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Networked food systems for a resilient, thriving region in North East Victoria

A collaborative food system using land, community, farmers and capital for empowered farmers, localised food systems & resilient communities

Photo of Jen Sheridan
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Open Food Network Australia

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Organic and Regenerative Investment Co-op, Beechworth Food Co-op

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://about.openfoodnetwork.org.au/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Melbourne

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Australia

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

North East Victoria

What country is your selected Place located in?

Australia

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Serenity Hill, co-founder of Open Food Network, grew up on a sheep farm here. She & partner (& Open Food Network co-founder) Kirsten Larsen worked in food system policy & academia in Melbourne, with plans to return & take on the family farm. As they delved into the challenges facing the food system, they realised new ways of connecting farmers & eaters were needed to relieve the cost-price squeeze on farmers. They founded Open Food Network, an open source online platform that allows farmers to sell directly, & aggregate to sell collaboratively (& which is now used in 10+ countries). They began developing methodologies for supporting regional food system development, piloting them in the North-East. They returned to the region 3 years ago, and are now running the family farm.

Carolyn Suggate, ORICoop’s founder, runs a certified organic mixed enterprise farm. Carolyn and her family moved here after her family farm was passed out of the family. Her experience of farm succession planning gone wrong drove her to find other solutions for how a new generation of farmers access farmland. So, she conceived of & founded the Organic and Regenerative Investment Co-op, which enables shared investment in farmland to support new regenerative and organic farmers onto land.

Jade Miles, Beechworth Food Co-op founder, returned to this region thanks to family ties. Shocked by the high level of farmer suicide, she set about finding ways to get local farmers a fair price for their produce. Her goal was to alleviate the mental pressure created by an agricultural landscape in which local farmers are price-takers rather than price-makers, and are caught at the confluence of climate change impacts, corporatisation of farming, and dropping farmgate prices. Instead, the Beechworth Food Co-op works with local producers to pay them a fair price for farming ethically.

The region is the anchor for each of these people, and the work they do in trying to build a better food system.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The North East of Victoria is a highly productive farming region, that has strong agricultural ties and a strong collaborative community spirit. It contains a mix of both conservative and innovative farmers and environmentally-minded idealists drawn to the region’s mountains and national parks.

Wangaratta city is the hub for the region, containing hospitals, universities and government, with the employment profile reflecting the diversity of small businesses servicing the greater region.

Old tobacco kilns dot the agricultural landscape on farms now predominantly used for cattle. Wineries and hops vines line the main tourism roads, and small towns specialise in different produce. 

The region is at high risk of increased tourism, increasing land prices and extreme climatic events. This means that land is an important resource, that should be stewarded well, and preserved for food & community resilience for the long term. 

The community has a strong connection with its history - of Indigenous land management, and shamefully the removal of these communities upon European invasion. It also strongly identifies with the folk lore of the mountain cattlemen, grazing cattle in alpine plateaus - a now-contentious practice that plays out on a national political scale.

Much of the land not used for national parks or forestry is under agricultural use, but there is little local food connection. Instead, farmers in the region have become more dependent on commodity driven farm production. 

The food enjoyed is seasonally diverse, but often shipped in from long distances. There is limited ethnic diversity, with strong English & European influences across the region. This is slowly changing, as Australia's migration diversifies to regional areas - and with this comes the richness of changing food and cultural systems. 

The role of agriculture is highly valued in the region, however it would have more resilience if the localised food systems were understood and valued to the extent they need to be. This would have a knock on effect on the health and diets of the people in these regions, and the community resilience of strong localised and direct food and farming systems.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

27658

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

143271

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The North East of Victoria is at a crossroads of change, both climatically, regionally and demographically.

Bushfires that were unprecedented are becoming a way of life, with farmers and communities on active alert to fire threats for months on end over summer. This summer’s fires have given an apocalyptic insight into a climate-change affected world, with constant fear, damaging smoke haze for months, and fiery skies as a backdrop to daily life.

