Coronavirus sharpens focus on food security

COVID-19 sees focus on peri urban agriculture, food security

FARM PLANNING: Consultant Annmaree Docking, of Plan-It Rural, Kilmore, said panic buying of food and other goods had highlighted the value of the city's peri urban farms.

FARM PLANNING: Consultant Annmaree Docking, of Plan-It Rural, Kilmore, said panic buying of food and other goods had highlighted the value of the city's peri urban farms.


Peri urban agriculture can play a vital role in future food security, says planner.


The coronavirus pandemic has seen the protection of agriculture in Melbourne's outer fringe gain a new urgency, according to planning experts and small producers.

The pandemic has also highlighted practices such as regenerative agriculture, as consumers seek to gain a greater understanding of how their food is produced.

Annmaree Docking, of Plan-It Rural, Kilmore, said panic buying of food and other goods had highlighted the need for greater support of outer Melbourne's peri urban farms.

"It's a unique situation that's refined our view of risk in food security and food systems, around supply chains and market access," Ms Docking said.

"When push comes to shove, our supermarket and farming systems don't always work, and our international connections won't always be open.

"We do have to build our resilience and connection to food - peri urban agriculture and maintaining Melbourne's food bowl is what supports food security and the self-sufficiency of the city."

She said while government's had pandemic plans, panic buying could not be modelled.

"I'm sure they didn't anticipate the rush on goods and the behaviour of the public, under certain, stressful situations."

Read more:

Future peri-urban farming fears expressed

Consultation on protection of Melbourne's agricultural land has concluded

A broader focus is required, when protecting peri-urban agriculture

Research projects

Ms Docking said she was currently carrying out a research project, for the City of Whittlesea, on the role of regenerative agriculture in peri-urban areas.

It is one of two research projects she is running; the other looks at agricultural planning controls in peri urban areas.

"My PhD project which is titled "Regenerative Agriculture and its potential for enhancing climate resilience through its implementation in the peri-urban space," she said.

" his is part of Deakin's Centre for Regional and Rural Futures in partnership with the City of Whittlesea.

"The second is the "Farm to Plate Peri-Urban Planning Scheme Audit". "

Ms Docking said it was being conducted by her consultancy Plan-it Rural, with Linda Martin-Chew (Plan-it Rural director) as the lead researcher, in partnership with Sustain Australia, William Angliss Institute and funded by the Mcleod Family Foundation.

"This project currently has a survey open to landholders and farmers to assess their experience working with council's planning departments."

Ms Docking said the principal focus of the Whittlesea study had been on regenerative agriculture, as a tool the sector could use, to stay resilient in the face of climate change.

But she said that her studies into regenerative agriculture had been a perfect fit for the second piece of research, auditing farm-to-plate businesses, and their interaction with councils.

"The more insight we can gain into the relationship of farmers with the planning scheme, the better we can understand the need for change," Ms Docking said.

"This project currently has a survey open to landholders and farmers to assess their experience working with council's planning departments"

The advent of the coronavirus pandemic had brought protection of peri urban agriculture "into sharp focus,"

"Land use planning needs to be more supportive of farmers and the farming community," she said.

'It needs to be more flexible to support innovative farming practices, yet protect farming in that peri urban space."

She said her survey looked at good, and bad, experiences.

'We are looking at ways we can work with councils, to make this whole situation better for the farming community," she said.

"Land use planning is a blunt instrument, but it is a necessary one."

Her survey on peri urban planning is at:

The City of Whittlesea Planning and Engagement director Julian Edwards said the council study focussed on crucial indicators of ecological and soil health, and how farmers contributed to climate resilience and that of food systems generally.

"In the current COVID-19 pandemic the ability of our food system to service the community in times of crisis has been brought into focus," Mr Edwards said.

"Regenerative agricultural businesses and the close relationship they have with their community are showing themselves to be an important part of the solution during this difficult time."

Supply chains

Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance President Tammi Jonas said the pandemic had shown up the fragility of supply chains.

That had resulted in a massive uptake of community-supported agriculture (CSA) - direct farmgate to consumer sales.

Members of a CSA club commit to purchasing from a farmer for a fixed period of either six or twelve months.

In return, they get a guaranteed supply of products, delivered to their door, every month.

When borders closed, and consumers were reliant on trade to keep the food system functioning, "you are in trouble," Ms Jonas, of Jonai Farms, Eganstown, said.

"When you sell the food directly, you are somewhat divorced from that.

"We've seen a massive surge in people signing up for CSA's; I can name three who have filled their books, within a couple of weeks, of the pandemic starting.

"Everyone is oversubscribed, which is a good problem to have."

Consumers who subscribed to CSA's realised their food supply was secure.

"You are supplied meat, fruit and vegetables for the next year," Ms Jonas said.

Former Victorian Farmers' Markets Association president Wayne Shields, of Peninsula Fresh Organics, said the pandemic had also highlighted the role of various council departments.

Peninsula Fresh has two farms, at Baxter, and Barham, NSW, on the Murray River.

Mr Shields said he hoped the focus on how to encourage, and support, small farmers in peri urban settings would continue, after the pandemic ended.

There appeared to be competing priorities, within council bureaucracies, he said.

