As Richard Cornish writes in The Age [26 June 2007], transporting food chews up fossil fuel so how about trying to eat only what’s grown within 160 kilometres of your house? That means no bread, no sugar and no coffee. Richard tried it and found his basket a good deal lighter.
WITH a pencil and my old school compass I draw an arc on a map of Victoria. A thick line sweeps through the countryside marking a 160?kilometre boundary. At the centre of the arc is my bayside suburban house. For one week, everything our family eats and drinks will come from within this arc. Everything. Every vegetable, every piece of fruit and every grain.
The challenge seems simple enough. We are to become “locavores”, people who eat food grown locally from within a 160-kilometre foodshed. Also known as the 100-Mile Diet (hence my metric boundary), like most food fads the idea comes from North America and is a grassroots movement that sprung up in reaction to globalised food production. The idea is inspired by traditional pre-Industrial Revolution methods of food transportation and has strong links with the hippie communes of the ’70s and “local and seasonal” restaurants such as Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
The locavore experiment began two years ago with an online forum encouraging people to sign up for one month to consume food and drink grown only within their “foodshed”. Locavores are responding to the issue of “food miles” – the amount of fossil fuel used to transport food from where it’s produced to where it’s eaten.
Sage Van Wing, one of the original founders of the San Francisco-based locavore movement, says the idea of being a locavore means trying to reduce the amount of distance your food travels. It’s about ”finding food that comes from farmers who are looking after the land, finding food that is healthier to eat because you know the farmer who has grown it to proper organic standards, and eating food that comes from farmers where the workers are looked after”.
The movement has thousands of followers across the US who have signed up to eat within their foodshed again this September. Recently, a Canadian husband and wife went a step further, eating local food to the exclusion of everything else – no coffee, no bananas – and wrote a book called the 100 Mile Diet. Google’s San Francisco headquarters houses Cafe 150, a staff canteen where all produce comes from within 150 miles (240 kilometres). Melbourne restaurateur Paul Mathis will launch his version – 100 Mile Cafe in early July.
As the start of our challenge looms, my wife and I start planning. “Yes we can eat locally,” she says. “We’ve got some good shops around here.” And then: “But what about coffee?”
We go through the pantry and identify what we can and cannot eat and drink. Obvious ingredients like Italian tinned tomatoes, Japanese noodles, Russian vodka, Singapore soy sauce, Indonesian coffee and Sri Lankan tea are put aside. With them go a well-loved brand of Australian crackers, now made in China, all our anchovies, pepper and other spices. Disturbingly, they are soon joined by Queensland sugar, South Australian oats and flour milled from various regions across the country.
As my wife is breastfeeding a six-month-old baby and my other daughter is three-and-a-half, they both consume a substantial amount of cheese, yoghurt and milk. I call National Foods, owner of Pura Milk. Their spokesman says although their milk is produced at Chelsea, he cannot confirm where it comes from.
I call Parmalat, manufacturer of Paul’s Milk. They can’t confirm where their milking herds are but their Parmalat Organic lines are processed in Bendigo from farms nearby, while their biodynamic range originates from Nathalia in north-central Victoria – just beyond the 160-kilometre mark.
The next hurdle is local bread. Although some of Melbourne’s best bakeries are within a 15-minute bike ride of my front door, they all use flour grown and/or milled in NSW or South Australia. Victoria is not warm enough for wheat to develop the proteins needed in bread production. We make our first transgression and decide to buy bread from the local baker made with South Australian organic flour.
The next hurdle is to find local flour to bake cakes. I find a farmer near Geelong growing wheat for his biodynamic chicken farm, but he doesn’t mill the flour. We search the internet and find a grower of spelt at Powlett Hill, 50 kilometres north of Ballarat. Their distributor emails a short list of outlets including our local health food shop. So after several hours of research, I walk 400 metres and hand over nearly $9 for a bag of locally grown and milled spelt flour.
My wife knows how to bake a cake without sugar or butter. Sugar is a tropical plant so she sweetens the cake with honey from Dean’s Marsh near Lorne. There is no commercial butter made from cream produced within the 160-kilometre foodshed, so she uses yoghurt from Dumbalk in South Gippsland, goat fromage frais from Sutton Grange near Bendigo, eggs from a neighbour and apples from an organic orchard in Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula.
Once again we make a small transgression and use a teaspoon of baking powder made from chemicals produced across the nation. So was the cake light and fluffy? No. It was heavy and solid, but nonetheless enjoyable and moist.
