The third annual Growers & Producers Long Lunch was hosted on Tuesday October 27 at The Loch on Greenhills Road outside of Berrima in the Highlands.
It was such an appropriate venue, where owner and chef Brigid Kennedy and husband Mark have developed a deserved reputation for serving outstanding food informed and inspired for what's growing and ready for harvesting on their property that week.
A sold-out venue provided a sense of normality not experienced for six months. Lots of elbow bumps. The depth of encouragement and inspiring ideas shared by no less than 15 speakers left little doubt that, in the Southern Highlands, we are witnessing a transformational attitude to the future that gives hope of new opportunity. The special guest was renowned author Peter Andrews OAM, interviewed by Rob Skinner of local environmental group WinZero.
The list of sponsors was impressive. Major Event Sponsor was Regional Development Australia for the Southern Inland, represented by chair Hugh Cooke and CEO Carissa Wells. There were 11 event sponsors. Moss Vale Rural Chamber of Commerce (who had been a key player in the earlier Women in Agribusiness lunch, also held at The Loch just two weeks prior), BEC - Southern Region Business Enterprise Centre, Southern Highlands Food & Wine and The Loch were joined by Agribusiness & Equine Industry Development, Southern Highlands Key Stakeholder Group, Wingecarribee Shire Council, NSW Government and Destination Sydney Surrounds South.
Wingecarribee Shire Mayor, Duncan Gair led, pointing to fundamental changes in recent years in local agriculture, giving as an example that potato farms in the district had declined from 125 down to just two. Brigid Kennedy's welcome was a tribute to colleague Nathan West, co-chef for the day and the local growers and producers, six of whom had provided produce for the lunch. Ms Kennedy noted how local brewers Eden Brewery and Southern Highlands Brewing & Taphouse had pioneered new styles of premium beer, a trend that others were now following elsewhere. "A tapestry of excitement and so much pride for them all," she said.
Wollondilly MP Nathaniel Smith, and a member of the Environment and Planning Committee in the NSW Legislative Assembly, thanked the producers for their passion for quality, but noted that land available for food production was shrinking. He called for Wollondilly and Wingecarribee Shires to be watchful for further urban sprawl. He outlined a new 'Agriport' proposal for the emerging Western Sydney airport and encouraged those in the perishables business to keep close to new ways to access South East Asian markets, resulting from this infrastructure development. Given the attendance of Wingecarribee Councillor Garry Turland and several high placed council staff, one hopes this point was noted, as preservation of the elements that make the Highlands such a special place feature strongly in sentiment of the community.
Carisa Wells, CEO of Regional Development Australia Southern Inland, noted the upsurge in interest in the regions since COVID and the realisation of new opportunities from a more resilient and spread-out workforce, connected electronically. While pointing to the challenges of needed infrastructure she pointed to high value-add possibilities in produce so close to major populations of Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra, as did chair Hugh Cooke. Mr Cooke alerted attendees to the upcoming inaugural Highlands Connect event on November 12 at Mittagong RSL, promoted jointly by RDA Southern Inland and the Southern Highlands Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
Paul Walker, managing director of WalkerDevelop, a consulting firm on agribusiness and export, echoed that theme, as he described the proximity of the Highlands to the new Sydney Western Airport and the export opportunity for perishables exporters that will evolve, expanding what is currently limited by the highly congested Sydney Airport. Built from scratch, Western Sydney's new airport starts with the required space to make perishables freight a much more viable export to markets within ten hours flying time. He recommended producers and other businesses within the region check out the BusSi website, an initiative of Regional Development Australia. As their website states, "BusSI is an online resource that supports local businesses in the Southern Inland of NSW to connect with others and access support and information."
Local wine producer Mark Bourne of Cuttaway Hill Wines, president of NSW Wine, pointed to the success of NSW Wine in lifting venues that offered true wine experiences at their properties from 10 to 160 bookable locations in recent years, transforming integrated tourism and production. He toasted the producers, noting that with many producers without a vintage this year, due to smoke taint from bushfires and COVID limiting cellar door visits, innovation was never more important to survive and thrive.
