Fiona Buining runs a small-scale microgreens business out of her backyard farm in Ainslie, fittingly called Ainslie Urban Farm. She’s a passionate educator with a vision for an ambitious urban farmer training program to get more people growing food locally.
Fiona started growing microgreens as a fundraiser for her teaching work at the Merici College Kitchen Garden. It quickly outgrew the school so she took it on as a small business and found that the chefs who were buying her microgreens weren’t able to access enough locally grown produce.
At the same time she was still teaching students how to grow food but realised there wasn’t a pathway for them to continue after they left school, as horticulture and agriculture courses generally have a focus on traditional broadacre farming rather than small-scale, urban vegetable production.
“I realised there was a demand for local fresh food but a lack of vocational pathways for people to become urban farmers,” Fiona told Region.
“So that’s where I came up with the idea to apply for the Churchill fellowship to investigate vocational pathways for people who want to grow food.”
The Churchill Fellowship took Fiona to the US, Canada, UK and the Netherlands to study a range of urban farming training programs. Her research focused on soil-based growing, not vertical or indoor growing.
Fiona divides the programs she studied into three categories: heart programs, farmer incubators, and practicum training programs.
Heart programs are social enterprises that use vocational training as a way to provide employment for those who may face barriers, like recently incarcerated people, people experiencing homelessness or recovering from addiction.
Fiona describes these programs as having a hugely beneficial impact on the people who take part.
“There’s a transformative power in training people how to grow food on a productive urban farm that changes lives and gets them into employment,” she said.
Farmer incubator schemes allow first-time farmers the opportunity to run a farming enterprise in a supportive environment. These farmers often do not have access to land or start-up money, and they may also be lacking in the skills. A farmer incubator program overcomes these barriers through training, resources, and a community of other growers to learn from.
The third pathway is what Fiona calls a practicum: usually a more formal qualification run at a university or other educational facility, often in partnership with other farms.
Having studied these successful programs, Fiona has a vision to start Australia’s first urban farmer incubator training hub in Canberra. This program would provide employment and training to new farmers, as well as eventually creating a network of urban farmers across Canberra providing fresh food to the community.
“Growing food where people live comes with a whole lot of benefits: people are seeing where the food is growing, meeting people who are growing the food, and they can get involved,” she said.
“That gives you the mental health benefits of growing food, as well as a connection between producers and consumers. Also shorter supply chains, reduced emissions, a whole lot of environmental benefits and the food is fresher!”
Fiona envisages the training program taking place on an established, productive urban farm on roughly three acres of land. There would be a bespoke building which would include education spaces, a commercial kitchen, cool room and freezer, vegetable wash and pack station, and loading dock.
This food hub would provide a sales avenue for produce and a way to integrate other local food enterprises into the scheme.
She’d like to run the program as a combination of a heart pathway – offering career and training opportunities to young people leaving incarceration – and an incubator pathway to create supported opportunities for more people to start small-scale farming enterprises.
“One of the really interesting things about running a farm incubator in an urban area is that it really encourages innovation. They can actually try out some interesting ideas and see how it goes because they’ve got that support,” Fiona said.
Some of the innovative projects Fiona witnessed during her fellowship included farms that are growing plants to make organic dyes, farms that are integrating flower and vegetable farming, and ‘pick-your-own’ farms.
Fiona’s bold vision would see Canberra’s eaters accessing more locally grown produce and a vibrant community of innovative growers and farmers running successful enterprises in our city. She sees this as a key part of how the upcoming ACT Government Food and Fibre Strategy can create a vibrant local food economy.
“If we want to grow more food and fibre in Canberra, we have to train people how to do it. We need to skill them up so they can take on these opportunities.”