Economic development departments sought to promote farmers' markets and small scale producers, while planners looked at urban growth and health authorities had gained greater prominence, during the pandemic.

That was particularly evident with some councils shutting down Farmers' Markets, due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus.

"They all have competing, and different, agendas, depending on what's happening out there, and who has the biggest say, at the time," Mr Shields said.

Recently, Mornington Peninsula Shire council had paid greater attention to the compliance of farm gate sales businesses.

"That's really come to the fore in the last few months, pressure for compliance, was swinging towards overriding economic development, which was a change in council policy," he said.

Mornington Peninsula shire has been contacted for comment.

Growth restrictions

Tom Abbottsmith Youl, Tom's Paddock, Glenburn, runs both pasture grown chickens and cattle.

He said his cattle, and chickens, on Graceburn Farm, ran on pastures free from herbicides and synthetic fertilisers.

"Our cows rotate each day to fresh pasture," Mr Abbottsmith Youl said.

"This mimics natural herbivore behaviour, while promoting a rich multi-species perennial pasture that provides our animals with a varied diet, high in vitamins and minerals. "

He said he was producing beef from his Simmangus herd, and eggs from pasture reared chickens, selling directly to the public.

"Our fertiliser plan is grazing management," he said.

"The chickens share the pasture with the cattle, they come behind the herd and scratch and spread the manure and also fertilise the ground themselves,"

Pastures were then rested for up to six months to rejuvenate.

Mr Abbottsmith Youl said he felt the pandemic had seen people focus on food security to a greater extent than they ever had before.

"The supermarkets have let them down," he said.

"I think one of the things that has shaken people is the 'just in time' logistics, of cities."

Just-in-time logistics was a system designed to produce and deliver goods or services as needed, using minimal inventories.

He said consumers realised they could get their eggs directly from a shorter supply chain, by purchasing directly from the farmer.

But he said planning schemes needed to keep pace.

"I am not sure there are a lot of protections for small farms - maybe that will change if people realise food is one of the things they need."

Mr Abbottsmith Youl also said there was not enough support for young farmers.

"There are so many barriers to entry in this area; we are not getting the succession we need."

TOUGH RESTRICTIONS: Bruce Burton, Milking Yard Farm, Trentham, grows Sommerlad meat chickens and was supplying them to the restaurant trade, before coronavirus hit.

TOUGH RESTRICTIONS: Bruce Burton, Milking Yard Farm, Trentham, grows Sommerlad meat chickens and was supplying them to the restaurant trade, before coronavirus hit.

Bruce Burton, Milking Yard Farm, Trentham, grows Sommerlad meat chickens and said he had to rely more on online and direct sales, after restaurants closed.

'We are probably operating at about 50 per cent of our capacity, prior to COVID-19," Mr Burton said.

"I think it's going to take a long time for the restaurant trade to recover to the level it was, prior to coronavirus.

"We had noticed restaurants having a tougher time, in recent years."

He said his product was unique, and expensive, selling mainly to consumers who were passionate about higher animal welfare and regenerative agriculture.

"To get a return, we need to make the product more broadly available through retail channels," Mr Burton said.

"I don't think we could survive on the restaurant trade; we will have to broaden our base and distribution channels, to remain relevant and recover."

He said inquiries for his chickens had jumped, since the start of the coronavirus crisis, and a lot of consumers were asking for finished products.

"They are also asking for chicks so that they can grow their own birds out."

"I have seen some people hoarding our birds.

'In the early days, they were ordering 10-15 chickens - that's a big investment, it's a lot of chicken - 40-50kg of chicken.

"I eat a lot of chicken, but I don't know what they are going to do with all of that."

He said he believed the coronavirus epidemic had seen a greater focus on small scale farmers.

While Hepburn Shire, where he farms, had been supportive, other concerns faced by small scale producers included constraints on farmgate sales.

He said councils should put more pressure on regulatory authorities to ease the compliance burden on small farmers.

"(Compliance) is not scale applicable, one size fits all," Mr Burton said.

"We could process a lot more birds if we could sell them easily, and safely, cryovaced, from our farm gate."

He said he was also concerned about the processing of his chickens, with only one works being able to do so.

"They are doing the best they can, they have bent over backwards for us, and Great Ocean Ducks," he said.

"But people are more reluctant to come to work, and the works is also at risk.

"If any infection gets in there, they would have to close for some time."

Pivoting business

Chloe Fox at Somerset Heritage Produce, Seymour, said before the coronavirus crisis, 70 per cent of her vegetables went into restaurants.

"It's been a pretty big adjustment," Ms Fox said.

"Over the past few weeks, we have been doing a lot of direct sales through the Open Food Network."

She said she'd also been able to continue to sell through farmers's markets.

"We haven't entirely recovered, it's a bit different, because all our planning is around restaurants," Ms Fox said.

"People have been really keen to get our produce, we have seen lots and lots of people, contacting us."

Customers were very aware of food security and wanted to buy fresh, healthy food.

Vegetables were delivered through non-contact, pick-up hubs.

"They are labelled and ready to go," she said.

"There is also a local pick up from outside our farmhouse.

"It's all non-contact, you just drive through, under our trees, jump out, pick up your box and go."

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