As we launch into such uncertain times – it is critical we connect local farmers, food, events (virtually) and encourage all of use to look out for each other and see the world through old wise eyes.
Our grandparents lived through war times, of basic rations, of raw food, of eating what was available. We all need to return to our roots, and remember what our elders taught us. We need to be the shining lights to our farmers, communities, and localised food systems. Now more than ever. And to deeply care about each other, our communities and the planet.
As many events and conferences are either cancelled or transitioned to a virtual format, ORICoop recognizes that farmers, food servers, and all those who labor to grow, harvest, prepare, and serve our food are among those most impacted by economic and health effects of COVID-19 and many with limited access to quality medical care in regional areas. Adopting attitudes of empathy and care is needed more than ever to protect our most vulnerable.
At a time when we are seeing impacts on global supply chains, we see the urgent need for our local economy and community resilience. It is a critical time to buy nutrient-rich food from local farms in your area and to take advantage of home delivery where possible. By supporting policies and models for locally owned land and shared ecological stewardship, we can all ensure there is a future where local organic agriculture supports our health, carbon is sequestered in our soils, and sustainable stewardship of the earth provides a pathway for our generation and future generations to connect with the land and to each other.
ORICoop brings together farmers, eaters, businesses and partners to directly support farmers in their time of need. Together we are focussed on increasing the amount, diversity and productivity of organically and regeneratively managed farmland around Australia, while building a resilient food and farming system that can change the way our farmers do business…. for the better!
There has never been a better time to care more about your community! Join ORICoop today, and connect more closely with your food system, one meal at a time.
It’s hard to paint an accurate picture that encapsulates the scale and extent of Australia’s current bushfire season, and with more than 50 separate fires still burning across the continent at the time of writing, it may be some time before the magnitude of the crisis is fully understood.
Unprecedented in their intensity and geographical scope, fires have been burning across every state, but particularly fiercely through the coastal and eastern ranges of New South Wales (NSW) and north-eastern Victoria. As of 14 January, 2020, bushfires this season have burned through an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed close to 2,500 homes, damaged more than 10,000 buildings and resulted in the loss of 33 lives. Air quality across the country has reached hazardous levels prompting a rise in people seeking emergency treatment for respiratory problems, with both Melbourne and Canberra’s air quality rated the worst in the world on several dates across January. The cumulative smoke from the bushfires has, on several occasions, surged more than 17 kilometres up into the stratosphere, blanketing New Zealand’s South Island and travelling approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 miles) across the South Pacific Ocean to South America. The ‘fire clouds’ that have formed as a result have stimulated their own weather systems, with thunderstorms and lightning strikes igniting new and unpredictable fires – and, at this writing, it’s only halfway through the summer.
As the driest inhabited continent on earth, bushfires have been a natural part of the history and mythology of the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years. The fire conditions of the current 2019/2020 bushfire season, however, are without parallel on several fronts. Beyond the geographical scale and intensity of the fires, this season’s bushfires have burnt through areas and ecosystems comprised of typically fire-proof vegetation, such as wet eucalyptus forests, rainforests, heathlands and dried-out swamps. World Heritage-listed national parks that are considered some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, like Western Australia’s Stirling Range, have experienced severe casualties of rare and threatened flora and fauna, and may never fully recover. While images of dehydrated koalas and singed kangaroos have captured the world’s attention, a (highly conservative) estimate of 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished, not counting the losses of bats, frogs or the invertebrates that make up the foundational elements of the food chain. The numbers are particularly harrowing considering Australia already bears the highest rate of species loss for any region in the world.
The climatic backdrop precipitating the spate of fires is one of several years of historically hot and protracted summers. Australia’s mean temperature in 2019 was 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than average, making it the warmest year since records began in 1910. Continental-scale droughts, affecting the eastern states most acutely, have been endured for several years, while water levels in key catchment areas, such as the Murray Darling Basin, have been at their lowest levels in a decade. Coupled with record lows in rainfall and soil moisture, and the soaring temperatures and wind speeds of this summer’s weather, the conditions were prime for small fires to become major infernos across large swathes of the country. Amid these conditions, Australian cities and towns in the past month alone have also endured tropical cyclones, hailstorms with stones the size of golf-balls, duststorms and heatwaves. Well and truly before this year’s bushfire season even began, the impact of droughts and flooding rains culminated in mass fish kills, hundreds and thousands of livestock losses and the decomposition of precious wilderness areas. A fragile and dry continent, Australia seems continually caught in the grips of extreme weather roulette, with the stakes likely to become more erratic in the context of a rapidly warming world.
