Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, Bellingen, September 2023

Shani Keane, a local grower from Left Field Farm and Stepping Stone Farm, and a regular seller at the SAGE Farmers Market, attended this year’s Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering.

Shani kindly provided an interesting report for SAGE readers, including the Deep Winter Statement which was developed following consultation with the gathering.   

Shani says,

“To give you a sense of the event, I’ll start with part of the Deep Winter Statement that distilled much of the weekend’s discussions. Ruth Gaha-Morris who some of you will know from Southern Harvest Association, put together the statement following consultations with the gathering…

The statement said in part:

“This year Farmers brought a wide range of topics for discussion, however, woven throughout every discussion was one theme, it came up again and again - Community and Collaboration. Farmers want this, they need it, and it appears it may provide the solution to many of the hurdles faced by small scale farmers today. Sharing time, sharing resources, sharing knowledge, sharing burdens and risks, and sharing the rewards.

Our conventional farming system isolates and sets farmers against one another through a competition mentality that is ingrained in much of what we do every day. Small scale farmers are working together to break away from this. They are working together to increase reach, increase diversity, build each other up and shift the dominant mentality from competition to collaboration.

When new farmers are struggling to get started, we can support them through mentoring and examples of successful enterprise. We can help farmers get onto land, when there are financial barriers to access, by developing and sharing models for collectivising. How we develop the agreements that collective efforts are founded upon, need to be a shared resource. Examples from those already treading the path can help to light the way for those just starting out.”

This sentiment clearly validates the work that SAGE does in staging the weekly farmers market and continuing to develop Stepping Stone Farm as a vehicle for supporting aspiring market gardeners. It should be noted that the demographic of attendees at Deep Winter 23 was predominantly young and middle-aged people and there was plenty of cynicism expressed about access to land and equity for young people in these times of inflated property values and lopsided rental market… so this is a big discussion that needs to continue.

As for the Deep Winter event, highlights included a tour of the very successful market gardening enterprise NEW LIFE FARM, run by Darren Smith and his partner Alice near Sapphire Beach, just north of Coffs Harbour. They’ve been evolving their enterprise over the past 10 years and Darren runs an impeccably tidy operation full time, while Alice works on the farm part time as well as doing the books. They generate enough income from half an acre of very intensively farmed land to employ two other workers. Their main sales are via online, with about 40 customers able to pick up their produce at designated pick-up points once a week. They also supply local cafes and restaurants. Their trial-and-error approach to market gardening has led them to be in a position now where beds only require a bucket or two of amendments for each new crop and they have refined their irrigation practices to significantly reduce their water usage.

Darren says the key to New Life Farm’s success is understanding that “time is their most valuable asset”, which means constantly finding more efficient ways of operating, and finding ways of operating that reduce back-breaking work. I took copious notes during this visit and lots of photos which will be useful to Tanya and I as we gradually establish Left Field Farm.

The second farm visit was to LEVENVALE FARM near Bellingen. Here we looked at the steady and successfully evolving regeneration of cattle country by Georgia and Sam Baker who had a background in conventional, traditional grain growing in Queensland. Their Bello Beef is certified organic, and they have achieved some major improvements in pasture and soil in just seven years through regenerative practices.

Sam and Georgina have opened up their land to a young Brisbane couple Luigi and Nidya of The Patch Organics. This inspiring young couple are growing vegetables and raising free range chickens which are contributing to the regeneration of Levenvale’s pastures. We took a walk up the hill on Levenvale and looked back towards the chicken operations and there was a very obvious corridor of vibrant green pasture where the chickens had been free ranging. Recently Luigi and Nidya moved into a rental cottage on Levenvale Farm and they are hoping that the cooperative and collaborative arrangements with Georgia and Sam will provide them with a secure farming future.

The rest of the Deep Winter weekend was spent at Bellingen Showground where we broke into groups to discuss a variety of delegate nominated topics. These included:

  • Soil Health and Fertility
  • Harvesting and getting produce to customers
  • Customer relations, marketing and communication
  • Specialised topics such as Flowers, Fungi, Animal husbandry, seed raising, agroforestry
  • Farmer well-being

Perhaps the most valuable information I gained from the weekend from the perspective of Left Field Farm and Stepping Stone Farm and collaboration with other local enterprises was listening to the experience of the Deep Winter hosts from North Arm Farms in the Nambucca Valley. Four enterprises, including three vegetable growers and a mushroom farm, have joined forces to produce cooperative boxes each week. Through the Open Food Network’s free and open-source software platform, they have an effective sales and marketing system. Each enterprise is paid for what they sell each week, and they sell a diverse range of produce.

I think there is great opportunity in the future for similar collaborations in the Eurobodalla and it is something that Left Field Farm will investigate down the track when we are more established.

DEEP WINTER STATEMENT - BELLINGEN

Over the weekend of the 14th to 16th of July 2023, approx 100 farmers and allies met on Gumbaynggirr lands for the Annual Deep Winter Agrarian gathering. First Nations people have lived, farmed and cared for this land for thousands and sovereignty was never ceded.  We were welcomed to this land by Uncle Micklo, who also taught us to speak our happiness to be on this land, in the local indigenous language.

The work we do on a daily basis is nourished by the activities of Deep Winter. The opportunity to see old friends and colleagues, meet new ones, build solidarity and connect with others in the field. This forum is a space for us to collectively discuss our challenges and successes, and share knowledge, experiences, and strategy to deepen our thinking and strengthen our movement.

This year Farmers brought a wide range of topics for discussion, however, woven throughout every discussion was one theme, it came up again and again  - Community and Collaboration. Farmers want this, they need it and it appears it may provide the solution to many of the hurdles faced by small scale farmers today. Sharing time, sharing resources, sharing knowledge, sharing burdens and risks and sharing the rewards.

Our conventional farming system isolates and sets farmers against one another through a competition mentality that is ingrained in much of what we do everyday. Small scale farmers are working together to break away from this. They are working together to increase reach, increase diversity, build each other up and shift the dominant mentality from competition to collaboration.

When new farmers are struggling to get started, we can support them through mentoring and examples of successful enterprise. We can help farmers get onto land, when there are financial barriers to access, by developing and sharing models for collectivising. How we develop the agreements that collective efforts are founded upon, need to be a shared resource. Examples from those already treading the path can help to light the way for those just starting out.

The cost and viability of small-scale farming can be boosted by collectivising and creating larger grouped entities that maintain the integrity of small scale and local while having increased resilience, diversity and support. We are challenged to change our view point from ingredients to values. To see our products as more than the simple ingredients we are putting on the table to the values behind what we do and help our communities to do the same. 

Small Scale Farmers are calling for a Multipronged approach to land management, the key to which is increasing biological diversity. The problems and challenges of working the land don’t occur in isolation and need a mosaic of solutions. We need to look right back to the beginning of farming in this country and the knowledge of the first peoples of this land, to build solutions for the future. Listening to the land and feeling for the subtle energies being emitted. 

‘What gives you hope?’ Being here, held within the beating heart of this community. 



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