Here’s a model of urban agriculture and gardening, alongside a wholefoods restaurant, working together as a community and educational resource in a university setting
Universities are hubs of innovation; environments that encourage thinking outside the square. While gardening is not conventionally thought of as a valuable study resource in tertiary education, the Monash Permaculture leaders think it definitely is. Monash Permaculture is a collective that runs an urban agriculture garden at the Clayton campus and a community farm opposite the campus. The farm provides opportunities to develop skills in self-sufficiency and, at times, an abundance of produce for members to take home.
Although begun in 2007, the Monash Permaculture garden is “now undergoing its fourth incarnation”, says Arunika Weeratunga, the garden’s current president and committee convener.
“In a student-driven environment we have a massive dropout rate and there’s a large governance requirement to keep the gardens going. We are trying to set up a sustainable system, as we have lots of knowledge that we want to distribute well,” she explains.
With a passion for community building and sustainable farming, Brett McLatchie has sat on the Monash Permaculture executive committee and is a key player in developing the urban agriculture gardens. After completing a permaculture design course in 2010, Brett decided to study ecology and became involved in Monash Permaculture.
“I am a general member now, but in the past six months I have been delegated the spokesperson for the collective, negotiating and envisioning our desires for the future of the farm,” Brett explains.
The farm was established two years before the campus garden, which took three years to fit in with university infrastructure policies. The initial goal of the farm was to service the local community and students. Allotments are divided between students and staff as well as community members from the nearby suburb of Notting Hill, who are the main caregivers, maintaining the aesthetics and contributing resources. There’s also an apiary with several beehives used mainly to supply pollinators and honey to share. Brett says, “There’s currently discussion and excitement about how to start facilitating apiary workshops and skills sharing. However, infrastructure and work health and safety are a primary focus before this project can begin.”
The challenges of urban agriculture
The goal of Monash Permaculture is to incorporate the farm into academia and student services, while providing community engagement. Brett explains further, “There must be a viable business model put into practice to ensure the farm can continue its operations into the future.
“We are currently restructuring our goals to reach out to the departments of nutrition and dietetics, as well as soils and environmental earth sciences, to discuss research possibilities and the potential for developing some coursework based on the farm.
“Emphasising regenerative agricultural settings and practices can highlight the potential of local community land, which will combat many current issues with food production and distribution. Our goal is to develop a system that provides solutions generated within neighbourhoods, to challenge the conventional model of how we view agriculture. There is an urgent need for us to acknowledge that small economy is important,” Brett says.
“Linking the farm with academia and creating small businesses to generate jobs and participation is the evolving vision of the co-operative.”
The farm and the garden
For aesthetic and practical reasons, produce is grown in raised beds constructed from recycled timber, old railway sleepers and rocks. “We buy soil once a year to top up the gardens, but mostly we add our own compost and supplement the beds with horse and cow manure, and sometimes with sheep and chicken manure as well as lucerne, all of which comes from nearby businesses,” explains Arunika.
The compost made from scraps and coffee grounds from Wholefoods, a Monash University restaurant, as well as scraps donated by members, is the main source of nutrients supplied to the garden beds. “When compost supplies are down during semester breaks, we chop up crops that have gone to seed,” says Brett. “It would be great to get compost resources from other university restaurants as well.
“The campus garden gets neglected during semester breaks, as students are away. For this reason, we plant groundcovers and plants that are resilient. Currently there’s a need to come together and review our existing maintenance practices, which are not regenerative, depleting the garden soil.”
The primary farm-generated produce includes corn, heirloom pumpkins, tomatoes, zucchini, cabbage, kale and lettuce, as well as a variety of fragrant herbs. “Having a pretty reliable temperate climate with wet winters and hot, dry summers, we can easily plan our cropping. Our members decide what to grow and this brings variety to our produce from season to season,” explains Brett.
All harvested food gets distributed to members. “When we have an abundance of a crop and we are organised enough, we have cookouts, where we come up with recipes and cook in the restaurant, sharing the food. It’s a lot of fun,” says Brett.
Periodically, Monash Permaculture offers workshops, with plans to offer them fortnightly. Melvin Xu’s fermentation workshops are very popular. “I have always believed food is medicine. Fermented foods have always been a staple in my pantry. I have been making kimchi for years now and have experimented with lots of different ratios and recipes,” says Melvin.
“This year we ran a kimchi and kombucha workshop per semester. Fermented nut cheeses is a project I am yet to start. I want to share how useful and great it is to have fermented food in your life, not just to jump on it as a trend.”
Arts, crafts and composting workshops also bring in students into the garden and help to support the urban agriculture project.
The Wholefoods restaurant
The university is blessed with a co-operatively run restaurant with a vegetarian and vegan menu. Wholefoods has about 10 paid staff as primary facilitators and about 100 volunteers throughout the year who can participate in the management and organisational structure. “We have a very supportive culture, so it works well,” says Brett.
As a key member of staff, Brett would love to see the farm, garden and restaurant work as a closed-loop system. “We currently buy the majority of food on the menu because our recipes don’t allow for the farm produce to be utilised on a larger scale. The farm only supplies the restaurant with a salad once a week, a garnish on lasagne, or a small supplement in another dish. The goal would be to grow enough food to supply the restaurant’s seasonal menu.”
Brett endeavours to raise the awareness of the potential of seasonal recipes and believes this can be achieved by engaging the nutritional and dietetics faculty through education about seasonality of food.
Within the challenging university environment, Monash Permaculture is creating valuable links between urban agriculture and food production, academic research and community engagement, growing a sustainable agricultural model and showing how food production can flourish in our cities.
Written by Sandra Tuszynska
Originally in Good Organic Gardening Volume 8 Issue 6