Micah and Matt bring small scale farming to suburbia.










Words: Courtney Boag
Images: Anthroprospective


27 September, 2018





“There is a real disconnect to the plants, the animals and the farming practices that have sustained people throughout time. That’s why it’s so important to talk in groups about this stuff! We need to reclaim, or rediscover, the natural knowledge that has been lost to so many of us modern folk.”



Micah









Matt and Micah are active young farmers who, in 2016, established the Neighbourhood Farm; a small-scale, bio-intensive, urban farm situated on an acre of fertile soil in Oxley, Brisbane.

They produce locally grown food for the neighbourhood and surrounding areas of Brisbane. Matt and Micah are passionate about local food and sustainable agriculture and are workings towards encouraging other young people to get their foot in the door of small-scale farming. Meeting up with them was so much more than I could have imagined. The farm, unbeknownst to me, was embedded right within my own neighbourhood.

Visiting the farm was surreal like finding a slice of the countryside in the suburbs. On either side of the road heading to the farm one is surrounded by paddocks all inhabited by horses and a wide range of birdlife. The Brisbane river veers softly around the bend at the end of the road and the locals are all ears to hear where you’re from. It feels like you’ve been on the road a while to get here, and when I reply, ‘just over the hill’, I even can’t believe it. It’s a hopeful vision of what our neighbourhoods could look like and it’s a trajectory Matt and Micah are hoping to inspire with their model of bringing small-scale agriculture to suburbia.








So, how did this all begin guys? How was the Neighbourhood Farm born?


Micah

Yeah so, I moved to Brisbane about six years ago and I was working in a café and studying at university, which I found pretty boring [laughs]. My family and I had moved into a house up the road from the farm and I remember one day walking down the hill and noticing a big block of land and instantly feeling like I wanted to farm on it. Not long after this I met the owner of the farm and we became really close friends. I guess you could say he took me under his wing a bit because I started working with him on this farm and   his other farm up the road and helping him to sell the produce at the markets. Yeah, so eventually I just started leasing the land from him and growing veggies on it.

Matt

Well, for me, I think it started with my studies in environmental science and working in environmental jobs. I was always really interested in agriculture and how it works in with the environment. After working in environmental jobs for a while, I was offered an internship down on a farm in south coast New South Wales and from there actually started my own market garden in Lamington National Park. During this time, I met Micah, he had already started working on his own market stall down at Rocks Riverside in Brisbane, and we hit it off instantly. We got talking about farming and he asked if I would be interested in farming with him in Brisbane. So yeah, that’s how I came to start farming down here in Oxley on our current farm.



I love the spontaneity of the partnership. It seems like the doors really opened for you both to create something really worthwhile here. Micah, you said you started leasing the land from the previous owner, how did this offer come about?


Micah

Well I started out on the block by helping Russell (the previous owner) out for a couple of months with his tomatoes, garlic, ginger and beehives. We became really good friends, and spent many pleasant hours pruning tomatoes and chatting about history, agriculture and our shared ideas about small-scale farming. Naturally things progressed to the point where I was ready to start growing and selling whatever I could. I quit my job at a local café with $1000 to my name, which was spent on seed, a roof for the greenhouse and some irrigation. I couldn’t afford to pay the lease, so I worked with Russell in return for the use of his land. I remember growing a ton of beets, lettuce, zucchini and beans (and not much else) and I made about $1000 before summer, I couldn’t believe it, I felt excited to say the least! And the rest is history.



It sounds like you both have farming blood [laughs], how did you both personally come to get interested in farming? Matt you said before that you had worked in Lamington before coming to Brisbane, and Micah, I believe you were living in Western Australia before moving to Brisbane, can you tell me a bit more about your lives in these places?


Matt

Yeah, well it’s funny actually, so my grandfather had a small pecan nut farm near Browns Plains on the Logan River, so I suppose I always grew up around agriculture. I grew up in Lamington, so we always grew a lot of our own vegetables and we had a lot of fruit trees on our property as well. I guess in growing up around nature, it kind of became something we did naturally.  I definitely think my interest in farming grew after traveling around the world and getting to work in certain environmental and agricultural jobs. Then when I came back to Australia to study at university, it really just became a matter of looking at how we live and how it all links together. I think food is really a central point of connection with everyone and how society works, so it’s a good starting point for thinking about a more sustainable future. 

