Authors: Will Tait and Jodi Newcombe

We are gathered at Bar Midland in Castlemaine with a collection of primary producers to discuss the concept of ‘Eating Djaara Country Healthy’, while proprietor and project collaborator Alex Perry delights us with appropriately-themed delicacies. After the first round of introductions Richard Collins explains the troubling times he’s been experiencing with the health of his bees, and by extension the health of his business: Collins Honey. Last year a mysterious illness swept through the hives, killing off baby bees, leaving the third generation family business with their lowest year of honey production on record. Meanwhile, as fuel prices and wages rise, wholesale honey prices are falling, a downward trend driven in part by imported ‘impostor’ honey that is diluted with syrups and sugars that are cheaper to produce. 

“Show me the Honey!” Richard wears his passion on his back at the Bar Midland lunch table

Faced with this absurd set of unfavourable odds, Richard has to rely on his passion to keep the honey flowing. That passion is fired by knowledge of how the weather affects the yields and nectar flows of different trees in any given year, and the variety of honey flavours offered by different blossoms. The decision to start moving away from wholesale, to pack and sell honey directly, has not only given more control over the sale price, but provided Richard with an invaluable portal for passing on his fire: “The joy on people’s faces when they actually get real honey, that’s what drives me!”

Richard enthuses about what can be communicated when producers exchange directly with consumers. Take the fact that pure honey crystallises. Once people realise that the squeezy bottle that runs eternal can be an adulterated fake, they start to see those crystals as a desirable sign of purity. Collins Honey is now catching the eyes of supermarket shoppers thanks to being stocked by local IGAs,  but those who reach beyond the price-point to read the label tend to already know what they are looking for. To enlighten the uninitiated, nothing beats selling direct. Allow people to anchor the story of your honey on their tongue and they often discover a whole new loyalty to the good stuff. A murmur of consensus ripples around the table that suggests that this principle applies to all lovingly husbanded foodstuffs. The Hancocks, who run Murphy’s Creek Pork and the Fat Butcher at Inglewood, point out that the care that they put into their pigs includes extensive regenerative farming practices stretching back decades and a vegetable-only diet that costs twice as much as the standard fare that other farmers in the area use. The only way that customers are going to value that extra care is if they know the story and can associate it with the flavour they are getting with their purchase.

And this gives us a sense of the power we have sitting on our tongue. If we have a taste for the fake honey, and the poorly-fed pork, then we’re essentially ‘eating the globalised industrial food industry healthy’. However, as soon as systemically-healthy produce gets you salivating, both as a concept and a mouth-watering experience, your taste-buds step into the service of bio-diverse and resilient food systems. A huge part of this is that you end up caring more and knowing more about the health of the life that provides your food. 

Knowing and caring about bees is especially important it seems. They are like “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to ecosystem health. When there’s less water in the system bees need to spend more time finding it. That means less time making honey and lower yields. When trees are stressed, they produce less blossoms. That means less honey and less diversity of flavour. Unfortunately, such scarcity has led to a culture of secrecy amongst veteran beekeepers. The location of “honey spots”, where just the right blossoms are abundant, is kept closely guarded to maintain advantage in the field. What a deficit in communally actionable knowledge this represents!  Clearly these honey spots are wells of wellness within the landscape. We should be coming together to discover what makes them thrive, finding ways to replicate their favourable conditions everywhere possible.

Bec Phillips draws our attention to native bees  Photo: Tim Grey

As this conversation unfolds, the subject of native bees is raised by Bec Phillips – Dja Dja Wurrung woman and part of the Carbon Arts core creative team that is exploring this idea of ‘Eating Djaara Country Healthy’. From the native bee’s perspective, the European bee is an aggressive interloper, quite a different take on the poor, beleaguered and pivotal species that we need to protect from global destruction. What if our endeavours to protect honey production put extra pressure on the already dwindling habitat and food supply of native bees? The bees that evolved on Djaara Country may not produce the quantities of honey that the European newcomers do, but theirs is recognised as a superfood, offering a special nutritional boost to those who seek it out. Native bees also play a unique role in the pollination of indigenous flora. Some native flowers, for example, will only release their pollen in response to the specific pulsing buzz of the blue-banded bee. However, taking score on which type of bee is more worthy naturally leads to divisive questions: ‘Should European bees even be here?’ A better way forward needs a better question. Ultimately, it’s about caring for Country, so the real challenge is to ask: ‘How do we come together to identify, protect and regenerate the habitats and environmental conditions that keep both native and European bees thriving and offering their unique gifts to Country?’

