Thursday, 20 September 2012

Letter From Down Under 1

Here's my first article on year-long travels in Australia and New Zealand. I had just left my job working in the Heritage Seed Library (HSL) at Ryton Gardens. Written in March 1997, we arrived in mid February during a hot spell and recuperated at a friend's house in the attractive suburb of Albert Park. It was the first time I'd ever taken a shower with my clothes on. Hiding my light under a bushel once again, I notice that for some reason I failed to mention that I gave a talk myself - on the work of the HDRA's Heritage Seed Library (HSL) and the impact of European seed regulations on the availability of heritage vegetables.   The Seed Saver's Network is an Australian organisation dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of seeds and crop plants and is based in Byron Bay, NSW.  It was published in a slightly abridged form in HDRA News (as was); this is the unexpurgated version transcribed from the original biro and paper creation.


from your Owen Correspondent

We arrived in Melbourne during some of the hottest weather of the year.    The combination of daytime temperatures of over 40C and jetlag made the first two weeks a period of slow adjustment to life Down Under.   

I was keen to meet with the staff of the Diggers Club, a leading Australian seed company who have been trialing and selling an excellent range of heirloom vegetables in their catalogue.  Owned by Clive and Penny Blazey, the company’s head quarters is at Heronswood, a beautiful house and landscaped gardens overlooking Port Philip Bay.  On the day we visited, the gardens were open to the public and we sat in the recently constructed rammed earth and thatched tea rooms and talked about heritage vegetables.

Clive is convinced that many of the old fashioned vegetables give tastier produce, with higher and more sustained yields than F1 Hybrids.    He told me that some of his customers fly out from Britain to get their supplies of heirloom vegetable seeds, such is their desperation.    Diggers have recently obtained Crimson Flowered Broad Bean, which they will be growing and offering in future years.    It was good to hear that an old stalwart from the HSL is set to win friends on the other side of the world.  By a lucky coincidence, Diggers were holding a seed campout at Heritage Farm near Seymour that very weekend and we were invited to attend.

Heritage Farm is set in particularly beautiful countryside - impressive granite hills with rocky outcrops scattered through the eucalyptus, tea tree and wattle forests, with the Goulburn River flowing in the valley.    An equally impressive range of wildlife is to be found there too - koalas, possums, wombats, kangaroos and echidnas were among those that we saw during our stay.

Over two hundred people gathered at the campout to swap seeds, information and to listen to the guest speakers.   Food was provided by the local CFA (Community Fire Association)  a volunteer force who tackled bush fires and seemed to have a major role in rural life both as a bush fire hit squad and a cohesive force within the community.

Speakers included Dr Judyth McLeod of Western Sydney University, author of Heritage Gardening, a book on heirloom plants, Jude Fanton of the Seed Savers Network, who visited Ryton in 1995 and David Cavagnaro, former head gardener for Seed Savers Exchange in the USA and photographer extraordinaire.   Judyth spoke of the threats to world agriculture from increasing population, loss of biodiversity and climate change.   She suggested that individuals could help mitigate some of the worst aspects of this doomsday scenario by growing a wide selection of locally adapted heritage varieties.

David described the years he and his family spent living self-sufficiently, the lessons he’d learnt and his conviction that human as well as horticultural biodiversity was crucial for our survival.   He mentioned that recent immigration into Australia had led to a much wider and more interesting cuisine than had existed during the mainly Anglo-Saxon phase of settlement.   The race issue remains contentious with some politicians advocating strict limits to immigration from Southeast Asia.   David’s talk was illustrated with many of his exquisite photographs.  

Jude Fanton, who visited Ryton in 1996, talked about the Seed Savers’ Network’s work with Solomon Islanders and in Cuba. 

Neil Barraclough, the recently appointed manager, outlined his plan for the farm and his desire to eliminate the need for artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.   Growing commercial quantities of seed organically is particularly challenging due to the wide range of pests which flourish in this climate.   The aerial assaults of cockatoos, rosellas and other birds are also particularly intense.

Neil is also responsible for founding a heritage fruit group and is extremely knowledgeable on the subject.   He kindly provided me with a floppy disk containing some fascinating information which he asked me to copy and distribute to interested parties in Australia (and beyond!)

In order to learn more about Heritage Farm, we decided to stay for 10 days and thus became the farm’s first WWOOFers.

Copyright 1997

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