Micah

Well I grew up in a really amazing little community where there were many people who were active gardeners and grew quite a lot of their own food, my dad also grew a lot of veggies. So, for me, moving to Brisbane from a place like that felt a bit different, so I wanted to re-create what my childhood was like by having more access to a community, local organic food, and a kind of lifestyle where you feel more connected to the land. I guess being raised in that kind of environment really instilled the importance of local food and community values in me.



Yeah, very true. I think gardening has a lot to teach us about connection with each other, resilience, patience, and gratitude.


Micah

Oh yeah for sure.

Matt

Yeah definitely!



So, in that regard what do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working on the farm?


Micah

Oh, that’s easy, when we pick the veggies and we sell them to the local community, and you get to see how happy it makes everyone and how much they appreciate having that interaction with their local farmers it really makes everything so worthwhile. So yeah, that’s definitely the best part. 

Matt

I think working in an urban environment has been quite interesting. Working on a farm where people can actually visit is great. Like say today, we had what, two or three families come down to visit and show their friends and relatives. So yeah, I think the appreciation from the local community is really rewarding, particularly when you know how hard you’ve worked to grow those vegetables. I think people start to understand what it takes to grow vegetables and to be a farmer. To be able to see this learning and appreciation of farming in an urban environment and to have the farm so accessible to people makes the work a really rewarding experience. Selling our vegetables directly to the public is another way we get to hear how people are enjoying the produce and what they are doing with them in their meals. It’s great when people put photos up on Instagram of the meals they have prepared with our veggies and tag us in it, so we get to see what they’ve made. I really think that connection with the people who are eating the produce you grow is really important and vice versa for them. 



It seems like a really interesting life cycle that you get to be a part of.


Micah

It is, and that’s really what agriculture should be like you know. Agriculture is really supposed to be located within the community, for the community. I really believe that people within the community should know their farmers and see where their food is grown in order to maintain those personal and meaningful connections. That’s really important and I think that’s what we are really achieving here.

Matt

It really is, and it’s a great place to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together. I think being on a farm, or being out in nature, really helps us to become more grounded.



You recently had students from the Queensland University of Technology come to visit the farm, what was the purpose of this project?


Matt

Yeah, so this was in partnership with Food Connect. Food Connect is a really cool initiative for growers that are too small to sell to supermarkets and too big to sell at farmers’ markets, so the initiative is really aimed at supporting farmers who are located in the middle. So yeah, we had a group of international business students come out and look at our system and how it works in the warehouse. Because we are a smaller local farm, we were able to show them how we operate and offer the students some ideas around how to establish small scale, alternative farming models. Having the students come down to the farm was a great experience because a lot of them have come from farming backgrounds so they found the concept of our farm really interesting. Each time they come down, we put together these business plans so that the students can come up with ideas about what they could do as a small business in their neighborhoods and local areas to foster local business, local food, and local networks.

Micah

A key part of what drives us is to help spread the idea that ordinary people, without land and without large sums of money, can start farming right where they are. We always love having the students come to the farm because you can see how novel and exciting the concept it is to them, after all, how many farms do you see in suburbia? Even if we could inspire one other person to start growing and selling food in their neighborhood it would be worthwhile.



It sounds like these networks would be really useful in fostering greater cultural diversity as well. Did you find that the social interactions, between the students and yourselves, facilitated insightful discussions around different plant species and different cultural farming practices used around the world?


Micah

Yeah absolutely, I think it is essential that we start moving towards smaller-scale local, community-based systems. Big scale agriculture is incredibly destructive and completely disconnected from the consumer, whereas our farm is the complete opposite of that. So yeah, I think it really will take off as more and more people become aware of the importance of small-scale farming and sustainable living. There is a real disconnect to the plants, the animals and the farming practices that have sustained people throughout time. That’s why it’s so important to talk in groups about this stuff! We need to reclaim, or rediscover, the natural knowledge that has been lost to so many of us modern folk. 

Matt

It will take time, things definitely can’t change straight away, but it’s certainly where we are heading. We like to see The Neighbourhood farm as a model that other people can replicate in their own suburbs. The idea is that in the future, small-scale farms would be set up all around the place so that people can purchase fresh produce locally and be more a part of the whole process.



