Out of my handbag I pull a tumble of business cards. There’s the Hotel School in Sydney; a Senior Project Officer from Sunshine Coast Council; a Burringbar banana grower; a Senior RDO from the Queensland government; Obi Obi Essentials (olive oil, green leaf tea, olive leaf tea and hand- spun alpaca wool).
These are some of the spoils from the inaugural Australasian Regional Food Conference, held up at Peppers near Kingscliff. An initiative of Southern Cross University, the two-day event brought together industry people, academics and government organisations with the aim of promoting dialogue on food within a regional context. Presenters came from all over Australia as well as overseas, discussing subjects as diverse as agritourism, culinary education, the rise and rise of farmers markets, terroir, food security and branding.
The word engaged cropped up often, specifically with regard to the need for community involvement and communication between sectors. The hundred-odd delegates collected in a vigorously air-conditioned room and listened to stories about other regions and their management of food systems. And so Jack Carlsen from Curtin University told us about
the Southern Forest region in Western Australia, which includes truffle-notorious Manjimup and the Margaret River – how the area had moved out of forestry and into food production. Eighty per cent of Australia’s black truffles are currently coming out of Manjimup – ‘it’s quite a success story,’ Jack said – but the entire region is attracting a lot of interest from chefs and turning into a premier wine and food destination. ‘Diversity is essential if you are going to be a wine and food success,’ he said. ‘For example, if you produce cheese there must also be wine and bread.’
SCU’s Rose Wright spoke about the significant challenges for farming families and how many Australian farms are becoming non-viable. ‘Keeping family farms on the land is critical for survival,’ she said. ‘This global consumer movement towards regionalism and local products is an extraordinary opportunity. The goals are to make quality local food easy and accessible. There’s a need for a change in thinking; to share knowledge and skills; to create a collaborative network; to develop a holistic approach to regional food systems; for producer empowerment.’
Wine tourism was discussed by former Jacob’s Creek winemaker Robin Shaw, whose vision is that ultimately Australia be recognised as ‘one of the world’s must-visit wine and food destinations. We have to create compelling wine and food experiences to encourage people to travel, and to position wine and food as key ingredients in the Australian story.’
The need for authenticity, transparency and accreditation of farmers markets was explored. Sam Muller from Northern Rivers Food Links talked about the success of their 18-month project, fuelled handsomely by a $2 million government grant, which saw 135 projects off the ground, including the establishment of 17 community gardens and seven new school gardens.
The importance of history – and specifically the influence of regional cookbooks on food culture – was addressed. The wonderful South Australian food historian Barbara Santich talked about the inescapability of history and defined food culture, which ‘is organic and grows from the ground up; which includes both public and private spaces, domestic kitchens and restaurants – and I would argue that what comes out of domestic kitchens is of greater value’.
It was a glorious affair, and included a dinner the first night at Mavis’s Kitchen in Uki and an early morning visit to the newish Murwillumbah Farmers Market. SCU’s Adele Wessell had confided to me her misgivings about the blend of academics and industry people – ‘but they are mixing together!’ she said. And to be sure provided a beautiful balance of views and experiences on the unfailingly hot topic of food, especially regional food, from the Australasian perspective. It is hoped to make this event an annual one – and there is no doubt as to its relevance and its value.