Australia is sometimes described as the canary in the coal mine for climate impacts, and this region epitomises that. The challenges identified by the partners in this project are being exacerbated by record-breaking heat, seemingly never-ending drought, unseasonal floods, and changing temperatures that are bringing new pest pressures.

There are increasing impacts from tourism on farming. Land prices have risen due to purchasing for tourism and by multinational farming corporations. Young farmers are priced out, and farming communities are being eroded.

It has affected our region’s connection with our food, our limited range of local food supply, the community and the way our community interacts with our region.

Here, and across Australia, our farmers have limited options for selling their produce at a fair price. Our food system is dominated by a duopoly, as just 2 supermarket chains control 91% of the grocery market. Farmers are forced to take prices and contract conditions offered by the supermarkets, whether these allow for sustainable farming or not.

Consequently, farmers do anything they can to make a living from within the parameters set by the supermarkets. At times this is unethical use of immigrant workers in slave-like conditions. Elsewhere it is overapplication of fertilisers or overstocking of cattle, eroding brittle Australian soils, leaving scarred landscapes.

The consequences of living in this way are making our farmers ill. They carry the impact of unsafe chemical use, seen in disease clusters related to farming practices. They have a disproportionate rate of suicide, as they shoulder the burden of debt, low prices, and the ever-increasing impacts of climate change.

The strong dependency on a centralised food supply puts our farmers and food at risk now, and into the future. It fails to empower our region to have a climate and food resilience strategy. It does not enable or incentivise farmers to produce diverse and local food, rather than commodities.

As the climate changes, our region will see increased drought & flooding. It will see increased days of heat waves so hot that animals die & fruit is burnt by the sun on the tree before it ripens. The season in which bushfires bring life to a standstill is only going to lengthen.
It’s likely that farmland will continue to be chipped away at for tourism & by investors. Consolidation of food & farming companies is likely to continue, & to keep having an impact on farmgate prices in our region.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision is of a food system in this region that is connecting land, people and capital, for a collective and successful outcome.

Instead of being both a cause and a symptom of the challenges, our food security and local food systems will be seen as a central part of the solutions and key drivers for change.

Our vision addresses the poor farming practices farmers are pushed into by relieving them of the cost-price squeeze imposed by current market practices. Instead, receiving a fair price for their produce enables a shift to environmentally sustainable practices that help reverse damages already done. It also helps them shift to more ethical practices, paying their workers fairer wages.

This alleviates the stress that has become taken for granted in the current system, addressing the mental health crisis facing farmers in this region.

Farming in new ways, that are responsive to the current landscape will help farmers find new ways to reduce the already locked-in impacts of climate change. It will also help them contribute to reversing the climate trajectory we are on, instead allowing them to focus on - and be rewarded for - drawing down carbon.

Shifting farming practices allows for a more diverse regional diet. This ensures the community is more resilient to food security shocks such as the current bushfire crisis, while also diversifying their income streams.

Finding new forms of investment and community ownership addresses the land access issues currently facing portions of the farming community. This can include the next generation of farmers, and a more diverse community of farmers. This also offers the opportunity to undertake some reparation and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in this region, and to begin changing how agricultural practice is defined in this region.

By using networked, distributed solutions, farmers are more empowered and have greater control over their own lives - they are no longer beholden to commodity markets or the supermarket duopoly. 

Our vision is that food becomes a central guiding principle and goal - not just for agriculture but also for policy and community.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

When you enter the North East of Victoria - you are entering a new type of food & farming system. One that is powered by the people, that is a collective of locally owned farmer and food cooperatives that supplies the region the majority of its food supply all year round. 

Farmers are making a good living from the food they grow, the food is affordable, healthy and regenerative for the land. 

