By Phil Jarratt
Alderman Tom Wegener has been a dreamer all his life, but sometimes he dreams so big that he can hardly contain himself.
For the past 18 months he has dreamed of turnips and men in white coats, Olympic athletes and coaches in restaurants who only ask for Noosa products.
To take the last one first, “I look 10 years into the future and see an Olympic athlete in Brisbane ordering a salad in a restaurant and his trainer steps in and asks the waiter, ‘Is that Noosa quality?” And of course the waiter says, “Yes, sir. Nothing but the best here ‘. That will happen if we work hard and intelligently now. “
In addition to serving as a councilor, Tom is a Noosa Council Representative and Board Member of the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation and the recently elected President of Permaculture Noosa. He uses all of these agencies to advance his vision of an “Agri-Hub” in Noosa, a consortium of stakeholders that will promote and facilitate regeneration of sustainable, resilient agriculture in the county.
Yes, it’s a great idea, and we’ll get to it in a moment, but first so you don’t have to die, those men and white coats and their turnips.
Tom: “We have 10 years to bring Noosa to produce the best, healthiest food in the world. And through the NBRF, we can actually prove it. We can have men in white coats pulling turnips up and saying, yes, this is the healthiest turnip in the world because this mound of earth I just pulled it out of has ripened as it should for 10 years. “
Tom says he’s been pounding about it for about 18 months since joining the council, but the Olympics announcement certainly shook him.
He says, “Funny story – we were all at the Future Sunshine Coast conference the other day and watched Ted O’Brien (Fairfax MP and Special Envoy for the Olympics) on the screen saying, ‘I want us to be the world are known as the healthiest place on earth. ‘ Mayor Stewart was sitting next to me and she nudged me and said, ‘He stole that from you!’ “
The Noosa idea as a hub for high-quality, healthy and sustainable food is by no means new. In fact, it is older than the county itself and dates back to Walter Hay’s sprawling market garden on what is now Noosa Sound, which the few families who stayed at Hay’s Bay View and Laguna House in their early twenties.
It got another shot in the arm after World War I when the dairy farming in family units led to the formation of cooperatives and effective distribution and when a black cloud formed over the Tweed Shire in NSW as its banana crop was wiped out by bush disease and the new Noosa Shire found the silver lining and (briefly) became Australia’s leading banana producer. In the late 1920s, Noosa developed a reputation as an experimental food bowl.
More recently, in the early 1990s, this writer and wife teamed up with foodie businessmen Helen and Tony Flanagan to create a company called Great Gourmet Adventures which helped promote the quality of local produce by bringing tourists drove around in buses to meet the growers and spot their plants. The farmers markets and food and wine festivals that followed this century have pushed Noosa’s perception as the quality capital of food much further, but Tom Wegener believes sustainable agriculture is in trouble amid drought, climate change and two years of Covid.
“It’s a long story, but basically the old mantra was to grow up or get out of farming. Monocultures, mechanization, and chemical fertilizers were the standard of agriculture.
“In Noosa, small farms couldn’t keep up with the modern model, and since then a lot of arable land, including hobby farms, has been fallow and degraded. But now things have started to change. Agricultural practices are increasingly centered on micro-intensive farming, where plants and animals work together in harmony to produce abundance and regenerate the land. Noosa residents look for locally grown food because they know it is organic, healthy, and support the local community, ”says Tom.
“Now the foundations are being laid for a rebirth of local agriculture. But there are significant obstacles. The first is that small local agriculture is not financially sustainable with the current organizations. Noosa land is very expensive and, along with the cost of machinery, labor, fertilizer and advice, is uneconomical.
“In addition, the country is degraded in many cases and climate change brings with it greater uncertainty.”
While Tom’s ideas for creating a local agricultural renaissance were bubbling, Noosa Council was in the final stages of debating its climate change response plan. He paid particular attention to topic 6: Sustainable agriculture and food systems, which outlines as priorities: “Supporting agricultural companies and landowners in creating a sustainable and regenerative food system that includes taking into account and preparing for the risks of climate change … promoting sustainable, locally produced products Food “and improve access to local food for farmers, residents, visitors and vulnerable people”.
The justification and the financing would not come from the business plan, but from the CCRP.
Tom got a small grant from the council and started putting the pieces in place from scratch, so to speak, while the Permaculture Noosa team began building a pavilion in Cooroy Community Gardens that will have a commercial kitchen and shaded area is used to develop 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 many elderly people in the valley didn’t want to go to the markets to buy theirs when Covid was struck So the farmers developed their own telephone tree and delivered fresh food from their own cultivation to the needy.
“When I heard about this, I thought there was our response plan to all kinds of disasters that could disrupt food supplies.”
Now that Agri-Hub is up and running as a live project from the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation and backed by a long list of organizations like Noosa and District Landcare and Tourism Noosa, the biggest challenge is getting people who want to farm up Bringing land on which their small farms 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 provide unused land and with farmers to make sure they are using the land appropriately. In any case, the NBRF would allow a clear contract.
“The landowner gets the land ennobled through the work of the farmer, that is his payment. I’ve spoken to landowners who seem very happy with it. And we know who the farmers might be through a group called Young Farmers Connect. This organization is just full of young people who dream of getting out there and living in the country.
“So it’s a 10 year plan to make this happen, depending on the response to climate change, but I was wondering where the economic engine might be and lo and behold, we’re getting the 2032 Olympics.
“That changes everything. We have 10 years to get Noosa to produce the best, healthiest food in the world, and we can do it if we start now. “
Anyone looking for more information or to get involved in the Agri-Hub project should contact Cr Tom Wegener at [email protected]