I’m standing in a stranger’s backyard, pilfering foreign-looking little orange fruits from her tree.
“Take as many as you want,” she says. She's rocking her baby in her arms as she watches me. Her dog and young daughter watch, too.
Though touched by her generosity, I’m definitely out of my comfort zone. Foraging from a strangers’ backyard is no everyday thing it goes against the grain of my upbringing within a capitalist society. At the same time, I’m excited about the concept of locals sharing food minus the exchange of money. A natural, social, almost subversive way to feed yourself, it’s a little bit Garden of Eden with Peter Cundall thrown in.
Although curious as Eve, I’m wary and suspicious of loquats, something I’ve never seen before.
Not wanting to seem greedy, I pick just a reasonable few from the ample branches of the enormous twisting tree.
The women’s small daughter nabs one off a low-hanging branch and gobbles it down, illustrating how it’s done. “Yum,” she says.
Sold by her transparent glee, I toss a few extra loquats into my bag.
Driving home (a quick jaunt around the corner), I take a tentative, private bite of the fruit. It’s juicy, sticky and sweet: a cross between lychee, peach and nashi. A refreshing summer treat. Google informs me this is easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant fruit tree is common in Japan and China. I realise my garden is too Anglo and lacking in diversity. What else am I missing with my narrow view of the veggie patch?
An unexpected bonus of crop swapping is learning about the cultural diversity of food possible from our gardens. Along with the standard pumpkin seedlings, crop swappers have been offered the milk of Nigerian dwarf goats, bamboo cuttings, SCOBY (the culture used to make kombucha), Warrigal greens, succulents and more.
According to Bruce French of Food Plants International, over 30,000 edible plants exist on earth.
Unfortunately, we can’t grow them all. But we can swap our excess for a gap in our own plots. Most of us have given or received excess backyard food and herbs and known it to be a joyful experience. Why not make it more of a common thing, given a few of us have the land and resources to single-handedly sustain a fully self-sufficient food supply?
With no room for chooks on my tiny block, I've joined the Blue Mountains Crop Swap Facebook group and traded my excess hand-raised seedlings twice for backyard eggs. Bartering food allows me to benefit from a wider communal plot.
I realise my garden is too Anglo and lacking in diversity. What else am I missing with my narrow view of the vegie patch?
It’s also opened my life to the generosity, industriousness and shared knowledge of the local community. Along with my first 12 eggs, my swapper gifted me a surprise bouquet of Aussie bush wildflowers from her garden. The red and green natives adorned my dining table for weeks over Christmas didn’t cost me a cent and colour-coordinated with my festive decorations.
So far, all my crop swappers have been female – mothers, part-time workers, plant aficionados.
The beauty of crop swapping is equality. It’s based on need and the exchange of skills and labour, reduces waste and cuts food miles. People can focus on what they’re good at and enjoy, whether it’s beekeeping or harvesting seeds. Renters can still participate with gardening projects requiring less space – like raising seedlings in trays.
Founder of Crop Swap Australia and sustainability educator, Laurie Green, says interest in the food bartering system has exploded since she founded the not-for-profit four years ago. From an initial group in Sydney, there are now over 30 groups across Australia. Green is often contacted by people worldwide seeking information on how to start their own.
She attributes its resurgence to the sharing economy. “I think people are realising the way things worked in the past worked well and that there are skills that shouldn’t be lost. People realise the benefits of community, living locally and sustainably.”
Green’s own motivation was to access affordable organic food for her family. "We’ve got to a point now where the majority of our food is brought from food co-ops, obtained through community-minded networks or sourced sustainably."
I’m leafy-green with envy.