Do you think that the farm, as an alternative model to big scale agriculture, has the potential to replace our current models of food production in the future?


Micah

Yeah absolutely, I think it is essential that we start moving towards smaller-scale local, community-based systems. Big scale agriculture is incredibly destructive and completely disconnected from the consumer, whereas our farm is the complete opposite of that. So yeah, I think it really will take off as more and more people become aware of the importance of small-scale farming and sustainable living. 

Matt

It will take time, things definitely can’t change straight away, but it’s certainly where we are heading. We like to see The Neighbourhood farm as a model that other people can replicate in their own suburbs. The idea is that in the future, small-scale farms would be set up all around the place so that people can purchase fresh produce locally and be more a part of the whole process.










You were saying today that ever since you guys opened up the farm, you’ve been getting quite a lot of offers from people who are willing to offer up their land for you to farm on. It seems like your model for small-scale agriculture is already snowballing into something quite feasible for other farmers and keen novices to get involved in.


Micah

Yeah, well there is a huge opportunity out there I think, that’s another thing we have learnt from working on the farm. I mean, we alone cannot meet the demands of our entire community let alone our neighboring communities. I think the combination of vacant land and willing landowners could equal some really amazing opportunity for people who are wanting to get involved in small-scale agriculture in urban settings. I think there are more and more people who are willing to offer up and use vacant land for this purpose, and that’s really exciting. 

Matt

It’s really exciting! Brisbane is becoming a much more networked place. I think people are seeing all the new opportunities that are arising from alternative businesses and projects and it gives them hope. So yeah, the opportunities are snowballing in Brisbane at the moment and it’s really cool to be a part of this.



It’s interesting because I think so often people see so many barriers to farming, particularly young people. So often, farming is depicted as something that is either carried on from generation to generation within farming families, or as something you need to go to university for, in which case you are likely going to learn more about large-scale agriculture than small-scale, local farming. Do you see the farm as a model and teaching facility for young people to learn the trade?


Micah

Yeah definitely, and this is a big aspect of what we want to do. Currently, there is a lack of people getting involved in farming in our society and there aren’t many places you can go as a young person to learn about this kind of thing. Having said this, I think once you get started with farming you come to realise that it is really in our blood, we are agricultural people even though we live in the modern world. Being connected to the land is still an important part of our history and identity. So yeah, I think once we get started it actually comes quite naturally, but we need structures, models and systems that can really engage and help young people to get their foot in the door. 

Matt

We have some really exciting plans for the farm and a lot of ideas for workshops. So yeah, I think, with time, the farm will become a sort of knowledge hub for people wanting to get their foot in the door.



So, guys, what does an average day of the farm look like for you both?


Mica

Hmm. An average day for me at the moment usually starts at around 7 am. There is always weeding, planting, and watering to be done, but if I’m not doing those three things then I am probably packing orders or getting ready to set up the market stall. Sometimes something will fall apart, and we have to fix it, like the irrigation system [laughs] or we might be out building new things for the farm. The cool thing about farming is that it is literally always changing. Of course, there are the core activities like weeding, planting, harvesting, and watering, but then you also get to do all these other cool projects like building and designing new innovative things for the farm, meeting new people, and going to local networking events, so yeah, it’s always pretty engaging which keeps it really fun.

Matt

Yeah well, an early start, we try and get on the farm at about 6:30 am and yeah basically the week kind of runs in a certain way, so at the beginning of the week we will do a lot of planting, weeding, and things like that and then on Wednesday we do a mid-week sale of produce to cafes and local buyers groups. Later in the week, we open up our own market stall, so we will usually pick produce for the stall on the Thursday afternoon and Friday morning to be prepared for Friday afternoon. Saturdays are our kind of half chill out day where we will put a bit of effort in but not as much [laughs], you know, do the odd jobs that need to get done for the coming week. Then Sundays are our days off, so we make sure we don’t sell anything on weekends so that we can go away and have a weekend off if we need to. Which I think is another really important thing for us as farmers, having space and opportunity to go away every now and again is so important because there is quite a lot of work packed into our weeks [laughs].  