The sudden baking demands, however, see our honey reserves almost dry up. Although Australian beekeepers produce 30,000 tonnes of quality honey a year, most is taken to packing plants where it is blended with honeys from across the country. Several calls to the big honey companies prove fruitless. But a chance tip-off about the Windsor Bee Man sends me walking quiet leafy streets hunting for an old house with half-a-dozen beehives in the front yard. I push the buzzer by the gate and an old Greek man comes out. “Are you the honey man?” I ask. “Who sent you?” he replies. I explain and he looks me up and down and disappears inside, emerging shortly with a tub of dark viscous honey.
I lift the lid and stick my finger in. The honey is heady and complex, with so many different flavours it is almost confusing, finishing with a powerful surge of exotic flowers. Not brilliant, but it is local. I pay my $10 and head off to find some fish.
Country-of-origin labelling regulations make the job easy at the fish market – small signs indicate the prawns are from Thailand, the squid from Vietnam and the snapper from New Zealand. John, my local fishmonger, has some beautiful fresh flathead but these were caught off Lakes Entrance. The domestic fish business is still small enough for fishmongers such as John to go to the wholesale market several times a week and to speak with a wholesaler who knows the provenance of his fish.
Finding fish grown or caught within the 160-kilometre radius, with the exception of some farmed trout, yabbies, mussels and wild eels, is difficult. It wasn’t always this way. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, scores of fishermen made a living selling their catch off their boats from the piers and jetties of Port Phillip and Western Port.
Thankfully the Beazley family, fifth-generation fishers, still operate a little shop in Dow Street, Port Melbourne, behind their family home. I was lucky enough to go fishing with the Beazleys five years ago. We left before dawn, towing their boat to a landing near Geelong. We spent the chilly dark hours before dawn setting nets in the bay off Point Wilson. It was hard, grinding, tiresome work. When we returned mid-morning, Greek and Asian families were waiting for their fresh flathead and King George whiting.
I caught up again recently with the Beazleys but I was late and almost all the fish had gone except a big butterfish that I had to take whole. “We don’t clean fish here any more,” says Dugga Beazley. “People are happy to do that themselves.”
I pay $7 for the large butterfish and a kilo of fresh sardines. I clean the fish back home in the laundry and the smell of seagrass, the butterfish’s staple diet, fills the room. We cook it in a little central Victorian olive oil and finish it with one of two lemons left on our tree. The fish is moist and meaty and tastes very strongly of the sea.
When I visit vegetable growers at Werribee South – Melbourne’s largest local suppliers – it has been raining and mud coats the roads, driveways and even the floor of the local cafe. The rich red mud consists of thin alluvial soil that covers the 4000 hectares of market gardens a 30-minute drive from the CBD. There are just 120 farmers, mostly of Italian and Macedonian origin. At various times throughout the year they supply not only Melbourne but the rest of Australia with lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, fennel, artichokes and onions.
This is one of the shortest delivery chains in our foodshed. A cauliflower picked at dawn yesterday will be bagged, chilled, taken to the supermarket distribution centre and packed on the shelves tonight. A Queensland cauliflower picked at the same time, will tonight still be on the road somewhere in NSW. Although presently zoned a green wedge, the price of land in Werribee South has risen to about $100,000 a hectare.
“This is making it very difficult to keep on growing,” says Con Ballan, one of the area’s largest producers. “The input costs of fuel, labour, fertiliser and agrochemicals keeps rising. It’s an 80-hour week and you don’t get young kids wanting to live a life like that.”
Werribee South’s impact on Victoria’s supply of fresh vegetables hit home earlier this year when a drought-related problem saw the supermarket price shoot up to $6 a head for its cauliflower and $7 a kilo for its broccoli.
With water allocations next year possibly halved, John Menegazzo from vegetable supplier Fresh Select says: “People might have to start getting used to those prices.”
Ironically, I can’t buy Werribee South vegetables in Werribee South. They are sold to the wholesale market or direct to supermarkets. Later that day I see the same caulis in my local supermarket. Coles’ new integrated packing and distribution system has the farmer pack vegetables into plastic bags and then into black plastic crates used in retail display. Small paper labels bearing the name and address of the grower are visible on the sides of some crates.
It is also a joy to read that the apples are from Hoddle’s Creek in the Yarra Valley and the leeks from Clyde in Gippsland. Stacked on a shelf nearby, however, are bundles of out-of-season asparagus. There’s no indication of their country of origin on the shelf or on the front of the label and it’s quite difficult to bend the thick plastic label back to reveal it was grown in Thailand. It is obvious from the silhouette of a 747 on the sticker that the baby corn has been flown in but the country of origin, again Thailand, is obscured on a bend in the packaging.
