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Having done the rounds of farming, from promoting organic benefits to farmers, to becoming one himself and now as enterprise coordinator of Food Connect’s Sydney arm, Julian Lee is a passionate advocate for bridging the widening gap between farmers and consumers. Operating as a burgeoning community supported agriculture (CSA) program, Food Connect buys organic and chemical-free from farmers local to the city and distribute it to consumers in various size boxes for affordable prices each week.
“I think there’s an incredible disconnect between people and their food. You hear these extreme stories where people think that milk grows on trees and you know there’s just no understanding of the origin of food. I think that’s a huge part of the reason why we have such an unfair food system; because we don’t know who’s growing our food and how it’s being grown. But to be fair, for most people there’s also no way of actually finding out.
“About seven years ago I was working in Sydney promoting sustainable agriculture to non-English speaking background commercial market farmers. There are about 1000 farms in Sydney that produce most of Sydney’s perishable produce – back then it was closer to 2000 – and almost all of the farmers I spoke to thought that organics were either a lie or impossible.
“I wanted to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that I know from personal experience that small to medium scale organic farming is viable. So after a few years I decided to move to a bush block in the Hunter Valley and start my own organic, biodynamic market garden. I started doing a community supported agriculture scheme where I supplied boxes of food to local residents. It was really important in my mind to try and figure out, one, was it possible, and two, was it viable – partly because I needed to make a living too. So I was asking a lot of farmers some questions about viability, and what I found was that almost all farmers said it was not possible for them to make a living solely off their farm and that they got paid less on an hourly basis than their own employees. In the end I too gave up on my farm as a business.
“Something like three farmers a week are walking off the land and the rate of farmers taking their own lives is considerably higher than the national average. Now, I don’t think that’s due to poor farming, but is largely due to the incredibly unfair food system in Australia. Where, for every dollar we spend, as little as five cents in the dollar will go back to the farmers.
“So the benefits I see with Food Connect is that it tries to address the unfairness and offer farmers and consumers a different opportunity that’s composed of risk sharing, of respect and of honouring the people who grow our food and the way it has been grown. By buying in bulk from the farmers and guaranteeing large purchases it makes their organic or chemical-free farm more viable. And of course, we bring people together. What we do is to put the face back on the plate; we let you know all about the produce that you receive, who’s grown it and how they grow it. We do farm tours so you can actually go out and meet the farmers growing the food that you eat and feed your children, and see it growing there in the fields, potentially you actually see the broccoli that you’re about to eat a few weeks later – and so in that instance we’re connecting farmers with city folk.”
For more info on FoodConnect in your state and to find out how to get involved, visit www.foodconnect.com.au.