Words By Kel Buckley
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. When it came to thinking outside the box during the enforced restrictions associated with the global pandemic, Arthur Ashe’s words rang loud and true. The result was some great and positive outcomes born out of some otherwise bleak times.
When the enormity of the global pandemic started to become clear this time last year, many people’s lives changed overnight. Forced to reevaluate how we interacted with the world and the people in it, the resulting restrictions and lockdowns represented a stark shift in everyday circumstances for so many. But as the following examples prove, humans can be remarkably resilient and adaptive when presented with adversity.
For Pip team member Maude Farrugia and her partner Neil Erenstrom, the coronavirus pandemic forced their hand on a plan they’d been hatching for some time. As parents to two kids under five, the couple were looking for more income streams that could help facilitate a lifestyle of spending more time at home.
Based in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, the pair craved local access to good-quality bread and identified the gap in the market as a potential opportunity. So when Maude’s souvenir-centric stationery label ground to halt as a result of both travel and retail restrictions, the couple threw themselves into making their Dougharty microbakery dream a reality.
‘Neil’s an engineer and I did a fine arts degree, so we’re definitely not bakers,’ laughs Maude. ‘But I love eating bread and pastries and I did do one day of a patisserie apprenticeship when I was in my 20s.
‘There’s a cafe across the road from our house that was vacant, so we started investigating taking over the lease. That was before Covid hit, so that wasn’t going to happen so we thought let’s convert our back room.’
At less than two metres wide by less than three metres long, it’s a far cry from a normal-sized room, but between Neil’s engineering background and Maude’s creativity, the innovation used to turn a five-square metre space into a fully functioning bakery is remarkable.
‘We weren’t sure if we going to be able to fit it in, but I got out the 3D-modelling software and researched the sizes of the oven and fridges and everything else we needed to create a compliant commercial kitchen,’ explains Neil. ‘It really was a puzzle to not only make it all fit, but to also make it an ergonomically nice place to bake. And it feels like we’ve done that.’
The plan isn’t to bake hundreds of loaves a week to achieve enormous commercial success, rather to balance the time two young kids require with the time needed to bake high-quality goods using home-grown and seasonal ingredients.
There’s been hurdles along the way, of course, ‘but nothing insurmountable,’ adds Maude. ‘The council has been good – like waiving the start-up fee because of Covid, for example – nothing like California, though, which has a passed a cottage-industries bill to try an enable small, home-based businesses.’
There was another unexpected benefit of getting Dougharty Baker off the ground during an otherwise grim time for Melburnians. And it’s the positive impacts having a goal to aim towards has on mental health.
‘I was dealing with post-natal depression last year and I can’t believe I didn’t have a mental crisis during Covid,’ Maude says.
Current zoning prevents the pair from selling bread directly from their home, but between deliveries and pick-up hubs, access to great bread in Melbourne’s Heidelberg area is no longer an issue.
Candelo Farmgate Stall
At a farm gate 600 kilometres north-east of the Dougharty Baker sits an impressive, handmade corrugated iron and timber structure. It’s well stocked with a variety of carefully prepared wares; from ferments, preserves and jams, to locally sourced, edible smoked seaweed and brewed seaweed tonic for your garden, through to books, cookies, seeds and flavoured salts.
A combined initiative of two farms who came together to jump their pandemic hurdles, they’re all products that would have otherwise been sold in the many number of farmers’ markets dotted throughout the Bega Valley, events which were suspended very early on in the restrictions phase.
The stall is located at the entrance to Fermaculture Farm, which is the home of Pip’s assistant editor Emily Stokes, her partner Mick and their three kids.
‘We’re really good friends with the Cowsnest Community Farm, we mix with them a lot, we share produce, farming knowledge and skills and things,’ explains Emily. ‘It’s a combination of our two farms working together.’
Before the pandemic, the aptly named Fermaculture Farm ran sourdough and fermentation workshops, and both farms relied on the valley’s well-attended market trail as a place to connect with the community and sell their produce.
Located on a quiet road two kilometres out of the small town of Candelo, Emily didn’t know how the stall would perform, but it quickly garnered a reputation for high-quality, locally grown and made produce, and the response was overwhelming.
‘We just had a really fantastic five months or so – the first couple of months were just amazing,’ reveals Emily. ‘We were making way more money than we were making at the weekend market, each and every week and it went on for months.’
The family would occasionally bump into customers while restocking the stall, but it runs purely on an honesty system; there’s a moneybox for the cash payers and a sign displaying bank details for the others.
‘We had a message book and people would write little notes and we’ve had people from as far away as Sydney and Canberra leave really positive messages for us,’ she says. ‘We had these two ladies one day, I met them, they were walking with their shopping bags. One woman was local and one was from Sydney and they’d walked from town along this deserted country road and up our big hill to do their shopping.
‘We have a lot of regular customers now, we get people travelling from nearby towns and I suspect they’ll remain.’
Emily sees an opportunity for the area to encourage more stalls like hers and for the valley to promote the idea as a tourist trail. But whether that happens or not, hers and the Crowsnest farm gate stall is staying right where it is for the foreseeable future.
Seeds Are Free, Pass It On
When panic buying affected the availability of vegie seeds and seedlings, Julie Bennett, an organic kitchen gardener on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, used an inspiring but tragic story to launch a free-seed initiative.
Before his untimely death in 2019 aged just 33, London-based father-of-two Esiah Levy had a passion for saving and sharing heirloom seeds. It’s a passion mimicked by Julie who was moved by his story and realised she had both the drive and resources to continue his generous but important legacy here in Australia.
‘I looked across to my fridge and realised it was full of saved heirloom seed,’ she said. ‘It was during the early stages of the pandemic when there was a shortage of seed and I knew what I had to do.’
Since then, she’s shared over 2000 packets of saved heirloom seed and a community grant has allowed her to keep up with demand that’s growing at an exponential rate. Julie places as much emphasis on educating the community on how to save seed as she does on sharing the seeds she has saved. It’s a skill which gives Australians the ability to take control of their food system, not having to rely on supermarket supply-chains or chemical giants who have taken ownership of the world’s food seed through patents.
‘We no longer have a choice,’ Julie explains. ‘Supermarkets offer us a single variety of vegetables which have been bred to travel well, have uniformity and a longer shelf life. And while heirloom varieties have been bred for flavour first and foremost, the most important thing is the diversity they provide which is essential to a healthy ecosystem.
Follow the leaders
CANDELO FARMGATE STALL
SEEDS ARE FREE, PASS IT ON
‘I want people to enjoy eating the vegetables and allow just one plant to go to seed so they, too, can share their own heirloom seeds with friends and family. Because passing it on means we can grow a free-seed community.’
Julie posted her idea on social media, asking interested participants to send her a stamped, self-addressed envelope. She then returns a small packet of seed, along with the variety’s history and tips on how to get the best results with both growing the heirloom varieties and harvesting the seed.
‘I want to empower people by saving their own seed. It’s easy, you don’t need to buy fresh seed every year, and it’s better if you save it because then it’s conditioned to where it’s grown, it remembers and adapts,’ she says. ‘The pandemic highlighted the need to take control of our food. More and more people are wanting to connect back to their garden and are wanting to know where their food comes from.’
This article represents the permaculture principle CREATIVELY USE AND RESPOND TO CHANGE.