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Two grasshoppers

Our current food supply chain, which is what feeds most of us most of the time, is completely dependent on cheap oil and therefore unsustainable

Believe it or not, that's all it takes for a happy chook to produce one organic egg. Now there's a juicy little morsel you probably didn't know.

The grasshopper-egg thing is a useful equation for summing up the whole basis of organic farming. While industrial farming is extremely energy intensive and operates more as a factory, organic farming taps into natural energy pathways and operates more as an ecosystem. Those grasshopper-eating chooks, for example, fertilize the soil simply by scratching and foraging in it. This is far more energy efficient (and cheaper) than using heavy machinery that needs lots of fossil fuel to run it.

"Most people don't realise that it's the oil in the food chain that accounts for the biggest component of the price of the food," says Rob Fenton, wildlife ecologist and TAFE NSW teacher. "It's the oil that's needed to run the machinery, the oil that's needed to transport the synthetic fertilizers and, of course, the oil that's needed to transport the food from the place of production to the place of consumption. And often that can be hundreds of kilometres."

Michael Pollan, American author and ‘food activist' puts it in slightly blunter terms; "When we're eating from the modern industrial food system, we're eating oil and spewing greenhouse gas. We need to wean ourselves off our heavy western diet of fossil fuels and back onto a diet of contemporary sunshine. Estimates are that between 10 and 15 percent of all carbon in the atmosphere could be returned to the soil with sustainable agriculture practices. It's about properly harnessing the full potential productivity of the land, understanding different ecological relationships, like the life cycles of certain animals and insects."

In other words, kinda like those chooks and grasshoppers.

But our current food supply chain, which is what feeds most of us most of the time, is completely dependent on cheap oil and therefore unsustainable. And while industrial farming thinks the problem can be solved by throwing more oil and chemicals at it, other more nature-driven alternatives are now cropping up all over the place.

The National Environment Centre is one of them. This 400 acre certified organic teaching farm just outside Albury is TAFE NSW-owned and operated. It was established in 1996 in a bid to deal with climate change, unfair pricing and environmental degradation from industrial farming.

NEC

"Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, organic farming was considered a fringe activity by the industry and wasn't really taken seriously," says Rob Fenton, head teacher of Production, who was given the task of setting up the farm. "So it was a fairly bold and brave move of TAFE NSW to allow the establishment of an enterprise like this. I can't imagine another organisation that would allow the creativity and freedom to do what we've done. It's something that we as an organisation should really acknowledge and cherish."

Now, almost 20 years on, the National Environment Centre is a thriving business and a major provider for the local organics industry. Of the farm's 400 acres, only 200 are used for produce. The other 200 are left for the natural environment, something that's already seen an increase in the local populations of several endangered species of birds, lizards and marsupials.

"Thirty to forty percent of your impact on the natural world is the food you eat," says Rob. "But you can reduce that impact by being mindful of where your food is coming from."

Every Thursday the farm has a shop and sells lamb, pork, honey, olive oil, flour, mushrooms, eggs, chooks, pumpkin and garlic. All of these items have been produced by tapping into natural energy cycles without the use of oil or chemicals. All of the animals are free range.

"Our students are generally career changers studying for a Diploma in Organics," said Rob. "They learn how to run a sustainable organic farm as a business that can provide income for a family. This means the course teaches not only how to grow and harvest organic produce, but how to market that produce. We also get a lot of trainee chefs from TAFE campuses in both NSW and Victoria. They often do a unit in Regional Cuisine and Sustainability. These people are in a very powerful position as they're making food choices for other people."

In the Centre's almost two decades of life, Rob has noticed a steady increase in consumer demand for and awareness of organic produce. It's a cultural shift that's been helped along by greater awareness of things like the slow food movement, good ingredients, the importance of buying local, the dangers of processed food and a gradual reclaiming of food and eating from the large corporations we've so eagerly outsourced it all to.

"It's all based on photosynthesis and food is the original solar technology," says Michael Pollan. "As tragic as our environmental situation is, there's still this ‘free lunch'… and of course, that's sunlight – sunlight and grass and animals and the healthy food chain."

Those grasshopper-eating chooks would certainly agree.