This is an entirely fictional short story exploring food sustainability in Australia. I’m not a market gardener in Moruya but I’ve used it as the setting for this story because it’s an incredible example of how a sustainable, local food economy could function. Also, the Agrarian ‘Deep Winter’ unconference takes place in – yes, you guessed it – the middle of winter, not November. This is an imagining of what would happen should Australia suddenly face a food availability crisis. Enjoy.
It’s a typical day in Canberra. Parliament is in session and the air conditioner is sluggish. On the telecast, the house of reps is packed with fidgety, uncomfortable MPs in an amorphous suit-wearing mass. Wiping sweat from his brow, the PM rises to a particularly inventive slur involving the suggestion of a gourd and an orifice into which it could potentially, given lubrication, be inserted.
PM: ‘I’m confident that I, and my entire party, would handle the working hours on a typical Australian farm, and that our legislation is fair and just.’
Oh buddy, big mistake.
The telecast cuts to a three-way high five between Richard Di Natale, Larissa Waters and Adam Bandt. They share a look that can only be interpreted as decidedly smug.
The media, like Hamlet’s cackling brood of witches, stirs the pot by contacting the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA). A roster of small farms willing to host MPs is organised. The endearingly pigtailed President (and meatsmith) Tammi Jonas sends out a call to arms, quoting the Nyleni Declaration:
‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.’
The PM stumbles when pressed to comment on Tammi’s flung down gauntlet, seemingly unaware he has been called to duel. Instead, the PM scoffs at the idea of food sovereignty against a backdrop of Aussie flags. Commentators note his general ‘pallor and limpness of character’.
I add my small market garden in Moruya, NSW to the list of willing host farms.
Dithering and more dithering from Canberra. I make chicken cacciatore with an illegally home-butchered chicken from the neighbour’s brood (it’s #delicious #nutritious).
Twitter adds the final necessary ingredient: a GIF of the PM holding a rather large butternut pumpkin in the one hand and a shovel in the other (#PMthechoiceisyours).
The PM relents. He gives a press conference and spells it all out. Two weeks. MPs are dispersed across the country with sunblock, sleeping bags, and a Katniss-style salute. My small market garden is one of those chosen. I eat leftover cacciatore and cackle manically in front of the television before unwinding to Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs. Oh, Kevin, if only you were Australian. If only my generation could afford land. I make a late night batch of date and walnut scones as I watch a coppicer construct his dream home in a fairytale woodland. It’s indescribably idyllic. I read Thoreau’s Walden to calm myself down.
Have just received delivery of my MP WWOOFer. I am also advised of the media blackout. A government representative will visit alongside Tammi Jonas at the end of the fortnight for a balanced interview. Apart from that, there is to be NO SOCIAL MEDIA. Roger that.
Bron comes complete with unblemished hiking boots, pearls, wheelie bag and a grim line where a smile should be. She determinedly slogs it up the drive with her Samsonite as it is slowly encased in clay.
Anyway, Bron wants to know what I called her. I explain the term WWOOFer (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). She shakes her head. Luckily she doesn’t need a working holiday visa, or she’d be screwed.
Bron doesn’t like the cabin reserved for farm workers, labeling it ‘dank’ and ‘musty’ and a ‘health hazard.’ I point out that the straw bale cabin is council approved, has an extremely low carbon footprint and is completely off-grid. The frown, if anything, deepens.
(I lied. It’s not council approved. But it’s small enough not to require planning permission. Suckerz).
After two hours of weeding carrots (the kaleidoscopic rainbow market faves) Bron enquires about lunch. I tell her I usually break at 2pm. Bron returns to her row, where the survival rate of carrot seedlings under her heavy handedness is low (I estimate a generous 20%). The air of disgust is palpable. For a moment I wonder if the neighbour’s cow has released a disproportionate amount of methane into the immediate vicinity. But no – Buttercup is haranguing the wood ducks.
Lunch is fresh sourdough, salad and homemade hummus. Bron asks whether there is any meat. I tell her there is ham curing in the shed. She visibly recoils.
Bron: ‘You have a dead animal hanging in your SHED?’
I’m not sure if she understands how ham is made. I can’t wait for Tammi to make her cry.
Bron breaks down as she realizes there is no coffee and nothing sweet apart from my ‘orphan-grade’ scones. I think it might be a record. None of my WWOOFers or unofficial interns (you can’t call them ‘interns’ in Australia anymore, it has to be a ‘voluntary residency’) has given up in the first six hours.
Bron disappears into the dank musty cabin for a nap. Apparently it passes muster in her desperation.
Still light. I manage to turn the compost, feed the chooks, finagle with the hole in the bloody fence and finish the stew. Bron emerges, sans pearls, somewhat sheepishly. She tucks in and enquires about the ingredients.
Bron is not pleased to learn about the roadkill wallaby. She retires early.