Oh absolutely! I really wanted to talk to you both about the challenges that come with working on the farm. You are both really young farmers so how do you fit your full-time farming efforts into your social lives?


Matt

Well it’s definitely a very busy space to be in, you know farming takes up a lot of your time and takes up a lot of your day and your mind as well. Your thoughts are always on the farm, like what’s the next thing you need to grow and how are you going to stop some bug infestation coming in and yeah, it can be consuming in that sense, I guess. But yeah, it’s also incredibly rewarding and it’s a very enjoyable space to be in. I think you got to take the good with the bad sometimes. I think the reality of farming is that it’s a very honest job, so you feel like it’s worthwhile in the end. 

Micah

So yeah, I suppose it’s an incredibly steep learning curve. At this stage Matt and I are two or three years into it and we are still experiencing a lot of challenges, there is often a lot of crop failure, disease and germination failure. So yeah, there is a lot that can go wrong and sometimes you end up having to pull out a lot of crops that have failed which can be really heartbreaking especially when your livelihood is depending on those crops. But overall, it has been pretty good actually, facing those challenges and overcoming them teaches you to not worry so much and realise that things aren’t always going to work all the time, so you have to be ok with that. However, overall what we are doing on the farm is working so it becomes really rewarding. I suppose this is how you learn to farm, it’s all trial and error [laughs]. 



It’s like the old saying “hard work pays off”. I often think that the most rewarding things in life are those we work the hardest for somethings. The gratification we get from all those hours of effort make it so worthwhile in the end. I suppose that’s a lesson often learnt in farming; would you say so?


Matt

[Laughs] Yeah, I think persistence is a key lesson I’ve learnt in farming. I think you learn to deal with failure quite quickly because at some point or another you will have crops that fail and things that just don’t work out as you hoped them to. It can be a really difficult lesson but if you can get through that hardship you can learn a lot about failure and that it’s not such a bad thing in the end because you can learn from it. You also learn how precious time really is on a farm because you begin to live more in tune with the seasons, and you come to understand how to strategically prepare for the year. You also appreciate it when you do get to harvest certain vegetables because you have had to wait for them. I think waiting for the seasons to change so you can enjoy certain vegetables and fruit make it taste better. This is something we have noticed in our local networks as well, you find that people get really excited when tomatoes and cucumbers come back in season for example. Yeah, I think it’s really interesting to see that side of farming.  

Micah

Every day is a struggle in some way or another! It’s hot, hard work, and things often go wrong. But it really is worth it in the end. When you can sit back at the end of the day and actually see the work you’ve done and felt it in your body. It’s even better at the end of the year when you’re really sick of it but you make it through anyway, you then get to look back at the season and feel a kind of respect for yourself and your work. The most gratifying thing about farming is feeding people really good food!






I really liked what you said before Matt about farming being a humbling teaching experience, do you both think your relationship with farming is somewhat spiritual?


Micah

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is once you start farming and you do it for a few years you really become involved with nature. I mean your hands are always in the soil, you tend to notice the types of birds and wildlife that live around you more often, you’re always observing the sky, the trees, the rainfall, what the wind is doing, and yeah what’s happening around you. Farming really localises you in the biosphere, so that’s something that I really enjoy about being on the land because it helps to connect you to nature and the seasons.

Matt

Yeah, I think having a connection with the earth is a pretty spiritual experience. I think you get more of an understanding about life and how life works and what’s really important. You know, you see the bees pollinating the flowers and the different types of birds that come into the farm to eat the insects, so you start to realise that there is actually a lot to take in and you have the time and the space to consider those aspects of the environments. So yeah, it can be a bit of a spiritual place to be in for sure.



When we were walking around the farm today, you explained that in the late 1970’s the farm was quite badly affected by the Brisbane 1974 floods. I think this is a really interesting part of the farm’s story. Can you tell me a bit more about this event?


Matt

Yeah, so the farmer who still owns the farm used to work here, but I really think that because he had been working on the farm for so long the flooding really just took it out of him. I mean he had been farming on the block during the previous two major floods so it’s hard work. There was a lot of restoration required after the flood damage, it really made quite a mess, so I guess with Micah and I joining the farm it’s helped to reinvigorate the life of the farm, as well as the previous owners, love for farming. It’s been a really interesting thing to be a part of and most certainly an opportunity for Micah and I to learn more about farming from him. I mean, if you have a certain disease come in and infest your tomatoes, he will be able to lend a hand or will know exactly who to call. I think it’s been great for him to see the farm looking so vibrant as well.



