Among the great myths of home food production is the notion of scarcity. Non-gardeners see a vegie patch or a backyard orchard as a hardscrabble way to put food on the table, but as every experienced home grower will attest, it’s actually the complete opposite: Producing food in the home garden is the path to abundance. In fact the abundance is often so great, there’s usually an excess of produce that either needs to be preserved for later use, or given away to neighbours and friends.
Some crops are obvious candidates for this gift economy. Zucchinis, cucumbers, tomatoes and citrus trees spring to mind. In good seasons, all are capable of producing a glut, and let’s face it – one cannot live on zucchinis alone. American novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle writes a chapter titled Zucchini Larceny:
“It didn’t help that other people were trying to give them [zucchinis] to us. One day we came home from some errands to find a grocery sack of them hanging from our mailbox. The perpetrator, of course, was nowhere in sight. ‘Wow,’ we all said – ‘what a good idea!’.”
It was with this idea in mind – abundance – that myself and a group of Hampton locals came up with the idea of holding a regular produce exchange. The concept was that we’d get together once per fortnight during the main growing seasons to swap whatever home grown produce we had in surplus.
This original idea morphed a bit. Some of us started buying cases of apples and pears direct from a grower down at Stanthorpe, who was happy to deliver the fruit to us once per month on his way to Brisbane. So the fortnightly idea was canned and we decided to meet monthly. One of the local gardeners took on the responsibility of organising the group, out went emails to interested people, and a venue was secured at Hampton Blue, our local berry farm.
We recently celebrated our first anniversary. The first exchange in April 2012 met on a Monday afternoon and comprised a small network of keen gardeners and farmers. It’s fair to say that the group has grown a bit. In the last 12 months we’ve swapped everything from locally produced olive oil to boerwurst sausages to duck eggs (even live ducks!). During early autumn, my family arrived with cucumbers, salad greens, herbs, grapes and blackberries. We left with eggs, walnuts, potatoes, blueberries, honey, watermelons, and squash. I drove home thinking “hurrah to local economies!”.
As many as 50 people have attended an exchange, including retired couples, singles and young families. The exchange is the perfect excuse to socialise with friends and neighbours. We’ve held the event in farm packing sheds, in gardens, on verandahs and most recently, in the local Perseverance Hall. This exchange culminated in the viewing of the Oscar winning documentary Food Inc (a must-see for anyone interested in the industrialisation of food and farming), and has resulted in the formation of a local permaculture group. This time I drove home thinking “hurrah for local communities!”.
If you’re interested in starting a produce exchange in your neck of the woods, the process is pretty straightforward. The Hampton group started with three of us chatting in the carpark after a committee meeting for the Hampton Food and Arts Festival. One person decided to get the ball rolling. She started an email list and invited a core group of people to get involved. Thereafter the word has spread among the community. You could easily start a group within your gardening club, church or school community – anywhere an existing network of home food growers already exists.
Choose a venue that’s central to most people, and don’t be afraid to rotate it around if need be. Consider parking and basic safety, but to be honest, the important thing is to get the event up and running without getting too bogged down in logistics early on. As for timeframes, a monthly meeting schedule has worked well for us at Hampton, but very keen gardeners might want to meet fortnightly during late summer and autumn (when there’s lots of produce available), scaling back to monthly during winter and early spring.
Finally, be brave enough to let your produce exchange evolve. That’s the approach we’ve taken with ours, and it’s worked beautifully so far. The group is still very informal, but people are attending regularly, we have a diverse range of produce on offer, and the monthly meetings are generating creative energy in the community to the extent that the Hampton Local Produce Exchange has already spawned a spin-off group.
Local economies are the future. Actually, they’re already here. Always have been. It’s just that people are finding new ways, like produce swaps, to help them thrive. Grow local.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle May 4th, 2013. Photo by Justin.