Market day. I am roused by Bron’s wails from the compost toilet. She has fallen in ass-first and is desperately clutching the rim like an Olympic gymnast on the parallel bars. I resist the urge to take a photo, remembering the media blackout (#BronforTokyo2020).
People stare and point. Bron heads straight for the coffee van and returns with a large skim cappuccino and a hunk of chocolate cake looking decidedly shaken (is that tomato on her jeans?). She hunkers down in the back of the van and refuses to come out.
On the way home she looks at the empty crates and enquires about my weekly earnings. I lay it out for her: the land lease, cost of equipment, stall fees. She goes quiet and wonders aloud why I choose to live as I do: ‘surely I considered a respectable office job’ instead of ‘straddling the poverty line?’
She’s obviously a bit stunned to learn I have a Bachelor of Science (Hons), a university medal in a shoebox and a sizable HELP debt. I think she expected me to be some sort of societal dropout. Who else would choose to be a farmer, right?
(When I do soil workshops, I tell the kids at the local primary school I studied Potions and Herbology. They get it).
My friend Lachlan drops by. He’s in his forties but looks like a bronzed thirty-year-old. It’s mainly to get a glimpse of the city slicker, but I trade him sweet potatoes for goat’s milk. Bron watches the transaction with interest and tentatively tries some with her spelt porridge (topped with some of last year’s quince and rhubarb jam).
Bron just picked up a rogue zucchini and asked what sort of watermelon it is.
Buzzfeed run a Top 10 MPs in the wild article. Clearly not everyone takes the media blackout seriously. Richard Di Natale holds a press conference condemning the article but cannot suppress a chuckle when a reporter asks for his comment on item No. 1, in which the Member for Robertson was airlifted from northern NSW after becoming disoriented and gatecrashing a CWA meeting in nothing but an alpaca wool poncho. Doctors deemed her ‘brimming with health’ with excellent serotonin and melatonin levels. The agitation seems to have been the result of a recommended amount of sleep and high quality nutrition, to which the Member was not accustomed, having survived primarily on a diet of Kraft MacnCheese and expensive red wine.
The Buzzfeed writer declined to release an official statement, but later announced on twitter ‘YOLO’.
Bron finally abandons her slacks (yes, she wears slacks like a certified grandma) for the secondhand jeans and boots I found for her (Vinnies and Salvos, respectively). For the first time, she actually seems interested in the growing process. I show her the seedling propagation greenhouse and guide her through a soil pH test. She harvests the salad ingredients for lunch and is so proud that I pick my way around the furry, inedible zucchini leaves. She means well.
Dumpster diving. Good haul. Bron perks up at the six cartons of squashed and slightly-out-of-date Maltesers. I also introduce her to my special potato vodka.
In a sugary, alcoholic haze, she asks why I’m single. I don’t tell her it’s still illegal for me to marry in Australia. She seems a bit old-fashioned that way.
Bron passes out on my couch and I don’t have the heart to move her.
(Actually, I’m not sure I can carry her, to be honest).
Market day again. I take the long way so that we pass the commercial farm outside of town, slowing down so Bron can get a good look at the stooped figures lining the field, some of them in full hazmat, aerosolized glyphosate hovering in a toxic cloud. ‘It’s a small world after all’ plays in my head as immigrants stop to guzzle water. All it’s missing is the overseer cracking the whip. Underpaid, overworked. I watch surreptitiously, hoping Bron makes the connection to the Woolies truck parked by the packing warehouse.
She brings me a dandelion latte this time and stands next to me at the stall, listening to my customers. I can’t help but feel a small thread of hope.
The Agrarian Meeting this year is held only three hours away in Gerringong. It’s my one chance to catch up with farming friends across the country. Bron hovers by my elbow, deep in enemy territory. The average farmer in Australia is a 67-year old white male. In the Gerringong town hall, the median age is 25, with a full colour palette.
Bron gapes at the spread of food and quakes as she is introduced to Tammi, the Amazonian pigtailed AFSA president wearing hobo gloves and knitted tights. I’m glad Bron ditched the pearls.
I point out the various legislative sticking points on our piled lunch plates. Among the illegal items are home cured meats, raw dairy cheeses, on-farm processed beef and chicken, and foraged seaweed, mushrooms and greens.
Tammi: ‘In a commodity-driven food system, regulations choke out small-scale, ethical farmers. How many more years can commercial, nutrient-poor produce and unsustainable meat dominate Australian dinner plates? The solution is a push towards localized, small-scale growers, with weekday, community-based produce markets, and education in schools. Being a farmer isn’t a second rate career. It’s one of the most important careers on the planet.’
I catch Bron nodding with a glazed expression as the discussions intensify. Her skin seems brighter, her hair shinier. I find myself hoping she doesn’t chuck a Robertson.
