In drought-stricken New South Wales, desperate farmers are a common sight for Amorelle Dempster, but there’s one story she's heard that will never leave her mind. “We had a farmer come to market and cut open one of his [dead] sheep right there and it was full of only dust,” says Dempster. The leader of Slow Food Hunter Valley and regional councillor of Slow Food International shares this revelation as she paces the floor of her East Maitland business, Reader's Cafe and Larder. “The poor sheep had had nothing to eat for quite some time, having only inhaled dust during its last few days and it had starved like the others.”
As far as agricultural horror stories go, the sheep story is up there – but Dempster is far from finished discussing some of the more distressing scenes she has witnessed or heard first-hand from local farmers in recent times. There have been growers who've had entire crops wiped out, eaten away by all-new bugs – a result of the ongoing and unprecedented heat in the area, and then there are locals who find they no longer have access water to hose down their dairies, preventing them from taking milk from their cows until they can sanitise the area efficiently. “Each battle is a result of an 18-month dry that has only seen as little as 18 millimetres of rain throughout the Hunter region,” says Dempster. “And we’re predicting it’s only going to get tougher, so we need to have adequate plans in place.”
The team collected pumpkins that were too damaged for the market and produced 60 litres of pumpkin soup.
Enter Slow Food Hunter Valley, a community initiative led by Dempster, which bands together local volunteers to ensure everyone has access to good, clean and ethically sourced food. Some of its key projects includes ‘Feeding the Community’, a project that converts excess produce and food from farms into nutritious meals for the disadvantaged and hungry, and ‘Fresh Food in Remote Communities’, which works with local Indigenous leaders and schools to grow fresh food. But the group is perhaps best known for assisting the region's farmers, who are doing it tough.
At their Slow Food Earth Markets, held on the first and third Thursday every month in Maitland, Slow Food Hunter Valley volunteers help farmers by sorting and washing vegetables that they later help sell. Recently, the team collected pumpkins that were too damaged for the market and produced 60 litres of pumpkin soup, which they offered shoppers in exchange for a gold-coin donation.
“We got 100 mugs from Vinnies and raised $250 on the day – every cent of which went straight into the drought campaign,” says Dempster.
It isn’t just about raising money, but about advocating for farmers who are often too busy trying to keep their livestock alive and their families fed to have time for anything else, says Dempster. “When we heard some of the farmers were struggling to hose down their dairies, we jumped in to arrange for Fire and Rescue Services to deliver water and put a plan into place that our farmers can work with,” she says. “It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a massive health issue, so it’s far more important than we realise and one less stress they have to worry about.”
And sometimes, it’s just about lending a hand – and a shoulder to cry on. Dempster tells the story of one farmer who was devastated to find his entire harvest destroyed by bugs. “This farmer rang me and said, ‘They’ve eaten everything that’s green’ and it’s at this moment we all realised he’s going to have no income,” she explains. “So I told him to wait and that we were sending some of our team to help.” The Slow Food Hunter Valley volunteers helped the farmer wash the leaves and sort what they could salvage and they sold the produce at market. “It was devastating,” reveals Dempster. “Had his crops turned out, he would have made an average of $1800, but that day he made $185 from what we could salvage. How can you look after your family on $185?”
“He would have made an average of $1800, but that day he made $185 from what we could salvage.”
One farmer who has benefitted from the work of Slow Food Hunter Valley is Austin Breiner, who specialises in heirloom vegetables – most notably pumpkins, having grown 40 different varieties last year from seeds around the world. It’s a method that demands a lot of water and it's something Dempster has been able to assist with in the past. “She’s very helpful and you just know she’ll do anything she can to help you out,” he says. With affection, he recounts how Dempster worked to ensure water was delivered to farmers within the region last year. “She’s passionate and she’s there every step of the way to mobilise volunteers and to raise awareness for us farmers struggling to grow our crops.
Of course, sometimes water cannot be delivered, so it’s lucky that Breiner admits he loves a challenge. “Every morning, I’m out hand-watering seedlings because we have no irrigation,” he says. “And I spent most of last summer carting 1000-litre drums of water around and hand-watering what I could, just to keep things alive until that rain comes … The trouble is, it’s not coming and now the sub-soil is drying out, too, so we’re predicting an even tougher year next year.”
Slow Food Hunter Valley is doing what it can, but what can the everyday Australian do to help? First and foremost, we all need to start purchasing from our local farmers, says Dempster. “Seek out farmers’ markets in your area and support your local growers who have struggled to get that fresh produce to your table.” Secondly, you can back the Buy a Bale Campaign, which raises money to support our farmers. “Donations, no matter how small, help the effort and invites you to be a part of a larger community working together,” Dempster says. “The bottom line isn’t [the] consumer helping [the] farmer, but people helping people and what price can you put on compassion?”