23 February 2022

Could Canberra grow more of its own food?

| Lottie Twyford
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Women in a garden

Karina Vennonen of the Patchwork Urban Farm Project, University of Canberra Associate Professor Bethaney Turner and Minister for the Environment Rebecca Vassarotti in the midst of a bountiful local harvest. Photo: ACT Government.

Right now, 90 per cent of Canberra’s fresh produce, such as leafy greens and fruits, comes from the Sydney region.

But a new discussion paper from the ACT Government is asking Canberrans to get creative about how the Territory could have more control over its food supply and produce more food in its own backyard.

After all, the memories of bare shelves and supply chain disruptions experienced throughout the pandemic are not so far behind for many.

Solutions to local food production could include rezoning public land for use as community gardens or increasing backyard growing.

This call to action – or at least conversation – has been welcomed by Canberra’s Patchwork Urban Farm.

The urban farm exists thanks to five households that volunteered their gardens to produce food and volunteers who tended to the gardens.

In one year, the five areas have produced a “bountiful harvest” of tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, pumpkins, spinach and more.

The project was started by Karina Vennonen who brought eight years of backyard growing and gardening experience to the project.

“We’ve been growing food in this area since August last year, and we would have only started setting up in July last year, so we’ve definitely made some quick progress,” Ms Vennonen said.

She explained that the produce grown in the five gardens is then distributed to 34 households every week in a vegetable box – including themselves.

“We sell those veggie boxes on a sliding scale payment system, so people from a different range of financial situations can still get really healthy, affordable food.”

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Minister for Environment Rebecca Vassarotti said that while there’s obviously no way the ACT could ever produce all its own food, there are likely simple changes that could help the region better produce more food.

“We’re looking at doing what we can to ensure all Canberrans have access to affordable, sustainable and healthy food,” she said.

“We know there are backyard growers who are really excited about this, but we’re also interested in hearing from apartment dwellers who may not have access to that space.

“That will be especially important as the city densifies.”

She said new policies, support to backyard growers, and education and awareness about local food production could be important elements of the government’s strategy moving forward.

Ms Vassarotti is keen to see Canberra have a “more resilient food system” and one that better connects rural producers to city eaters.

She acknowledged the work of small, local producers and farmers’ markets that helped keep Canberrans fed when supply chain issues left supermarket shelves bare earlier this year.

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Associate Professor at the University of Canberra Bethaney Turner, who authored a Food in the ACT study in 2012, says a discussion paper on the subject is “vital” given COVID-19, recent bushfires and the climate crisis.

Professor Turner said the latest data on food production in the ACT is now 30 years old.

“We don’t know exactly what we’re producing now, so without that benchmark, we can’t really comment on how much more we need to grow,” she said.

“We know that this is happening and that we can support this in a bigger way and encourage that distribution process whereby more people have access to nutritious, safe food.”

Professor Turner said First Nations and multicultural community knowledge should also be included in the discussion paper and any long-term food strategy.

You can have your say on the discussion paper until Sunday (27 February).

The paper forms part of a new Food and Fibre strategy that the ACT Government is looking to develop.

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I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to be able to grow a small garden, keep some chickens etc but due to outrageous prices of houses in Canberra with anything resembling a backyard are forced to rent (no garden there) or live in tiny apartments with balconies barely wide enough for a person to stand. I’m all for community gardens, but I think affordable housing is a higher priority. Then people can do whatever they want with their yards.

Getting the impression that perhaps one of the responders here may, just possibly, have been a rural LEASEholder unhappy with resumption of their land. Not sure what’s tipped me off.

HiddenDragon7:55 pm 24 Feb 22

The ABC gardening show has been running stories on this sort of stuff for years – nice, if a bit twee, but certainly better than wasting water trying to keep grass green and then mowing it.

The elephant in the veggie patch, though, is what about all the people who are being herded into high-rise apartments and cheek-by-jowl townhouses with poky, paved courtyards which, at various times of the year will be oven-like or freezer-like. Will the ACT government be mandating space for community gardens for all new apartment and townhouse developments?

Impractical due to our dry climate – each household would need to install large water tanks which without subsidies is out of reach of most families. The fact that possums eat every young crop you try to grow means this won’t work unless we are permitted to poison them.

Quite right Sam. It is dry but I have 5000 litre rainwater tank that somehow manages to keep enough water supply for my veggies in my backyard. Cost was less than $1000 plus a small electric pump from Bunnings. Raised veggie beds, three compost bins and netting occasionally plus a bird bath to encourage my feathered pest controllers. I grant you it is difficult at times, and I am lucky I have just retired and been unable to travel due to Covid but it can be done. Despite the fact I live near a reserve, my possum issues have been limited (thankfully). Only two of us now but manage to get something useful out of the garden every second meal. Once again I acknowledge that I am very lucky and maybe not everyone can or will do this.

I grow vegetables and fruit. The fruit needs to be netted, as between the bats (it’s Gothic at times above my house), possums and birds, I would get zero fruit. Some nights, there are loud screams with conflict between bats and possums over the fruit. Also my roof sounds like a highway some nights. The vegetables though, are rarely touched, at least in summer. I need to cover the green leafy vegetables in winter, as when other food is in short supply the hoards of wildlife will eat that to the ground. In summer, my vegetables generally are safe.

I meant to put in my other comment, that I have a 45,000 litre rain water tank. It’s always been enough, except at the end of the last drought when it almost ran dry. It’s full (or close enough to) at present. It also feeds toilets and the washing machine.

Oh oh, discussion paper, new policies, benchmarking, education and awareness, with the ACT Government getting involved this will all soon turn to ****. Next thing they will be registering the gardens and wanting a vegetable tax or a potato levy or a pumpkin surcharge. What about a rates reduction for people with productive vegetable and flower gardens? We already grow our own potatoes, zucchini, leeks, spinach, garlic and tomatoes etc. Several of the older persons living beside us ( no, not a retirement village) already have thriving gardens, a legacy of their parents living through the Depression (Google that one anyone under the age of thirty), and living through a world war, and older migrants from Europe and Asia. Patchwork urban garden is a great idea. keep it going. As for the hat, I like it but not on me. If this government gets involved then cue the boiler suits and straw hats for a uniform and a prominent poster of Chairman Barr.

Lenin called, he wants his hat back.

While useful input on this topic may be slightly out of reach for you, maybe your contribution to this discussion paper could be in regards to the state sanctioned uniform you think everyone should have to wear seeing as you seem to have such a problem with consumers having access to clothes provided on an open market.

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