Published 06 July 2017
Recently I’ve been talking to a range of farmers who practice “regenerative agriculture”. These farmers focus their energies on building carbon-rich soils; nurturing plant diversity; developing their land’s capacity to withstand droughts, floods and climate volatility; and make minimal or no use of chemicals. These conversations have taken me from Canowindra and Kandos in the central west of NSW, to Bingara, Uralla and Inverell in the New England region and up to Mackay in Queensland. 
Meanwhile, I’ve been watching the flourishing urban farming movement with keen interest. Urban Food Street on the Sunshine Coast gathers locals to grow food on the verges of residential streets, and in so doing has created a remarkable suburban Commons. Pocket City Farms in Sydney has repurposed two bowling greens as fields of crops, serving a much-needed educational role where volunteers and children can participate in farming. The hunger for this education is widespread. Countless workshops on permaculture, worm-farming, small-space gardening and so on are delivered by councils and community groups across Australia, with The City of Sydney’s City Farm and 107 Project’s Rooftop Garden being notable examples in inner Sydney.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between urban farming and regenerative agriculture. They are both grassroots movements driven by idealistic energy, community solidarity, and an urgent sense of pragmatism. They attest to a groundswell of awareness that our food system is dysfunctional and unsustainable. People who are involved in these movements are concerned that farmers and non-farmers alike have been deskilled in the knowledge of how we can feed ourselves by working with, and not against, the planet’s ecological processes. And both movements want to activate “the local”. While the urban community gardener wants to harvest even small amounts of food from within their neighbourhood, the regenerative farmer wants to revive the smaller regional abattoirs, dairies and mills of the past. Both worry about the excessive ‘food miles’, waste, carbon emissions, environmental damage and farmer debt that are the costs of a food system dominated by Coles and Woolworths.
Given the common values of these two movements, I’ve been wondering about how we can build bridges across the many kilometres of freeway and dirt road, and the considerable cultural and social gulfs, that separate them. Two images from my recent encounters with farmers have informing my thinking:
- A Canowindra farmer said to me: “The city is a desert. It’s like an anthill: armies of workers truck in food from beyond its borders so its inhabitants can survive. In the process, it turns the land around it into a desert.” This is a striking metaphor for the city’s heavy reliance on rural providers that most of us think very little about. It is also an image of the city wedded to an agricultural system that is mining the earth.
- In 2016, Inverell farmer Glenn Morris rode his horse across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He was protesting the NSW government’s relaxation of land clearing laws, appalled that we should be licensing the destruction of forests and so releasing the carbon held by those trees. His protest was a plea for the wider community to recognise that many farmers are actively engaged in climate change mitigation. Morris knows that adapting the working landscapes of Australian farms (which makes up 60% of Australia’s landmass) can be hugely effective in addressing our environmental sustainability aspirations. As he said to me ‘everyone knows me as the guy with the horse protesting against land clearing legislation. I wish they knew me for the way I farm to build soil biology, sequester carbon and contribute beneficially to the climate cycle.’ Morris’ message is that we should recognise that farmers are not only primary producers but custodians of our environmental assets: forests, soils, water and carbon. If we rewarded them for stewarding the land sustainably, we would have a very powerful environmentalist strategy that bridged the rural/urban divide.
My hope is that the experience of urban farming triggers a new understanding of how cities are linked to the land around them. 93% of Australia’s population of 24 million live in cities, while our 120,000 farmers are scattered across rural Australia. Regardless of where we are located we are agents within the agricultural system, and capable of changing it both through our consumption patterns and the way we care for land. Linking the urban farming movement and the regenerative farming movement will enable us to address both of these imperatives by pursuing more holistic processes of change. To give these processes momentum let’s start by creating forums for the extraordinary knowledge of the regenerative agriculture community to find an audience in the city.
Laura Fisher is a post-doctoral research fellow at Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney. She has written about environmentalism in socially engaged art, urban cycling, Aboriginal art in Australia and cross-cultural art encounters. Laura’s current work marries social research and collaborative artistic practice, and she works closely with fellow members of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation art collective. She is interested in how artists are bridging the rural/urban divide globally, and exploring several projects in Australia, Sweden, Russia and Japan that are responding to rural depopulation, environmental crisis, food economies and conflicts over land use.
Image: Pocket City Farms, Camperdown Commons, Sydney. Image courtesy of Laura Fisher.