Food scholars and activists alike have long advocated for small-scale agriculture as a necessary alternative to commercial farming, which, while economically lucrative for some, has proved highly detrimental to the land. Small-scale agriculture is a step towards more resilient food systems which work to regenerate Country, strengthen communities and facilitate many opportunities for education and connection.
Sovereign Soil Farm is one such small-scale farming venture in Adelaide, with co-founders Dominic Guerrera and Holly Giblin currently taking the first steps of what promises to be an exciting journey.
“Our friendship was founded at a Queer community group which was about connecting community members,” Guerrera explains. “Our friendship has been steeped in a common connection of activism and social justice; when Holly was living in Narrm (Melbourne) we were always texting, talking about farming and saying to each other ‘I want to do that’. The farm has been about what has bonded our friendship,” Guerrera says. “I think that all the work that we do – whether it be my sexual health podcast, my poetry, even my work in health – is steeped in centring community and ways of being and living as an Aboriginal person.”
“Part of my childhood was growing up on a market garden, as my parents had one in Tassie,” Giblin says. “As part of managing my mental health I’ve been an avid gardener for about 10 years and I’m pretty good at turning even the tiniest bricked area into a productive green space.”
The pair’s dreams moved towards reality when a plot of land on Guerrera’s parents’ property became available. “I must have had a bad day at work or something, because I came home and said to my dad, ‘Can I have that part of the block? I want to put a market garden in. I’m going into business with my friend if they want to do it.’ So I texted Holly and it went from there.”
“I don’t want to understate the importance of this property being available.” Giblin acknowledges “this would not have happened if Dom didn’t have access to that”.
On yarning about the growth of the bush food industry in general – and the fact that less than one per cent of the burgeoning industry’s profits make it into Aboriginal hands – I ask Guerrera, a Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Italian man, how he hopes Sovereign Soil Farm can work towards more equitable outcomes while sharing foods and knowledge.
“There has to be reciprocity built into this process of working because the exchange is not always going to be directly with community, it’s going to be with our customer base,” he says. “Embedding our values and beliefs but then also putting that into action is a part of what we have got to do. Some of that is also growing plants that are sustainable, especially in terms of climate change. We are also going to be growing western crops because they are profitable and that will give us power and freedom to be able to do the native plants.
“I want to see non-Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people eating more indigenous food. Not just for the planet, not just because it’s the food from here, but because you should be engaging with Aboriginal people and Aboriginal ways if you are living on our land. And also, who doesn’t want variety? People have always said, ‘What are you going to grow?’ And Holly and I always say, ‘We are going to grow soil first.’ We are committed to investing first in our soil, building that really strong foundation.
“Holly and I have been having conversations about how sterile farming has become. Not seeing soil as just dirt in which you grow things, but as Country. We’ve been talking about the lack of connection between people, food and farmers. Farmers markets and small urban and country farms push back against that. It’s about relationship to Country, not always just about the people, it’s also about the land and giving back to it.”
Gilbin agrees:“We want to make food affordable, and we want to make healthy food affordable. We’ve been strategic about the kinds of things that we are going to try to grow. It will be a mix of seasonal vegies and indigenous plant foods. With the indigenous foods that we are growing it was important for Dominic and I to start local; with a lot of the indigenous foods people are beginning to learn about, they’re very ‘exoticised’. They have travelled a long way, and you might only get to eat them if you go to a really fancy restaurant. We want to grow things that belong here on this Country that are affordable and that can easily be integrated into people’s everyday diets.”
Guerrera and Giblin are already growing and selling and have big plans for the future; at the moment they are selling edible flowers, salad greens and warrigal greens, with seasonal vegies coming soon, but hope to build a dedicated customer base with both individuals and businesses. They are currently exploring options for regular pop-up market stalls, while also working to further establish the infrastructure that will allow them to grow their farm (the pair have a GoFundMe campaign currently tracking towards a $25,000 goal).
Projects like Sovereign Soil Farm speak to a larger reckoning with all of our many systems – political, social, energy, economic and food – which are long overdue for radical revision, especially in light of the environmental challenges we are all facing.
As ruptures such as COVID-19 and climate change show, there are cracks appearing everywhere. Giblin and Guerrera’s journey is one example of what can be grown through those cracks, as we illuminate new, more equitable ways of doing things which better foreground and service both communities and Country.
Zena Cumpston is a Barkandji woman. She is curator, consultant, writer and Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Zena was a collaborator on Bunha-bunhanga; Aboriginal agriculture in the southeast as part of Tarnanthi Festival and recently published a free booklet about Aboriginal plant use.
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