Valero Jiminez, head distiller at Joadja Distillery, spoke of turning the unique flavour of barley grown on their property into a high value-add opportunity worth more than $3M in creating award-winning Single Malt Whisky to add to their already celebrated gins. "It is not viable to grow barley as a cash crop - producers have to look further downstream if they want to prosper", he said. Joadja products are now official gifts for visiting dignitaries at NSW Government House.
WinZero's Rob Skinner interviewed special guest Peter Andrews OAM. Andrews has for four decades practiced regenerative agriculture. He is the author of two books and has featured on the ABC TV program, Australian Story. He has gained an increased following throughout Australia and overseas with his fundamental 'back-to basics' approach to agriculture and the equine industry.
Now 80 years of age, celebrating his birthday at the event, Andrews started by talking about the importance of understanding thoroughbred horses as a key indicator of environmental and animal health. He talked of the advantages that Australia has, through its abundance of sunlight, to completely restructure energy production and depart from fossil fuels. He stated that "30 years ago the primary concern in agriculture was soil salinity." Now, he said, the issue is water.
Mr Andrews called for a reverse in the monoculture trends of the past 100 years and fertiliser-intensity of modern agriculture and return to harvesting fresh water through restored wetlands and recycling of green biomass, weeds and all. He said that even in urban areas improved greening density and reassessing the mix of the built environment can rapidly offset adverse CO2 impacts.
He shared statistics of how forest had been removed, but counselled that what Australians need to concentrate on is managing the 60 per cent of available land to re-green it and stop intense over-use and chemical damage that has resulted in extreme soil degradation.
"Whatever plant you take out of the ground, you better be prepared to replace it," he said. He remained optimistic that the damage done is reversible, as he has proved his theories countless times on his own and other people's properties. He pointed to his website where he addresses twelve key questions to enable others to improve their own environmental practices.
Peter Andrews attendance is telling of the change in Wingecarribee Shire these past 12 months. Clearly the bushfire destruction, affecting the whole community had a profound effect on councillors, when they declared a Climate Emergency on their meeting of February 12, 2020. The newly created Advisory Council to the WSC Environment Committee, membership of which is expected to be announced in coming weeks, guarantees a place for WinZero to help advise council on a broad range of environmental issues informing long-term plans for the shire, such is its evident expertise. Rob Skinner, as interviewer, demonstrated the potential knowhow input.
In referring to Peter Andrews' comments on land regeneration Kirstine McKay, an attendee, a practitioner in regenerative horticulture on her Burradoo property and a WinZero founding member, told Southern Highland News, "Landscape Regeneration is being heralded around the world as one of the key components to creating a sustainable future - environmentally, economically and socially.
This land management process results in capturing water, healthy plants and soils, nutrient rich foods, the returning of landscape and wildlife habitats to their natural states, bushfire mitigation, drought resilience and an incredible ability to capture vast amounts of carbon in the earth. WinZero has developed a broad scale Landscape Regeneration demonstration program that will see the Shire become a living laboratory, and national hub for education and training."
Bridie George of the Agribusiness and Equine Industry Development project updated the meeting on specific training and education support for industry from a Federal Government funding announcement worth $1.2B nationally. Mark Pepping, Deputy GM for WSC spoke of the funding received by council to develop a feasibility study for a Produce-hub locally, that slotted in to the broader regional transport and distribution infrastructure project mentioned earlier by RDA Southern Inland's Carisa Wells.
Seemingly gathering all the elements of the day together, was Zach Bush. Zach, a medical doctor, is the founder of Seraphic Group and the non-profit Farmer's Footprint. They develop root-cause solutions for human and ecological health and the role of soil and water ecosystems in human genomics, immunity, and gut/brain health. Like Peter Andrews Dr Bush emphasised the need for a radical departure from chemical farming and chemical intensity.
It was certainly a long lunch, superb food, great company lasting four and a half hours. Host Brigid Kennedy acknowledged the immense importance of Growers and Producers.
The annual event was important evidence that, despite fires, flood, pestilence and shutdowns, the Southern Highlands could well be at the forefront of a new beginning. The expertise of the eighty of so attendees, the evidence of channels to improve effective communication and action in coming months, was palpable. Despite so many setbacks it is encouraging to see so many voices united in a strong sustainable and environmentally restorative future.
John Swainston is a local Highlands Photographer, Writer and Business Consultant.