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Backyard farmers

Name

Jess Miller

Idea

Food sustainability the delicious way

Grow It Local is a project promoting food sustainability and celebrating local production. Founded in Sydney, Grow It Local maps backyard veggie patches and rewards local gardeners with growers feasts where their produce is whipped into a restaurant feast shared by everyone who contributed. I met Jess Miller, co -founder and organiser of Grow It Local when she was in Melbourne curating the vegetable patches outside the Melbourne Town Hall. Jess is passionate about getting people excited to grow their own food. No not farmers, but you - natives of the urban jungle sprouting chillies in a pot on the balcony, growing tomatoes in the backyard or even a jar of mint or parsley on the windowsill.

Grow It Local

Grow It Local

Grow It Local

Where did the idea for Grow It Local come from?

I was given a small grant from Waverly council in 2012 along with the guys from Garage Sale Trail to look into promoting local food sustainability. Waverly council comprises of the Bondi area in Sydney. We didn’t really know where to start; we had until 5pm the same day to come up with something so we ended up reading through the council’s sustainability policy. We found this great little clause that said that by 2020 they wanted 5% of the food that was eaten in the area to be grown in the area. That was where we started, asking ourselves how we could make that possible. Urban farming would have been a great solution, if we weren’t in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas in Sydney, if not Australia. So we started thinking about people who might be growing food on a small scale, in their back yards and on their windowsills and balconies.

Grow It Local

How did you first start recruiting people to take part?

In the beginning, because we didn’t have very much money we were literally going around the area on foot with postcards, if we saw someone who looked like they had a nice garden we would write them a little love letter saying we liked their garden on the back of the postcard and leave it in their letter box. We also had posters in local cafes and a story on the front page of the local paper – it turned out to be pretty easy to get people interested with a photo of good-looking young chefs. We really wanted to get people who may not have been keen gardeners before involved.

Grow It Local

When people were on board with the project, how did they contribute?

We were asking people to mark their plot on a map and included a bribe to get them interested. We mapped the area to get an idea about who was doing what in terms of growing their own food, and the potential to expand on what was already happening. The bribe was that if people marked their plot on the map then they could bring something they had grown to a farmers market where they would get a ticket to dinner at Three Blue Ducks, a bit of a razzie restaurant, the next night. In 2012 we had the first growers dinner and it was fantastic. We had expected maybe 50 people to plot their garden and to contribute something and in the end we had about 300 people. It was a great party with great food. The best bit was getting people from the area together, of all ages and backgrounds and giving strangers a change to connect over being gardeners. No one wanted to turn up without a contribution. One woman who is a forensic police woman by day came with a huge bag of beautiful hibiscus flowers, when I asked her if she had a fantastic garden she said "not at all, but I’m a good climber". Forensic cop by day, flower forager by night.

How did Grow it Local develop from the first growers dinner?

After our first dinner we were approached by TEDxSydney. Remo had been to the dinner and suggested trying out the concept the following year but this time for 2000 people. I must have had a few beers when I agreed to that! But we pulled it off. We ended up working with an area of 900 square kilometres. We had volunteers going to places like the Blue Mountains to pick up contributions. We even had people from Byron Bay posting food they had grown to the chefs. We worked with Area Catering, Matt Moran’s catering company. The chefs were fantastic, given they were working in a chefs nightmare, only knowing what they were cooking three days before, usually they order three weeks in advance. We had more food, we were cooking for 2000 people but it was all still local.

Grow It Local

Grow It Local

Were you always interested in sustainable food and farming?

I grew up on a herb farm on the peninsula. It’s funny, as you get older and you are looking for a sense of belonging you sort of end up reverting back to your childhood and things that made you feel like you belonged when you were young. I guess that that's gardening for me.

How would you describe your job?

I have no idea! It depends on what day it is. I work as a freelance consultant under the name Goody Two Shoes and I work on commercial projects for anyone from Optus to the State Government. Grow it Local is a passion project really. I’m lucky, I can choose not take on jobs that don’t have a positive social impact, I don’t see the point and I don’t really get offered them. I wouldn’t know what to do, trying to flog fried chicken or something. I’d be a bit lost.

Grow It Local

Grow It Local

What is your background? What did you study?

I did communications at RMIT in Melbourne then political science in Canberra. When I moved to Sydney I worked as a marketing assistant in publishing for a few months and I hated it. I was a bit lonely I suppose and I ended up involved in activism which was fantastic training for what I am doing now. I had a background in communications but working in coal activism, with organisations like Friends of the Earth, with passionate people and with little money really taught me to think creatively, to manage people, politics, risk and different personalities.

How do you stay organised across different roles and projects?

I’m not always. And am learning to say no and be more realistic. Making sure I track the time I am spending on different projects. I have a kid (two-year old Jemima) so there is much more time pressure than there used to be. I can’t pull three weeks of all nighters and live on coffee anymore!

Where do you see Grow It Local in the future?

This year we are going to really try and test if the project can be a viable social enterprise. The dream would be to have Grow it Local cafes all over Australia where people know they can find locally grown produce, respectable coffee, and where they can contribute what they have grown in exchange for a coffee.

Learning how to grow things really changes people. It sounds a bit philosophical but it really forces you to be aware of and engage with your environment, the sun, the weather, the soil. You feel proud if you have grown something yourself and you start appreciating things more because you know the effort that goes into growing them.

Interviewed by
Ebe Cassidy

Photography by
Grow It Local