A number of contributing policy failures and government inaction surrounding land and bushfire management have also compounded the risk and severity of the bushfire season. While the federal and NSW and Victoria state governments have announced independent expert inquiries into the bushfires, it should be noted that since 1939, there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries in Australia. According to former senate committees, ‘Previous inquiry processes have not resolved the issues that have been so consistently brought to the attention of governments.’ Some of these issues include inadequate protective burning and fuel reduction (both on public lands and around assets), insufficient resources for fire and land management agencies, and the disregard of local knowledge and experience – including traditional ecological knowledge and land management practices – in managing publicly and privately-owned land. These well-established concerns are likely to resurface in the next series of parliamentary inquiries, the question is whether the recommendations from these will be implemented.
Farmers on the frontlines
It will take some time before the economic, environmental and social costs of the bushfires can be truly ascertained. Significant impacts are already being felt by the agricultural sector, the repercussions of which are likely to affect Australia’s broader food system. While farmers have been grappling with the ongoing impacts of low soil moisture, water and feed shortages for some time now, the localised impacts of bushfires have manifested in unprecedented and highly complex conditions. While tens of thousands of livestock are likely to have perished (or had to be euthanised) as a result of the bushfires, farmers must now face the grim task of burying the carcasses to prevent potential public health and biosecurity risks. The task is so considerable that Australia’s Defence Force has been assigned to dig mass graves, while 100 veterinarians have been deployed across the country to assess and euthanise thousands of stock injured by the blazes. Some farmers have been in imminent danger and continue to face the threat from multiple firefronts, but due to their daily farming enterprises cannot leave their farm. Notwithstanding the defence of their properties and livelihoods, farmers also make up a large proportion of the more than 70,000 volunteers of the Rural Fire Service. It is not uncommon for these volunteers and their families to suffer significant losses or be made homeless while protecting the homes and lives of others.
As food, fuel and water run low in bushfire-hit regions, and some communities are cut-off from electricity and telecommunications for days on end, everyday farming tasks such as milking cows, feeding cattle, weeding or watering crops are no longer tenable, impeding production. Damage to vital infrastructure, such as sheds, storage facilities or machinery is critical, while the destruction of fencing leaves farmers with no way to safely contain their animals. In the absence of physical damage, excessive smoke can taint fruit and vegetable crops, with wine grapes being particularly susceptible. Entire cattle holdings, timber plantations and vineyards have been completely wiped outand charred by flame. When the landscape is burnt and blackened, microbial populations in the soil, particularly fungi, can suffer extensive damage. Depending on the intensity of the fire, it can create bacterially dominant soils and may destroy organic matter, opening up areas for the take-over of invasive weeds. High-intensity fires can also impact water quality by increasing the sediment and nutrient concentrations in waterways. With all the ash and silt pouring into estuaries and waterways, several oyster farms have been closed for harvest due to higher readings of algae, ash debris and other contaminants. Production losses are just the beginning. A whole network of vital infrastructure involved in packing, cool-storing and transporting goods can become impeded by road closures or power outages. Consumers can expect to see higher food prices as the costs of the bushfires add up.
From the ashes: recovery, restoration and regeneration
As the bushfire crisis unfolded across Australia, the world watched attentively. But with the rapid-fire nature of news cycles (and now the downpour of rain and floods across NSW), global attention and conversation has already shifted. How can a transformative dialogue emerge and be sustained after the fires are out? One that not only considers the risks posed by nature on human life and property, but also triggers a re-evaluation of how people conceive of themselves and others in their relationshipwith(in) nature? Such a dialogue will likely involve deep questioning about cultural and social values and beliefs, regulatory, legislative and financial institutions and the interdependence of biological and environmental systems. As people begin the long process of recovery, restoration and regeneration, how can they stimulate conversations and activities that don’t necessarily dictate a particular pathway for ‘resilience’ or ‘adaptation’, but rather, opens up possibilities for more sustainable futures to emerge?
