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Deep Winter Agrarians Gathering, Buena Vista Farm, Gerringong (NSW), July 30-31, 2016

The (un)conference that was the Deep Winter Agrarians Gathering 2016 was remarkable, in my eyes, for two reasons. One, that almost 200 farmers, producers of food, educators and communicators from around the country were actually able to down tools and make the journey, and two, that, despite our broken and duopolised food system, there was hope in the room.

This was the gathering of a tribe.

Heralded last year as the Woodstock of Australian farming, the Deep Winter gathering has gained momentum and is already maturing, just like the food sovereignty movement with which it is aligned.

Deep Winter is only in its second year, the first event was held in 2015 at Jonai Farms in Daylesford, Victoria, hosted by ethicurean, mistress of meatsmithery and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance President (AFSA), Tammi Jonas. Colin and I were unable to attend the inaugural event as we were chasing escapee cattle and fretting over lambs, but this year we were determined to get there. I’m so very very glad that we did.

I’ve only just more recently discovered this tribe. I’d been following, with earnest, the farmers who are at the forefront of the movement, reading their words, rolling around the theories and the vernacular in my head as their social media feeds formed the basis of an awakening – this is the movement I wanted to be part of and to aid. Colin and I were already practicing fair food fighters, having been selling direct to the consumer for three years our own certified organic lamb and beef, but we were somewhat isolated out in the South Gippsland hills, heads down working, farming and raising a small family. This changed when I gained confidence to connect to other likeminded farmers and producers. The conversations flowed. My Instagram and Facebook feedbacks now very rarely contain cats, but rows of vegetables, cuts of meat and happy, dirty-smeared faces.

The first thing that you notice about the Deep Winter gathering is a lack of egotism in the room – something of a rarity at a standard conference of people in the same industry. The group is pretty self-selecting in that regard – they are there to connect and share knowledge – not compete. We were all there to challenge the current food system, many of us already bypassing the conventional wholesale/retail space by selling direct to the consumer, many others questioning their own methods of selling and redirecting energies to more producer-friendly models such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets. Many in the room were farmers-in-the-making, testing their business models, looking for affordable land and financially and emotionally steeling themselves for “the leap”. Support and resources were freely exchanged between the more experienced and the yet to be initiated. It was inspiring. Once Facebook-only friends are now people I’ve shared a drink with and Instagram-relegated relationships now more fully formed.

Topics of discussion in “breakout” groups over the two days included: building markets, building communities; market gardening; interns and staffing; regulations and planning; soil health; farm business models and structure; processing and value adding (meat and dairy) and; chickens. It was agreed upon that the resources and ideas which came from each group would be compiled and posted online for all attendees – my reading list just got a lot bigger!

So what is the worth of such an (un)conference – it can feel as if you are preaching to the choir, such is the general consensus on the larger issues in the room. We’re strengthening the movement of natural and regenerative farmers, supporting and encouraging younger farmers, networking and sharing knowledge, both theoretical and practical. Sharing successes and shaking our heads over mutually held obstacles and forming fast bonds. It is worth meeting like this, it is affirming and constructive.

Having been invited to be a committee member of AFSA in May 2016, I feel more and more confident that there is a very dedicated and passionate group of people that are within this band of farming merrymakers, both within and outside of AFSA.

If you’re reading this and you’re a producer or farmer, you’d do well to connect to the Deep Winter scene and consider joining AFSA. There’s strength in numbers.

If you’re reading this and you’re an eater, well get out there and start supporting your farmers – there are market gardeners who sell direct, meat and poultry farmers selling direct…get amongst it! It will deepen your connection to the land, you will be more fully engaged with the seasons and the community and you will shorten your food miles. Oh, and farmers like us produce better food.

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. That’s Wikipedia talking, but it pretty well sums up the food system of my dreams and one I’ll be fighting for.

We’ll be there in 2017 for the next gathering, and with talk of local gatherings being organised, we’ll be at the Gippsland one too. Let’s keep this going.

A huge thanks to our hosts, Fiona and Adam from Buena Vista Farm, Kirsten Bradley from Milkwood and the lovely Linda Machon and to Fraser from Old Mill Road and Tammi Jonas of Jonai Farms for leading us into discussions.

I’m going to finish with a quote (bear with me; I was on the debating team at high school):

'Well! - an honest and industrious farmer is one of the most useful members of society; and if I devote my talents to the cultivation of my farm, and the improvement of agriculture in general, I shall thereby benefit, not only my own immediate connections and dependants, but, in some degree, mankind at large:- hence I shall not have lived in vain.' Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Sally Ruljancich

Colin and Sally’s Organic Lamb and Beef and Committee Member, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

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