The PM interrupts Courtney Barnett on Triple J to make an emergency announcement from an unspecified dairy farm in Gippsland. Oil supplies have apparently ‘run out’ and petrol rationing will ‘commence immediately’. This means citizens are to keep to within a ‘20km radius of their homes’ and ‘to stay calm’. He sounds tired and possibly more despondent than Barnett.
A bemused millennial texts in: ‘I thought we had dinosaur juice on tap?’
Bron manages to complete a full workday, though I gave her the easier task of tending the seedlings after lunch. I produce a jar of instant coffee I rustled up at our dumpster dive and she nearly cries in ecstasy. She is currently sipping from a chipped mug with soil patches on the knees of her jeans, talking to the plants.
I plant six more rows of pumpkins. Too late now for potatoes, but I have a feeling we’ll need the storable carbohydrates if this petrol thing is for real. We’re too far from the wheat belt.
Panic. Riots in Sydney and Melbourne. Supermarkets ransacked. Alarming photos on twitter of punch-ups between warring mums in the produce aisles, dads looting Bunnings for axes and shovels. No petrol means the trucking network that replenishes Coles and Woolies with produce no longer exists. For a country that disproportionately reacts to the one-day closure on Dec 25, this is an apocalyptic nightmare.
Bron is horrified and spends the afternoon playing phone tag with the other MPs spread across the country.
Lachlan arrives late morning with a backpack, shaking his head. His garden in the middle of town has been destroyed. He’s hiked the fifteen km out of town. Seems the steep gradient is all that’s protecting us.
Remember that Simpsons episode? No one escapes from fat camp because the exit is up a gentle slope? Yeah. It’s like that, I guess.
Death toll stands at 3 million. The two-week mandate is well over but Bron has stayed on. There aren’t enough petrol tokens to get her back to Canberra.
The PM again calls for calm on an emergency ABC broadcast. He’s standing in the milking room, sun-dark and – are those biceps?
There’s a military presence in the major cities. The news reports look like stills from the next big dystopian YA franchise (but without Shailene Woodley).
Australia continues to be very un-calm. Lee Lin Chin pleads with the groups most affected to ‘for heaven’s sake, stop relying on coconut flesh and zucchini noodles for sustenance’. The fad dieters don’t listen. A paleo-enthusiast strangles a raw vegan with NBN cable over the last packet of activated almonds in the Sydney CBD.
A group of hipsters have taken control of the Sydney ferries, forming a ‘new colony’ in Sydney Harbour. Zoomed photos show jars of kombucha and sprouted pulses on deck.
Bron’s flurry of phone calls finally gains traction. The PM appears again on ABC and announces ‘emergency measures effective immediately across Australia’. The exchange of volunteer labour is required for provision of food for all 18+ citizens.
- Unpasteurized milk is now legal
- Approval granted for five hundred new regional abattoirs
- Removal of legislation restricting on-farm processing
- Release of petrol tokens to shuttle city dwellers to regional farms
- Military presence at all small-scale farming operations to ensure order
- Expanded government funding for renewables
A gaunt group of financial analysts, lawyers and stockbrokers arrive. The two new soldiers shadow me as if I’m the PM-elect. Bron organizes the new workers into ‘action parties’ for weeding, harvesting and cooking.
Moruya looks to be stabilising. Schools and non-essential services have shut down temporarily. The CWA is holding ‘no-frills’ cooking classes. It’s all feeling very ‘Ministry of Food’ circa World War II.
Also, the Sydney Harbour colony has failed after running out of raw cacao.
We’re eating pumpkin with everything. The rice and flour is gone, and I’m rationing the store of potatoes in the shed to trade for fish and meat. The soldiers’ guns only come out for wood ducks, which surprisingly make for good eating. We’ve planted a whole paddock with sorghum to assuage the grain problem.
Tough summer. Enough algal biodiesel has been produced to lift the petrol rationing. The PM has decentralized parliament, preferring to stay on at the dairy farm in Gippsland. He is now certifiably ripped, as noted by the surviving members of the Buzzfeed staff in PM vs Putin: a hypothetical showdown.
The PM declares the worst of the crisis over. Australia has come out relatively unscathed. The US has fractured into warring city-states, with bases in the major pet food manufacturing plants. Scurvy and rickets have seen a massive resurgence.
Long-term measures are pushed through parliament (with recesses for the PM’s 4am and 2.30pm milkings):
-Removal of subsidies for the major supermarkets
– Institution of funding for regional farmers market hubs every 100 km
– Agriculture introduced as a HSC subject
– Provision of government start up grants for all new farmers
Australia’s regional population booms as many city dwellers choose not to return.
The hulking, ruinous warehouses that used to house supermarkets are turned into solar farms. One ex-Coles can power 50,000 homes.
Tammi Jonas and the PM himself arrive with a single camera operator. They tour the expanded vegetable garden, the horse tractor, the new straw bale cabins and expanded solar array. The PM is wearing faded jeans and a ripped flanno. When he shakes my hand, his grip is firm.