When you walk across paddocks there is a springiness underfoot - the topsoil has been regenerated to pre-European levels, native grasses have returned and hold carbon deep in the soil. Dramatic rain events seep in quickly, rather than sluicing topsoil off into degraded gullies. The earth smells rich - its dusty scent of years gone past is no longer. 

People are more connected with where their food comes from, seasonal and regional eating, and take it less for granted that we live in an area of extreme cold and hot climates. The children in the region know where their food comes from, have diverse skill sets as they have grown up part of the land, with family deeply involved and connected with food and farm production. 

There is local funding for incoming farmers and those that are looking to diversify their current commodity based farm system, with deeply valued respect for the land, food and farmers as a community. 

The local Indigenous community has greater ownership of land, their land and food sovereignty has been regained in places. 

Together we can change the way that we interact with the land, people and food - if we understand and value it better than we do now.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

By returning to locally based food cooperatives and farming communities, and empowering farmers to diversify their farming systems we can change the way that land is viewed. One farm at a time.

Empowered farmers shorten and network their supply chains. They have diversified markets, and receive a higher proportion of every dollar that consumers pay for food. They use open source, networked technological solutions to reach local markets and those further afield.

Better margins allowed them to change their farming to regenerative practices that are pulling down more carbon the region produces. They are rewarded with carbon & biodiversity credit markets supporting viable incomes. Remotely sensed data demonstrates their beneficial impacts.

The proportion of land under Indigenous land management has increased. As part of changing farming practices, Indigenous knowledge makes a contribution to how the region is farmed. This happens through Indigenous empowerment & ownership rather than a second wave of cultural appropriation of knowledge.

Shared community investment in land facilitates new farmers onto land. They reflect the changing demographics in the region. New crops are introduced, new relationships formed, & new ways of thinking disrupt the existing patterns.

Consumers connect directly with farmers and understand the regional food systems and regional provenance. Through this entire systems change the North East region becomes more resilient to climate and more resilient as a community.

The current energy expressed by local government actors has blossomed into a supportive policy environment. Catchment Management Authorities, State Government Agriculture and Environment departments, and local shires are working towards common goals centred on food rather than commodities. Government realise the importance of long term and resilient food, land and farming policies that protect the fundamental right to grow food, to make a living from the land and to feed our communities.

Farmers are incentivised to broaden their food and farming offering, and maximise the productivity and diversity of their farms rather than producing just one single at-risk product for a supermarket chain.

Through the fundamental step of creating networked, decentralised food systems, our food and communities could change forever, for the better. This involves using technology to network supply chains, community organisers to start community food enterprises, and organisations that facilitate new forms of farm ownership, affordable land and long term lease tenures.

Our region needs solution orientated pioneers - people willing to challenge the status quo, and explore new systems thinking.

This comes through localised and diversified farming systems, to regional communities and shorter supply chains. Through pathways of food production, demand and streamlined technology that can enable farmers to grow to demand, rather than to a commodity market. With aligned capital securing the land over the longer term, it enables farmers to diversify and have security of tenure and diversity rather than high production input food production.

This type of large scale diversification across an entire region could be a model for many communities across Australia.

Open Food Network and ORICoop would work with local food change makers, including the Beechworth Food Coop, to enable more cooperatively minded organisations to emerge. Working together and with other partners across government, public health, and community, we would empower the community to realise the effect of member owned Cooperatives, and fairer networked food supply chains. We would prototype a model for  other regions that are currently struggling with difficult climates, low commodity prices, low farm profitability and high risk in food security.

It takes a community and region to make a whole food systems change - and we can see that ORICoop, Open Food Network and Beechworth Food Cooperative could work together collaboratively in Australia to do this. 



How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Word of mouth

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Photo of Dieuwertje Nelissen
Team

Dear Jen Sheridan , great to read your vision! We also believe in creating a close connection between people and producers. Would love to learn more about the way in which you establish this! Also curious, how do you believe that we can make agriculture more regenerative? Hope to connect! Best, Dieuwertje Ps: If you have any feedback on our vision, please let me know!