Troweling acres of change to feed community
4 May 2022 at 6:53 pm
After Josh Collings lost his home in the 2020 bushfires he established his market garden initiative, the Acres and Acres Cooperative, it aims to empower his local community to grow and sell produce. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Josh Collings, head of Corryong’s Acres and Acres Cooperative, describes himself as a man with “a book of 3,000 ideas”.
After witnessing the destruction of large parts of his local community in the bushfires, and subsequent COVID lockdown, Collings transformed his already-established food swap group into the first iteration of Acres and Acres. He recruited a tight knot of volunteer mates who invested unlimited time and energy into transforming the group into a community collective.
The co-op aspires to create a network of market gardens around Upper Murray and North Eastern Victoria – building community resilience through one of humanity’s oldest ideas: growing and selling your own food.
Acres and Acres helps local community members establish one acre community gardens (based on creating education and income streams in communities), market gardens (for small business owners who want to source and distribute produce) and kitchen gardens (grow it and eat it in your own home).
Recently awarded the 2021 Victorian health promotion awards Community Legend Award, Collings’ modus operandi seems to be “make it work, then make it better, then make it bigger, then do it again.”
In this week’s Changemaker, Collings fills us in on his community philosophy and working with a truly diverse collection of people.
Why did you decide to create a co-op?
The bushfires set off this spark of our food resilience problems, because they predicted food prices would start to go up over the next five years: that’s not a prediction anymore. The conversation is about short food chains, petrol prices, disasters, fires, floods: we had the bushfires, and then within a month, [we were] talking about bats in China. It was a joke with beers, and then all of a sudden it’s real, and so we’re like, “we need to just really get going [with a full community initiative]”. And this is not a conversation about “how do we do more”, this is a conversation about “how do we do this now?”. So we really amped up [our existing food swap group], in case food went the way of toilet paper. We had a donation of tools to get started and through the project, the tools were becoming more about small scale farming.
What are some of the innovations you’ve made along the way?
We’re trying a planting-party model: we just did half an acre of garlic in four days. So that was a really fun model, because, you know, we bring 25 friends along, we have live music playing throughout the whole event while people are working.
Our tool library is active: it contains things like a small tip-truck, tractors and walking tractors and a solar powered tractor. We haven’t turned it on to its full functionality yet. Currently it’s getting used just within our membership.
I’m also working on our first version of a conceptual hub. I’m calling it “a community farm system” so that captures our community worm farm, market gardens, the tool library – how it engages with community.
What are some of the unique challenges you face?
Only 30 per cent of our local government area is on the internet. If you can’t meet in person, if you’ve got an ageing community, it’s really tricky. Also, democracy works, but there is a limit to democracy, and we’re still in disaster mode everywhere, and I don’t think we’re at the end of this struggle.
We need farm gates. We need food swaps. We need food shares. We need community market gardens. They’re all important to function together – no one is more important. It’s just that it’s very dominated in one way currently, and that is being shown throughout our food model with the prices of food, petrol etc.
How do you share knowledge with others undertaking similar work, or learn from them?
I’m no professional. None of us are professionals. We are literally flying by the seat of our pants – answering problems and becoming quite knowledgeable along the way.
In terms of people, Pete Williams [is] our partner at Deloitte and he helped start the technology and philanthropy arm. He’s literally got nothing to gain from our project, doesn’t live in our area, he just sees it as a project and an opportunity, and loves the team. He’s just one of the quality human beings I want to know. He can change the perspective of the situation.
What are some of the things that inspire you as a leader?
We just did a survey out to our community that captures the responses and engagement levels. We got a whole heap of food system specialists to help. We’ve had a huge response – 120 responses. That’s a great reflection of a small community, and [there was] only one negative comment. All the others were either positive, or building on the concept.
We’re also about to launch a podcast, but we haven’t given it a name yet. But, this local guy Tristan Pierce – who had helped us with case studies and interviews – called up and said, “I’ve written a song for the project”. I said “what’s it about?” and he said “it’s just pretty and about gardens and the project”. That was a really beautiful moment.