BRUCE Pascoe has a vision. It is of fields of murnong – yam daisy – and bread loaves made of native kangaroo grass.
It’s not entirely a dream, since early European explorers and settlers reported murnong cultivation across much of Victoria’s western plains.
And Bruce, with his son and daughter, has actually ground the seed of kangaroo grass and baked a loaf of bread at Lake Mungo. They tested it on one of Australia’s top chefs, Ben Shewry, who pronounced it the best bread he had ever tasted with excellent texture, flavour and smell. Tests later showed it was also much more nutritious than flour made using wheat.
The Mallacoota writer and agricultural experimenter was the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s Grow Lightly forum in Korumburra, which drew more than 150 food producers, retailers and others interested in local sustainable food production.
Of Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian heritage, Pascoe has achieved a runaway success with his most recent book Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agriculture or accident. The book, which has been reprinted 14 times, questions the idea that pre-European Aborigines were solely hunter-gatherers.
Using explorers’ diaries and other contemporary reports from the 1700s and 1800s, Pascoe demonstrates indigenous people were sowing, planting and harvesting across Australia. “It was phenomenally productive agriculture on a massive scale.”
Within a few years of European settlement, however, the murnong fields had been eaten out by sheep and cattle, and the rest is history.
In the face of a looming sustainability crisis in Australian agriculture, he suggests it is time to re-examine some of the indigenous practices and crops, such as the highly nutritious native grasses and murrnong, which is in fact not a yam but a herb with a starchy root.
“It’s not just about correcting Australian history but about managing our country better,” Pascoe said.
He is one of the founders of the Gurandgi Munjie collective, which seeks to involve Aboriginal people in east Gippsland and along the NSW south coast in growing these foods again. They have been trialling native millet, kangaroo grass and murnong crops and hope to begin selling soon.
Following his fascinating presentation, 12 Bass Coast and South Gippsland producers got a chance to present a five-minute snapshot of their operation to the audience.
One of the most impressive was Nadine Verboon, of Wattlebank Park Farm , who explained that she and her husband originally planned to dairy farm at Wattlebank. But after heavy flooding left most of their farm underwater in 2012 they were forced to close down for five and a half months and decided to change their approach.
These days they run a diverse operation that includes dairy and beef cows, heritage pigs, a small flock of sheep and layer chooks. They also conduct farm tours and run an education centre on their family farm, teaching groups ranging from kinder kids to tertiary students. Their latest venture is into catering.
The rains may fall, but the Verboons will always have something to fall back on.
Other Bass Coast presenters included Joel Geoghegan, from the Bass Coast Landcare Network, which has been working with growers and community food projects to increase diversity and sustainability, Adrian James, convener of the Phillip Island Community Orchard, and Glen Bisognin and Kaye Courtney, of Bass River Dairies and Bassine Specialty Cheeses.
One of the most interesting presentations was from the three founders of the Prom Coast Food Collective, who are using social media to connect producers to consumers. Since their food hub was launched in April, they have sold local produce valued at $29,000, with sales increasing each month.
Meredith Freeman, of Grow Lightly, said the day was an opportunity for producers and others to see what others were doing and to form important linkages.