It’s great that he can still be a part of the farm and for you guys to have him working up the road for extra support if you need it.  So, guys, what role do you hope Neighbourhood Farm will be able to play in the future?


Micah

I’d like to see a new world, where people are happy and do what they love. I’d like to see food being grown on every block, an engaged community in every neighbourhood, and a deep cultural connection to the natural world. I think our farm can help to bring this future into fruition by showing people how we can practice sustainable agriculture in our cities.

Matt

Well we really set up the farm as a hub for the local community to become more involved in sustainable living and to really just come together and network with other community members. I guess the farms really helps people who are living in suburban areas to feel as if they are living in a farming district with the sort of community feeling you might find from more regional neighborhoods. I would really like the farm to be seen as a model that other people can replicate in other suburbs and places around Australia and to particularly inspire young people to get involved in farming. I definitely think that having the farm located in an urban area makes it more viable and accessible for young people to get involved. I think that if we could work on encouraging others to take up small scale farming as a way of generating an income while providing their local community with nutritional produce it could be a really beneficial small business model for the future.



If there was one thing you could inspire others to do, what would that be?


Micah

Well one thing we are really excited about at the moment is organic waste management. We are trying to set up a scheme where people can actually bring their organic waste to the farm to be composted which we can then use to enrich our soil to grow the produce. So, I guess if I could encourage people to do one thing it would be to not throw all their compostable waste into landfill but to compost it themselves to grow food or to find a local garden or farm where they can drop their waste off because it is a real resource that can be used.

Matt

Come and visit the farm! Also, where you can, buy your produce locally and support farmers.



So, what are the plans for the future of the Neighbourhood farm?


Matt

[Laughs] so many! Yeah, we really want to create a space where people can come and do workshops and really be involved in the farm. It’s really important for us to create a space where people can feel comfortable. We would love to become a hub for the local community. So, the idea at the moment is to create more content for workshops so we can educate people in things that they feel will be important and useful to learn and apply in their daily lives.

Micah

To be harvesting a lot of produce constantly is really our first step, but I think what is larger than that is really spreading the concept of community farms. I’d love to see hundreds of small farms like this around Brisbane, like several in every suburb, would be unreal. It takes a lot to feed people, so I think if we are going to be serious about transitioning away from the current agricultural model into more localised structures than we really have to implement these small-scale farms everywhere.

I’d love to make a business model that works and can be transferred to other areas around Australia, and work for other people as well. I think in order for it to spread it really has to be viable for people, it needs to offer stability for farmers who will depend on the produce for an income, and for the locals who will depend on the produce for their meals. But yeah, we would like to build a space down the back where we can use as a kind of training facility and somewhere where we can really go through the nuts and bolts of farming. We have also looked into opening up internships for people who are keen to get their foot in the door.



Yeah absolutely, with capitalism as our dominant economic structure, we need to think about how alternative small farms can fit into current economic models. Has establishing the Neighbourhood Farm posed any political and economic challenges, given the capitalistic environment it exists in?


Micah

Yeah well, I suppose there is nothing in Brisbane like this that exists so close to the city, so it has been interesting in some ways. I suppose it’s very different from what else is on offer and we have been lucky in attaining such fertile land in such a suburban area. However, I wouldn’t say there has been that many challenges really because it’s so unique there is currently no government policies which inhibit the establishment of farms like this, it’s still a bit of a grey zone I suppose. I remember trying to find out what sort of permits we would need, but there really isn’t a whole lot to regulate small-scale farming yet so it’s kind of new space and I suppose there isn’t a place for it yet in modern society. I think that’s a good thing though because it’s sort of still the Wild West [laughs], there’s so much opportunity at the moment for small-scale agriculture! 

Matt

I suppose that’s how change is made. You’ve just got to trust that what you are doing is beneficial and then go for it. it’s certainly an exciting time to be shaking the status quo.





Anthroprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.