For farmers Penny Kothe of Caroola Farm and Vicki Jones of CSM Organics, it was the catastrophic fires of Black Saturday that raged through Victoria over a decade ago that sparked a total rethink of the way they approach their farmland, families and community. As they began the physical and emotional work of rebuilding their lives, homes, businesses and towns, both farmers made the choice to shift from conventional to regenerative agricultural practices. Predicating the interdependent relationship between humans and the landscape, regenerative farming systems utilise a set of farming practices not just to grow food but to progressively improve the ecosystem in which that food is grown. A holistic and diversified approach, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic the natural, self-organising properties of a healthy ecosystem by focusing on diversity and the health of integrated natural and human systems.
For Penny Kothe, the Black Saturday bushfires were not only a catalyst for reassessing her farming practices, but they also spurred a deeper contemplation of her place on the land and humanity’s collective responsibility for managing it. ‘Losing everything in a house fire made me realise the important things in life – family, health and community – and from that, I started out on a whole new track. Whilst I’d previously read books on permaculture and holistic management, the fire gave me a whole fresh start and determination to lead my life the way I wanted. It made me reflect seriously on the question: what are we even here for?’ For Vicki Jones, the Black Saturday fires prompted contemplation of issues such as farm succession, learned helplessness among farmers and the link between rural isolation and mental health. The rising input costs of feed and fertiliser, the social isolation experienced in supplying long and fragmented supply chains, and the financial volatility of the market during the global financial crisis were factors to consider in the family succession of her farm. These cumulative pressures prompted a shift from conventional to certified organic dairy farming, as well as sourcing an alternative market for her products. Vicki now sells through Prom Coast Food Collective, a producer- and community-centric, low waste model that returns 95% of the dollar to farming families
As both farmers attest, authentic regenerative agriculture requires the broader community to adopt an ethos in their approach to food, landscapes and culture. ‘Regeneration’ in this sense, requires a reshaping of the human journey, one that cultivates the values of environmental stewardship alongside more localised economies that strengthen solidarity between farmer, eater and the Earth. It encourages farmers’ social participation and connectedness with their local communities while instilling a strong, collective ethics of care in response to the social and ecological challenges of our time. As Kothe reflects, ‘It is through such disasters that we re-evaluate the meaning of our lives, come together as communities and divest ourselves of our consumeristic attitudes that have become so ingrained in our way of life.’
It is the collective experiences, voices and defined action of people from impacted communities that will help shape the vision for long-lasting, impactful, transformative change. For frontline farming communities, the solution starts with building thriving local economies which provide farmers with dignified livelihoods that are ecologically diverse, healthy and resilient. It continues beyond the farm through opportunities for integrated land management that draws on indigenous knowledge and the best of modern science. The local and global impact of Australia’s current bushfire crisis is being felt through grief, stress, frustration and disbelief. But perhaps from the ashes, transformative dialogues and new narratives can emerge – ones that create opportunities and pathways for a regenerative future.
On Thursday afternoon the cars began arriving at Christine and Chris Watts’ Paynesville farm. Parking in an empty horse paddock, people lay out tents and swags, pull on work shirts and boots and introduce themselves. All of us have been drawn here by the desire to help out after the fires. Among the twelve volunteers is a young economist, a retired nurseryman, an arborist, a nurse and two organic farmers – who themselves had been burnt out three years previously.
At 6.30am the next morning, Penny, our volunteer coordinator gets us out of bed for a briefing. Under a makeshift shade beside drying racks filled with Creole, Silverskin and enormous fist-sized Russian Garlic, Penny explains that over the next three days we will be trimming and cleaning more than a ton of garlic. And so we make a start – clipping stems, talking, snipping roots, talking, rubbing off skins, talking.
CERES Fair Food has been buying Blue Sky Organics garlic since Chris and Christine’s daughter Madeline harvested their first crop as an eighteen year old ten years ago. The Watts family business grow their garlic up on their Murrindal River flats property north of Buchan Caves.
On New Years Eve the fire went through their farm. It was a week before Chris and Christine were allowed back in, escorted by police. When they got to the farm they couldn’t believe what they saw; everything had burned bar their drying garlic, a historic cottage and their tractor. With the fire continuing to flare in the surrounding bush they decided to bring the garlic back to their place near Paynesville for cleaning.
