From Australia to Asheville

Aussie Elaine Bradley visits Asheville to learn about ASAP and local agriculture in the Asheville area

Western North Carolina doesn’t have lush rainforests covering volcanic mountains. Nor is our landscape dotted with pineapple plants and macadamia nut trees. But Australian Elaine Bradley — who currently lives and farms 30 miles inland from the country’s northeast coast, in what’s called the Mary Valley — says there are commonalities.

Specifically, our mountainous geography represents the same challenges to their small farmers as it does ours. That’s why she’s here.

“I heard of ASAP about a decade ago,” she says. “The organization’s aims to raise the profile of local food and assist in helping farmers transition from a commodity crop [tobacco] into food production really struck a chord.”

At that time, she notes, the state of Queensland was looking at similar changes in a rapidly declining agricultural economy. “It used to be a prime dairy region and also one of the biggest pineapple-growing areas,” she says. Now, just a small number of each is still operating, with most farms turning their focus to beef cattle. Although there are still large orchards of macadamia nuts and various fruits as there were a decade ago, only a small number of farms are growing vegetables.

Bradley herself owns property that used to be primarily dedicated to pineapple production, along with bananas and timber. She and her partner, Steve, moved there in 1994 and now manage more than half of their 54 acres as a registered Nature Refuge. The rest is small market gardens and light grazing for goats and donkeys.

But the changes in pineapple and dairy production aren’t the only shifts when it comes to Australia’s agricultural landscape. Recently, 25,000 acres in the Mary Valley once sanctioned by the government for a now-dissolved dam project (to supply water to the capital city of Brisbane) being gradually released. While the new government wishes to encourage agriculture, no funding is being for any projects.

“We’re going to have to get creative,” Bradley says. That’s where she’s hoping Western North Carolina can help. For 10 years, she’s watched what ASAP has been doing.

“I could often be heard muttering, ‘I want to do what they’re doing,’” Bradley recalls. “That little muttering voice eventually became very loud and was heard by an organization, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, that sponsors overseas research on projects that can have a positive impact in Australia. Their fellowship award brought me here.”

So far, her visit has been fruitful (pardon the pun). “My goal was to look at small-farm systems and their support networks, and find out what makes them viable, what their long-term success can be attributed to, and I now have good insight into their reasons for sustainability,” she says.

Bradley estimates she has visited 25 small farms, in addition to tailgate markets and restaurants serving local food. “I laughingly say that I’ve been a serial pest at most of the tailgate markets in the Asheville area and beyond. I think I’ve visited just about every market in the area between Flat Rock, out west to Sylva, north to Jonesborough, Tenn., and east to Black Mountain.”

She will take her tailgate experiences home with her as just one way to extend Australia’s marketing of local food. “At home, tailgate markets are not common and generally happen on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Weekday markets are virtually nonexistent.” She also shares that the Community Supported Agriculture system hasn’t quite caught on, but she hopes to share our CSA models as a way for Australian farmers to create more direct relationships with their consumers.

“I’ve learned that a local food campaign is about the development of a good, solid basis on which growth can occur,” Bradley says. “A basis founded on great advice, active and innovative support from organization’s like ASAP and others, and the important fact that people who buy the local food have a good understanding and appreciation of how it gets to their plates.”

She’s also gleaned more than just the big picture. “Along the way, I’ve picked up lots of small but surprisingly very important clues that improve efficiency of food production and distribution. Simple things, like the design of the common waxed box used here by most farms for storage and their CSA distribution.”

And she’s had lots of fun exploring and understanding Southern Appalachia, of course. “I’m having a fantastic time here; the fall is spectacular.” (Australia doesn’t experience fall as we know it; most of the trees in the Australian bush and rainforest keep leaves year-round.) “I have stopped getting excited about seeing squirrels, groundhogs and raccoons,” she says, quite different animal sightings than she’s used to. “Yes, we do have wallabies, platypus and koalas.”

ASAP and Bradley will continue to work together once she’s back home later this month; ASAP will assist as consultants to help her get a Mary Valley local food campaign up and running. Stay tuned to the organization’s websites in the future to follow up and check in on their progress.

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