We first noticed the change on The Food Farm a few years ago. Instead of relatively predictable seasons and weather patterns, we were being hit with wave after wave of unpredicted systems with significant volatility; hailstorms, rain in significant amounts instead of a gentle precipitation, or long, long periods without any rain at all. We even had a tornado which tore through the district setting off the emergency services siren for that reason for the first time ever in Amberley’s history.
With each system our food-growing took a hit; damage, flooding, lack of growth, disease.
We quickly realised these were things we couldn’t control, the only thing we could affect was our reaction to them. How on earth could you create a growing system resilient to a flood one year, and then a drought the next!?
It was about then that we gave up. Not on the food-growing, but rather on trying to predict and mitigate and control. We realised not everything was going to survive all the disasters, and instead we began to fill our growing spaces with a much larger variety of crops and plants, understanding we’d lose some of them. More perennials, more variety of annuals, more plants for insect food as well as our own food, a pond as a water source for all those unseen creatures including frogs. We stuffed any area we could with biodiversity, let grass grow longer, and stopped trying to control pests with organic sprays or applications.
It was really an instinct more than a cognitive process. If Mother Nature was creating these weather systems, could she also create growing systems which would cope with such variability?
And it seems to be working. Despite an incredibly wet spring and a growing season so dry most of the East Coast of the country has been declared a drought, we’ve had the most productive year ever on The Food Farm.
We have created a resilient system by increasing biodiversity and allowing Mother Nature to join the dots to find the solution.
The analogy with our food system nationally is obvious. Eat New Zealand sits across agriculture, hospitality and tourism. Every part of this system is currently under massive pressure, from changing environmental expectations, disruption, and shocks to the system like Covid-19 or the threat of economic recession.
Instead of continuing a doggedly individual pursuit of a market, tipping all our eggs into a single basket, what if we increase the diversity of our food system?
What if we collaborate where we haven’t before; agriculture with tourism, wine events with food, meat and milk sectors, arable with horticulture, regions with other regions? What if we worked collectively to support and make connections where they didn’t exist previously?
What if we feed ourselves our own good, nutritious food first? In turn this contributes to our ability to grow us as a people, and as a by-product allows ample social licence for our food producers to operate? People who eat well are healthier, they are more resilient to disease and ill-health.
What if we stuffed way more in; allowing our producers to stack businesses, and properly funded our regional food efforts, unearthed our indigenous food stories. What if we made it all discoverable for everyone from our local community to overseas visitors and aspirational travellers?
What if we listened to traditional wisdom, to those who’ve lived on this land and water for the longest, increasing our diversity of thinking and perspectives?
What if we ‘gave up’ control and rigidity just a little and allowed natural ecosystems and webs to develop?
If we have stepped into a time of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity) and extreme events continue to roll in, then surely a diverse, resilient system will serve us best?
It’s time to focus on building a resilient food system from the grass and flax roots upwards.
It’s time to rethink this all.