When you think of a horseracing course you probably imagine glossy manes, optimistic wagering and elegant hats. An organic edible garden among the tracks? Probably not. But that’s just what you’ll find at Deagon Racecourse, in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, where a community-driven project to take pieces of unused land and turn them into neighbourhood farms is well and truly underway.
Susannah Holmes is a member of the freshly established Your Farm, a not-for-profit social enterprise with a mission to plant food on patches of empty land to feed, educate and connect people with each other and the environment around them. And with her ebullient, passionate personality it’s easy to see why people would become just as enthusiastic about the concept as she is.
“Being able to establish a local garden here, so it’s right on our doorstep, is something I really wanted to throw my heart and my energies into,” says Holmes.
The couple of acres at Deagon Racecourse is where Your Farm is testing out its program. Michael Velders, an environmental and agricultural engineer by day, was part of the initial push to get the organisation off the ground. For years Velders has designed eco-cities and sustainable communities in China, America, Europe and elsewhere. “After spreading that thought around the world I thought, ‘Why not do it in my backyard’?” recalled Velders. So he decided to start talking to people about ways in which a sustainable farm, for the community and by the community, would yield a multitude of benefits.
“Here in Australia we say every community needs a golf course and I started saying every community needs a farm as well,” he says.
But it wasn’t enough to just talk about it. Velders, Holmes and others realised if they wanted to find a landowner who would lend them some land to plant on, they would need to connect with people in high places: people like Victoria Newton and Kerry Millard—both local politicians. Through them they were able to network with local landowners and stakeholders and ultimately got offered a piece of the racecourse.
What sets Your Farm apart from a traditional community garden, which is already established nearby, is the many ways it plans to engage with people in the local area.
“We wanted to do a bit more than just the gardens;” says Velders, “we wanted to establish a community farm where people can work and children can learn about sustainable agriculture.”
“The intent is also to create jobs. So the convenor on the farm needs to be a paid job and the convenor of the market is a paid position.”
And to help keep the project self-sustaining, in addition to growing food, Your Farm provides a produce delivery service for the crops it grows at the racecourse as well as fruits and vegetables it sources from local suppliers. Every Friday it holds a popup sidewalk market with a stall chock-full of organic fruits and veggies. Money made from the delivery service and the markets goes directly back to the farm itself.
And with organic apples priced at $4 a kilo—roughly the same as what supermarket giant Coles is asking for non-organic ones—Your Farm is keeping its promise to competitively price what it grows and sells.
“The produce that is labelled organic and is sold at supermarkets doesn’t really have the taste and the quality we’re looking for,” Velders maintains.
The produce not coming from the Your Farm plot is as a local as possible, coming from within a maximum radius of 300 kilometres.
“I think one of the benefits that a lot of people are very drawn to with the Your Farm produce is that we make it very clear how far it has travelled before it gets to them,” notes Holmes.
“When you buy organic food anywhere else, most often you don’t know where it’s coming from. You’re just being told it is organic. Where as every single item we sell, we let them know exactly where it’s being grown and how many kilometres away it is.”
Out at the racecourse, Velders scoops some soil into his hands to reveal the worms wiggling around inside.
“Ideally we’d have pigs to cultivate the soil, but we cannot have pigs here,” he sighs. “Luckily though worms do a similar good job.”
Right now the soil the worms are cultivating is growing kale, heirloom cherry tomatoes, cassava, desiree potatoes, turnips and herbs. But it’s just the beginning.
When asked what it would take for him to deem Your Farm a success, Velders outlines three criteria:
1. Ten to twelve crops growing in rotation
“We aren’t only going for the cash crops because if you grow crops that just sell well you’d only grow tomatoes, but you grow crops that rotate well and make the whole farm as a unit sustainable in the future, not only today.”
2. Kids and schools coming regularly for hands-on farming programs
“Everybody who comes here comes here to learn.”
3. Producing food on the farm that scores high in nutritional value through Brix testing
“Brix is a way to measure the nutrient density of the food you produce.”
Finding more vacant land to establish a couple of permanent farms and a couple of retail shops to sell the crops would be nice, too.
Velders says achieving it all could take at least three years.
Drumming up awareness and support of Your Farm is also critical to its success. Your Farm’s monthly “Garden Blitz” brings in volunteers who dig worm trenches, build compost piles, cut grass and plant crops.
“There’s a job for everyone,” says Velders.
Around ten people are involved with Your Farm on a regular basis, but Holmes says there are usually twenty to thirty people who help out, volunteering their time when they can.
“I love that it brings people together, that it creates yet another community hub, and that it’s bringing like-minded people together who can then support each other,” she beams.
Without a doubt the biggest challenge for Your Farm is securing the piece of ground to farm on for a decent amount of time. If the organisation is at risk of losing the land at little more than a moments notice, it will be hard for its members to feel all their work and commitment will be worth it.
Locking in a long-term arrangement will, “increase the volunteers’ passion and belief that it’s something worthy of being involved in and spending time doing together,” stresses Holmes.
So while Your Farm is still waiting on a contract to secure the deal with the Brisbane Racing Club, they’re hopeful that when the pen goes to the paper the outcome will be a long and lasting relationship between them.
Interested in starting something similar in your area? Velders’ and Holmes’ advice is to find the right people to connect with first. Having someone who enjoys networking in the community, especially with local politicians, is ideal.
“It’s so important that you get the right people working together, who have a similar vision,” says Holmes.
For more on Your Farm, visit its Facebook page.