From bees, the conversation shifts to another European interloper: the cow – especially its role as a producer of dairy. Colleen Condliffe’s family has been farming for generations but wrapped up their dairy operations a few years ago. The dairy industry is now geared so much towards large-scale operations that most family operations are unable to make ends meet without at least one family member working off-site. The stress of exorbitant work-hours is added to by the huge risk undertaken in capital expenditure required to supply sufficient volumes to wholesale buyers. Zoning regulations even play a part, requiring farmers on designated properties to maintain a certain level of stock and production. 

So can we bring dairy farming back to a cottage industry scale where farmers are getting a fair price for their produce because local people are buying it at a fair price? Can we ensure that any kind of “middleman” is a conduit that serves both sides of the equation, rather than serving itself and leaving the producer and the consumer poorer for the exchange? Barriers are raised in response to this question: most farmers aren’t aware that there’s a public willing to buy direct; smaller locally-focussed operations still have to meet regulations like pasteurisation via infrastructure designed for the big players’ pockets.  However, with the right perspective, problems reveal solutions. There’s huge potential to mobilise people around local milk and purchasing direct from farmers. And when farmers get more in their pocket for each exchange they don’t tend to just kick back and take it easy. Any extra slack is usually taken up pouring extra hours and resources into caring for their land and their animals. That story itself provides a value that more and more people are ready to pay for, once they hear it. Value gets returned to the land and the virtuous cycle gains momentum.

From there the connection between consumers and producers moves beyond a localisation of food production and distribution and into a whole new re-culturing around food, as more and more people not only understand and appreciate the sources of their food, but also know those sources as places within their landscape. They are then also more aware of and ready to participate in the necessary civic changes needed to remove the barriers from this regenerative localising movement.  With communal momentum comes collective power, the power to lobby for more appropriate regulations and government support.

Such aspirational talk sits a little uneasily with the realities of daily grind faced by these producers who are operating in an economic system that is still skewed drastically against them. There is, however, a light that we all point to with equal gusto as we peer down the tunnel together: Education! There is so much empowering knowledge to share in all directions. There’s the knowledge of how regenerative practices restore soil and ecosystem health, of the efforts that so many passionate farmers make to engage in these practices, and how much more benefit they could offer if the market rewarded them more fairly for their work. For many consumers there’s the simple revelation of where our food comes from, how it is processed and produced, what makes it healthy and what makes the land it comes from healthy. All of these insights have the potential to increase appreciation for food by leaps and bounds. For farmers there’s the knowledge that direct markets exist and are ready to flourish in direct proportion to how engaging their story is. Underneath all of this, and most profound of all, is the knowledge that Djaara Country is a living landscape that has been in healthy relationship with humans for countless generations. Also the knowledge that representatives of the culture that understands that health are here, in the community, ready to have the conversations that guide all of us forward together towards a fresh new iteration of that deep level of health.

The question is: how do we get these ideas through the walls of attention commanded by cheery processed food ads, highway burger-n-fries beacons and the two-party supermarket state? Well ,clearly our best shot is making our own TV show about all of this! It’s a half joke, but everyone around the table is tickled by the sense that maybe, just maybe that’s the way to go. In the meantime, if you’re reading this, then the education is already happening. Even more so if you feel compelled to forward it onwards. Although, of course, concepts are all well and good: let’s not forget that if we’re going to Eat Djaara Country Healthy, then getting our taste-buds on board is essential. Cue Alex’s interpretation of the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, served as the closer of our Bar Midland gathering. (Apologies, that the tech doesn’t at least extend to a ‘scratch-n-sniff’ screen on this occasion!)

“Honey and Cream Parfait with Smoked Bay and Candied Walnut” Photo: Tim Grey