Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where TRANSITION FARM, Mornington Peninsula, VICTORIA
Our visit to Transition Farm on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula back in 2014 is one we will always remember with fondness. It was a turning point in our lives and the catalyst for the creation of Will Work For Food.
Being relative ‘newbies’ to the world of farming, we’d never seen a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in practice. But the idea of a farm that is supported directly by the people who eat the produce that is grown there - no middle man, no supermarket – made absolute sense to us.
Arriving at Transition Farm we were immediately smitten. We pulled up next to the packing shed and gazed at the rows of capsicum, carrots, celery, cauliflower, leek, kale, sweet potato, and in the distance, large stems of corn swaying in the breeze. It was humble and simplistic, but absolutely perfect.
Owners Peter Carlyon and Robin Koster-Carlyon started Transition Farm six years ago on five acres near Gunnamatta Beach, later adding a further two acres. At the time of our visit, they were growing over 150 varieties of seasonal fruit and vegetables using biodynamic and organic farming practices. Their produce was supplying 85 local families a weekly box based on a CSA model. All crops are started from seed on the farm and produce is delivered within 24 hours of harvest.
In a nutshell, a CSA model is based on a relationship between the people who grow the food and the people who eat the food. It consists of a group of individuals who commit financially to supporting a farm, so that the farm itself almost becomes the community’s farm - the farmer and those that consume the food share both the risks and the bounty.
In the case of Transition Farm, in return for a seasonal membership fee to help cover production costs, CSA members receive a weekly share of quality, organically-grown produce. “We are trying to promote small-scale agriculture as being a viable and sustainable method of feeding local communities …as it used to be,” says Robin.
Robin explains that “we believe that our CSA members are involved in this endeavour because they want to eat nutrient dense, chemical free produce; to localise their food consumption; to eat seasonally; to move away from big business monopoly and control over our food system; and to know how their food production is impacting their whole community.”
On Transition Farm’s website is a quote from Elizabeth Henderson….
“As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini would say, CSAs allow citizens to become “co-producers” with their farmers, rather than passive consumers. At their best, authentic CSAs are a win-win-win. Farmers get living wages and freedom from worry about profits and losses. Everyone weathers the tough times and benefits from the good times. Nothing goes to waste, and community investments help pay for land and equipment. Most of all, eaters get healthy food, good company, and the deep — if not always “convenient” — satisfaction that comes from playing an immediate role in transforming the food system.”
So what led Robin and Peter to CSA farming?
Robin told me about the first farm they ever owned …a potato farm. Being young and inexperienced, they relied on help from a neighbouring farmer to get them through their first season. So when the price of potatoes escalated and the neighbour advised them to sell their potatoes quick smart, they wanted to oblige. The problem was, the potatoes weren’t ready to be harvested.
“The wholesaler didn’t want them until the skins were hard, and the skins don’t harden until the tops of the plants die back,” explains Robin, “so there was nothing we could do, we just had to wait.”
Not so, according to their neighbour. “He told us that we just had to get them out of the ground now because ‘the market is going to get flooded and the price is going to drop, and you’ve got a mortgage’ …he was totally thinking about us!”
“So he said Robin, you just put a bit of Roundup in your spray tank and run over the crop, the tops die back, the skins harden, and you harvest. Who’s going to know?”
“These are the things that the economy does to the best practice of farmers. Instead of growing food in a way that they know is good, they base it on the price, and they do things that even they might think is compromising. But they don’t know who’s eating the food, they don’t know anything about these people. It’s very impersonal.”
We hear so much about how consumers are disconnected from the farmers that grow their food. Turns out it’s a two-way street. The farmers are also disconnected from the people that eat the food they grow. No wonder the system is so broken.
“That’s what supermarkets are doing to farming. They’re saying, ‘well this is the price that you’re going to get’ and it’s totally unrelated to how much you had to do that year for that crop - did you need more water, did you need more workers...”
“With the CSA model, none of that matters. What we’ve worked out, or what we’re trying to work out, is the true cost of growing food this way and then work out how much a share will cost.
If you can do that then you have a totally sustainable system - economically sustainable, socially sustainable because you’re looking after the people in your community and everyone’s getting healthier, environmentally sustainable because you’re looking after the earth …the whole system will work. Yes it’s idealistic, but I think it’s good to have a goal,” smiles Robin.
Yes it is Robin, yes it is. Especially when the goal is this grand, the result is this wonderful, and the alternative is, well, not good at all.
Transition Farm is not certified organic and as Robin explains, “we don’t feel the need to because we have direct accountability with the people that eat our food.”
“I recently attended a seminar with Allan Savory who spoke about the effects our farming practices are having on the earth. It’s really depressing and I get overwhelmed with the state of the earth. We are killing soil at an alarming rate. I feel very disempowered to do anything because I’m just so little. But the one tangible thing I came up with is if people could just meet their farmers, and know where their food is coming from, it would make the world of difference.”
“Maybe they can’t physically meet them, but we have this great tool - the internet - and we can use it to research how farmers are growing things, know how they’re treating their stock, how they’re treating the earth. Then we can support people who are growing things in great ways, responsible ways. It would make a huge difference. Because how our food is grown or raised is one of the leading contributors to climate change.
And the thing is if you start doing it and then you share that information with a friend, and then other people start doing it …it can actually be really trendy and cool to know your farmer, because you’re no longer just contributing to mass consumerism, you’re directly supporting the people that are growing in a way that supports and cares for the earth.”