Everything started with a glut of overripe pumpkins.
The supermarket that usually bought the produce grown by Matt Dennis, a farmer in Maitland, in Australia’s Hunter Valley, refused to take them off his hands. They weren’t shiny and perfect enough, they said. Matt was about to dump the tons of pumpkins—a serious loss for his small business—when the news reached the ears of Amorelle Dempster, the leader of the Slow Food Hunter Valley Convivium. She helped organize a small stall in town where the pumpkins could be sold directly to the citizens of Maitland, asking them to help Dennis and avoid this absurd waste. “I grew up in Sri Lanka,” explains Amorelle, “and even when my family was going through hard times we always shared what we had with those who were worse off than us. I can’t stand the idea of wasting food.”
The pumpkins sold briskly and Matt avoided a major financial loss. Amorelle had an idea. She convinced a few more producers to join her, got the necessary authorizations from the city council and soon Maitland had its own Fresh Food Market. Here producers from within a 100-kilometre radius (a short distance by Australian standards) could sell their produce directly to citizens: fresh vegetables and fruits, picked that morning, herbs and spices, organic eggs and pasture-grazed meat. In August it became Australia’s first Earth Market.
The market is held in the city’s main street every first and third Thursday of the month, from 2 pm to 7 pm. During the market, around 50 to 60 plates of food are also prepared for the day’s customers. Around a dozen producers come to sell their goods, and in total twice as many are involved in the project; not every producer takes part in every market. At each market, almost everything sells out, and anything left over is given to Slow Food convivium volunteers, who use it to prepare 200 meals local people in need using the kitchen of Amorelle’s café.
In the meantime, Matt Dennis has started to diversify his crops, so as to avoid falling into the monoculture trap again. Others have finally found recognition for their biodiversity conservation efforts. Austin Breiner, for example, has a seed collection of hundreds of traditional varieties, and last year he grew 40 types of pumpkin and squash. The market project has been a source of great optimism for the valley’s producers. At least 20 tons of food were sold at the market in 2017, bringing in AUS$100,000 of proceeds for the farmers. Without this vital support, some would undoubtedly have given up their business, young people would have looked for another job and local food heritage would have suffered a serious blow. This part of the country is already suffering from dramatic climate change which is causing the land to dry up, creating enormous problems for farmers.
The people of Maitland, meanwhile, now have a place where they can buy healthy, fresh, good-quality food, as well as learning more about how their food is produced and the problems facing farmers and can become conscious co-producers. Promotions are regularly organized for vegetables and other products that would otherwise be thrown away, and as well as helping producers financially, this also encourages people to consume more fresh vegetables. The annual garlic harvest was celebrated in November with a range of different varieties on display at the market, the growers eager to explain their different characteristics to curious shoppers.
Maitland has named Amorelle “Citizen of the Year” and the experience of the market and the value of Slow Food’s work in the Hunter Valley to reconnect the community to its rural roots have been cited in Parliament.