My local organic grocer in Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick, displays its produce in baskets with not only the country of origin but also the name of the farmer on display, but not their location. When I explain that I am trying to live locally, the manager disappears into the cool store and emerges with a hand-written list of the locations of all the farms that supply her. If I continue as a locavore she will ensure exact locations are displayed as well.
As I ride my bike along the Yarra River heading towards Studley Park Vineyard, I remember my grandmother telling me how she used to buy cabbages from a Chinese market gardener beside the Yarra. This was when her milk was delivered on the back of a Clydesdale-drawn cart from the dairy in East Kew and she bought her apples from an orchardist in Doncaster.
I cross the footbridge by the Melbourne Fire Brigade in Abbotsford and ride into a 0.4-hectare vineyard of cabernet sauvignon vines. They were planted in 1994 on what had been a market garden run by a Greek man and before him a Chinese market gardener who first planted produce in the 1870s. Perhaps it was the man who sold cabbages to my grandmother. For more than a century the site has been in constant food production.
Owner Geoff Pryor sells his wine locally at Fred Young of Kew and to Grossi Florentino, Koots and Bottega restaurants. His grapes are picked and trucked 78 kilometres to a Macedon Ranges winery, made into wine, cellared, then trucked back to Melbourne. Thankfully, a total of 156 kilometres of food miles leaves us with a four-kilometre margin.
Pryor pours a glass of his 2004 cabernet sauvignon. We sit and drink the wine under old elms looking out over the yellowing vineyard across to the domes and spires of Kew. A bell rings out from the Carmelite Convent. With little difficulty and another glass of wine I imagine we’re inside an Arthur Streeton cigar-box miniature.
Corey Watts, rural landscapes campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, says it’s best to eat locally and better to eat Australian food over imported food, but “very little research has been done here on the impact of food miles. Doing what you’re doing is not the be?all and end-all because we don’t fully understand the environmental impact of transporting food and fibre over great distances. Also you need to factor in the drive to and from the market and all the other places you buy food.”
He points to UK research suggesting that a single visit to the supermarket can add another 1.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. “But it is a good way of triggering a change in thinking,” he says. “Look at the way we now look at plastic bags.”
Australia exports $23 billion worth of food a year and imports $7 billion. If I forgo a product from a Third World country, Fairtrade coffee for example, am I denying a family in East Timor the right to earn a livelihood? Ethicist Peter Singer, in his book The Ethics of What We Eat, suggests that buying food from developing countries gives them an income. However, Van Wing says that by buying locally you’re helping local farmers lead sustainable lives while leaving people in developing countries to grow crops to feed themselves and not be caught up in the commodities rat race.
On a cold and windy Saturday my map of Victoria is blowing inside out. Still, the stallholders at my farmers’ market gladly show me where they live and grow their produce. (“See that creek there? Our place backs onto that.”) They don’t think it is odd that I want to know where all my food comes from. They point to the map and their finger falls on one side or the other of my boundary.
Even here, if I shop within the 160-kilometre zone, my basket will be lighter than normal. The land within an hour’s drive of the city, in any direction, is expensive. It is bought up for hobby farms or intensive horticulture.
It’s not surprising that the best lamb comes from the north-east of the state or Echuca. Some of the best eggs in the state are near Ararat and my favourite olives are grown under the morning shadow of the Grampians. But I have mussels from Flinders, corn from Gippsland, apples from the Yarra Valley, carrots and potatoes from Bullarto and a beautiful bag of the last of the season’s capsicums from Murchison in the Goulburn Valley.
To cook from within the 160-kilometre foodshed tests our skills; the research is extensive. Explaining my challenge to incredulous retailers and manufacturers was exhausting. And although I admit drinking a beer from South Australia, and caught my wife buying a coffee, for once we truly understood cooking with the season. We ate the peaches and tomatoes we bottled in late summer and worked out solutions to problems. Our discussions about meals changed from “What are we going to eat tonight?” to “How are we going to cook what we already have?”
Every time I approached meal time, Van Wing’s words rang in my ears. “To be a locavore,” she said, “is like trying to figure out all over again how things work if we didn’t have the industrial complex. It’s like taking part in a revolution.”
THE LOCAVORE PHILOSOPHY
Reasons for eating locally produced food:
* Helps protect the environment – it doesn’t have to travel far, reducing carbon emissions and packing materials.
* Supports local producers.
* Allows you to track a food’s provenance and therefore production methods.