paving.

VicTrack has also been proactively looking to share its land for food growing on land at Victoria Station. 

Not-for-profit meals provider FareShare established a garden so it could “build up” the meals it provides with fresh produce.

It is one of three urban farm sites FareShare is managing, with another at Moorabbin Airport and one on private land, Baguely Farm at Clayton South.

The VicTrack micro-farm has focused on produce that adds weight to meals such as carrots and sweet potatoes, and incorporates beekeeping and an orchard.

“It’s a great example of where land use can be unlocked,” Koegel says.

Melbourne Water is proactively engaging with urban food growing, opening up potentially hundreds of hectares of land that it owns and manages for community initiatives including urban farming.

It has set up an interactive website that enables interested community groups to find land and submit a proposal and is currently supporting and co-funding demonstration projects.

In addition to its hands-on consulting and project management work, 3000acres works closely with a number of other organisations across the education, training, community capacity building and research sectors.

They include Sustain – the Australian Food Network,  Cultivating Community and Permablitz, as well as farmers markets and local food swaps.

Read, listen, watch!

If, like some of us here at The Fifth Estate, you feel the need for an uplifting antidote to the news headlines of late – here’s some positivity that is all about food and growing it.

According to Indira Naidoo, “Resistance is fertile” 

Her book, The Edible City, showcases a range of examples of urban farming in action, including the Wayside Chapel rooftop farm, Fitzroy Community Garden, Mesa verde restaurant worm farm, Turramurra Lookout Community garden and Mount Carmel School’s bushtucker garden.

It is also spiced with recipes and gardening tips, including what grows well when, where and how.

For a quick pick-me-up with a food-growing theme, take just over three minutes out of your day and have a listen to this very upbeat and quirky song by Formidable Vegetable – Grow a Garden. We came across it while checking out what Permablitz has been up to lately, and it definitely planted a smile or two!

And for inspiration on the big picture agriculture front, Patagonia Provisions’ 2016 documentary, Unbroken Ground, is nourishing food for thought. It highlights some of those shifting away from chemical-dependent, monocultures towards soil-enriching, organic and multi-crop approaches.

One of the big takeaways from the film is the way westernised agriculture tries to grow grains and animals that are not adapted by nature to the area they are being cultivated in, creating a need for substantial chemical inputs. 

It also notes that the massive reliance on just one species – wheat – in our food systems creates a major vulnerability in the supply chain. 

So, there are bold experiments underway to organically cultivate a range of grains and pulses that can be used for craft brewing, breadmaking and other foods.

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