That lunchtime, our economist also our volunteer cook, has prepared an amazing spread from an abundance of food donated by farmers and organic businesses. Everyone wants to help; there’s milk from Schulz Dairy, bread from Dench and Loafer, eggs from Zanker Farm, apples from Hazeldean, veg from Peninsula Organics and Timbarra, bananas from Organic Growers Group even a delicious biriyani from Crofters restaurant. As we eat Christine Watts confesses they haven’t been cooking much lately – being adrenalised for a month has left the family in a collective brain-fog that manifests in inertia, forgetting and bursts of anger.
Early the next morning we drive up the Buchan Road to the Watts’ farm in Murrindal to collect two more trailer loads of garlic. Everything is normal until we hit Sarsfield, 19kms outside of Bairnsdale. Houses have disappeared leaving ghostly white concrete stumps. You can feel the panic from the hastily cut trees – dropped and shoved aside. We follow a truck loaded with round bales through kilometres of blackened forest. Already epicormic leaves are sprouting from eucalypt trunks but so many more seem too burned to come back. Recent rains have painted farm paddocks bright green. The contrast with the black trees gives everything an oddly benign feel.
We pass burnt houses here while others stand untouched and I recall lines from my old friend Pete Auty’s Black Saturday poem…
I don’t understand. Why this and not that?
Why burn on the ridges and not on the flat?
The little pink cottage surrounded by black,
The mud-brick houses reduced to wrack.
At the Watts’ farm the fire has burnt the bush on the ridges surrounding the property. But the grass has come back making the burnt-out hay baler sitting on its rusty wheel rims just a few meters from the garlic racks seem completely incongruous. We load the garlic stems and a kookaburra’s call builds and fills the river valley below us. Chris says when they first returned to the farm it was silent. But now the birds are coming back. Later on the way home we see a lyrebird scampering across the road and our spirits lift.
Back in Paynesville the news isn’t good; the Russian garlic we’ve begun cleaning seems to have been cracked by the fire’s heat. Christine hopes it’s just a bad batch but as the day progresses it becomes clear that 90% of the crop is affected. Most of these bulbs were to be sold as seed. Christine doesn’t know if they will be viable now. Everybody feels the strain and works on.
By dinner though we are sharing food and smiling once again. We eat and tell stories and later over ice cream, organiser Carolyn Suggate, explains that the most powerful part of the Appeal is the deepening of our relationships with each other, with our farmers, our food and our land. When I leave the following day I feel like I have been here a couple of weeks – the openness of Christine and Chris, the way shared manual work brings strangers together the opportunity to help, to learn, to appreciate and to bare witness is a privilege.
Certified organic fodder due to arrive Christmas Eve!
When we launched the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal two weeks ago, our aim was to raise $14,000 to purchase and transport a B-double load (approx. 50 tonnes) of certified organic fodder to farms in need in NSW.
Since then, thanks to the momentum our supporters have created through the support of this appeal, we’ve had an amazing 120 tonnes of certified organic fodder donated by generous organic producers in Victoria – worth over $60,000! And thanks to the fodder being donated, we’ve also secured $40,000 worth of transport subsidies through the NSW Govt Rural Assistance Authority. This means for every $1 dollar donated – it has created $15 directly to these farmers!
The first of six truck loads of fodder will be delivered to organic & biodynamic farms just in time for Christmas, next Tuesday!
This will help keep stock alive and businesses afloat over the next few months at the following farms:
You’re helping to save these farms – thank you from the bottom of our hearts!
Your donation will go so much further than we could have anticipated when we launched this appeal. As summer rolls on, this means that we’ll be able to provide further support to more farmers affected by drought and bushfires, as needs arise.
You can share details of our Appeal with your local organic retailer or grocer with this flyer, please encourage them to support us!
New bill will be first step by ministers to protect and restore soil as fears grow over a future soil fertility crisis
A new bill will be brought before parliament this year mandating, for the first time, measures and targets to preserve and improve the health of the UK’s soils, amid growing concern that we are sleepwalking into a crisis of soil fertility that could destroy our ability to feed ourselves.
Buying and eating apples seems a pretty healthy thing to do. But a new study has found that every 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) of conventionally grown apples creates health effects costing 21 cents due to the effects of pesticides and fungicides, resulting in sick leave and eventually shorter life expectancies. READ MORE