By Phil Jarratt
Councilor Tom Wegener has been a dreamer his entire life, but sometimes he dreams so big he can barely contain himself.
For 18 months, he has dreamed big of turnips and men in white coats, Olympic athletes and coaches in restaurants that ask only for Noosa products.
To take the last one first: “I look 10 years into the future and I see an Olympic athlete in Brisbane ordering a salad in a restaurant, and his trainer steps in and asks the waiter, ‘Is this product quality. Noosa? And of course the waiter says, “Yes, sir. Nothing but the best here ‘. This is what will happen if we work hard and smart now.
In addition to his responsibilities as an advisor, Tom is a representative of the Noosa board and a member of the board of directors of the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation, and the recently elected president of Permaculture Noosa. He uses all these agencies to drive his vision of an “agri-hub” of Noosa, a consortium of actors who will promote and facilitate the regeneration of sustainable and resilient agriculture in the county.
Yeah, that’s a great idea, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but first, just so you don’t die wondering, those men and those white coats and their turnips.
Tom: “We have 10 years for Noosa to produce the best, healthiest food in the world. And thanks to the NBRF, we can prove it. We can have men in white coats pulling turnips and going, yes that’s the healthiest turnip in the world because that mound of earth that I just pulled it up has been ripening for 10 years like it should.
Tom says he’s been talking about this for about 18 months as a consultant, but the announcement of the Olympics has certainly seen him soar.
He says: “Funny story – we were all at the Future Sunshine Coast conference the other day, watching Ted O’Brien (MP for Fairfax and Special Envoy for the Olympics) onscreen saying, ‘I want us to let’s be known to the world as the healthiest place on earth. Mayor Stewart was sitting next to me and she nudged me and said, “He stole this from you!”
The idea of Noosa as a hub for high quality, healthy and sustainable food is by no means new. In fact, it predates the county itself, dating back to pioneer Walter Hay’s extensive market garden on what is now Noosa Strait that fed the few families who lived in Noosa Heads in the early 20th century, and the number slightly larger from intrepid tourists who have stayed at Hay’s Bay View and Laguna House.
He got another blow in the arm after World War I when family unit milk production led to the formation of cooperatives and efficient distribution, and when a dark cloud formed over the Tweed Shire. in New South Wales because its banana crop was wiped out by bunchy top disease. and the new Noosa Shire found the silver lining and became (briefly) Australia’s leading banana producer. By the late 1920s, Noosa was developing a reputation as an experimental food bowl.
More recently, this writer and his wife joined forces in the early 1990s with gourmet businessmen Helen and Tony Flanagan to found a company called Great Gourmet Adventures which has helped promote quality local produce by transporting tourists. to meet the producers and eat their crops on site. Farmers’ markets and the food and wine festivals that followed this century have taken the perception of Noosa as the capital of quality food much further, but Tom Wegener believes that in the wake of drought and change climate and two years of Covid, sustainable agriculture is in difficulty. .
“It’s a long story, but basically the mantra of the past was to get fat or get out of farming. Monoculture, mechanization and chemical fertilizers were the agricultural norm.
“In Noosa, small farms could not compete with the modern model, and since then a lot of agricultural land, including hobby farms, has become unused and degraded. But now things have started to change. Agricultural practices are increasingly focused on intensive micro-agriculture where crops and animals work in harmony to produce abundance and regenerate the land. Residents of Noosa look for locally grown food knowing it is organic, healthy and supports the local community, ”said Tom.
“The foundations are now laid for a revival of local agriculture. But there are significant obstacles. The first is that local small-scale agriculture, with current organizations, is not financially viable. The land of Noosa is very expensive, and with the costs of machinery, labor, fertilizer, and advice, it is not profitable.
“On top of that, the land in many cases has been degraded and climate change poses greater uncertainty.”
As Tom’s ideas for creating a revival of local agriculture boiled, Noosa’s council was in the final stages of discussing its plan to respond to climate change. It paid particular attention to Theme 6: Sustainable agriculture and food systems, which defines as its priorities: “Support agribusinesses and landowners to create a sustainable and regenerative food system that includes consideration and preparedness for risks linked to climate change… Promote sustainable and local food products and improve access to local food for farmers, residents, visitors and vulnerable people ”.
The rationale and funding would not come from the Economic Plan but from the CCRP.
Tom got a small grant from the council and started putting the pieces together, from scratch, so to speak, with the Noosa Permaculture team starting construction of a pavilion at Cooroy Community Gardens that will have a kitchen. commercial area and a shaded area for the development of local products.
He says this first step was inspired by Elaine Bradley, the sustainable agriculture guru at Mary Valley Country Harvest, who told him that when Covid hit a lot of older people in the valley didn’t want to go out to markets for buy food for them, so the farmers developed their own phone tree and delivered fresh food from the kitchen garden to those in need.
“When I heard about it, I thought there was our contingency plan for all kinds of disasters that could disrupt the food supply. “
Now that Agri-Hub is operational as a live project of the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation, and supported by a long list of organizations including Noosa and District Landcare and Tourism Noosa, the biggest challenge is to bring in the people who want to farm on land where their smallholdings can be viable and sustainable.
“We want to help young farmers get land because they can’t afford it in Noosa,” says Tom.
“But the NBRF can step in and negotiate with landowners to make unused land available, and with farmers to make sure they would use the land appropriately. In each case, the NBRF would facilitate a clear contract.
“The landowner improves the land through the work of the farmer, it is his payment. I have spoken to landowners who seem very happy to do this. And we know who the farmers could be through a group called Young Farmers Connect. This organization is full of young people who dream of going out and making their living on earth.
“So it’s a 10-year plan to get there, hinged around responding to climate change, but I was wondering where the economic engine might be, and voila, we’ll have the Olympics in 2032.
“It changes everything. We have 10 years for Noosa to produce the best, healthiest food in the world, and we can do it if we start now.
Anyone seeking more information or involvement in the Agri-Hub project should contact Cr Tom Wegener at [email protected]