Revolution was in the air last weekend at a remarkable gathering that ABC Gardening host Costa Georgiadis has coined ‘the Woodstock of Australian agriculture’.

The first Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, held in the central highlands of Victoria, was attended by 150 farmers, connectors, communicators, educators and eaters collectively striving for a fair food system that operates in the best interests of producers and consumers.

To achieve their goal of developing truly integrated agroecological farming systems, they pledged to share resources and work together to support each other in diversifying their farms.

“The need to build a food system that includes true cost of farming – the social, ecological and regenerative costs of farming – has never been greater” said Robert Pekin, founder of Brisbane-based food enterprise, Food Connect.

The multiple dimensions of food production, distribution and connection addressed at the Gathering included the increasing incidence of ‘food fraud’ committed by some restaurants and providores.

Many farmers gave examples of their produce being named on menus of restaurants they were not currently supplying.

“Our efforts to maintain high welfare animal husbandry systems are being coopted by unscrupulous chefs or, in some cases, their suppliers” said Michele Lally of Savannah Lamb and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) National Committee member.

“Accordingly, consumers who are aiming to make ethical choices and support the growth of the regenerative farming movement are also being duped.”

Producers called for solidarity in fighting fraudulent claims, and the burden of disabling regulations.

Food safety regulation, topical of late in Victoria where complaints by small producers and butchers have triggered a review of Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe, was flagged as a major impediment to growing local food economies and rural communities.

Victorian producers face specific challenges as all other states and territories possess integrated food safety authorities.

“PrimeSafe has lost sight of its mission to support innovation in the industry. From all appearances, it only knows how to regulate Big Food, and is totally bewildered by the emerging fair food movement. It labeled small, transparent producers’ systems ‘novel supply chains’ in a recent consultation exercise” said Tammi Jonas, free-range pig farmer, butcher and President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA).

“A regulator that thinks it is ‘novel’ to sell food directly to people and allegedly more risky than long, industrial supply chains has lost sight of where the real risks to food safety are,” said Jonas.

Poultry farmers also expressed concerns over the narrow options available to them in processing their products. Many indicated their willingness to work with government authorities to build acceptance of safe, on-farm micro abattoirs such as that at Southampton Homestead in Western Australia.

Labour on farms was identified as another critical issue that concerns not only affordable wages and fair conditions but the need to ‘grow the next generation of growers’ in rapidly ageing rural communities, where the average age of the Australian farmer is 52.

The Gathering highlighted the role of connectors or ‘ethical middleman’ throughout the food system such as Open Food Network, Food Connect, co-operatives and farmers’ markets.

These innovative, community-building ventures were celebrated as promising alternatives to the systemic disconnection embodied by the duopoly of Coles & Woolworths (‘Colesworth’) which dominates 80 per cent of the grocery retail market in Australia.

In facing the challenges of developing a fairer food system those who attended the inaugural Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering demonstrated a spirit of optimism, engendered by the deeply practical work they do every day to connect people to fair food in their communities.

Paulette Whitney of Provenance Growers in Tasmania summed it up this way. “I’ve come home with knowledge, ideas and inspiration, and best of all with some incredible, true new friends, but most of all I’ve come home with a fire in my belly to fight the paradigm that says efficiency is dollars per acre, when for me it’s health, happiness, and good land stewardship that is true efficiency. ”

Contact: Tammi Jonas, AFSA President 0422 429 362

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