Victoria

The locavore food movement trumps organic for some, but not all

At the Daylesford Farmers' Market a couple of weeks back, fruit and vegetable grower Florian Hofinger stood behind a trestle table laden with his produce and thought about the question. The bloke from the adjacent stall, a garlic grower from Creswick, listened in.

"Local is the big thing at the moment, no question," said Hofinger. "When new restaurants want to buy my stuff, they are usually much more concerned with whether it's local than whether it's organic. Provenance is what's important to them first. Then quality."

It wasn't always that way. A few years back, when Hofinger, a former chef, started Mt Franklin Organics on a small plot on the lower slope of an extinct volcano 10 kilometres from Daylesford, he was tapping into a global fashion for food grown without industrial fertilisers or pesticides.

And while demand for organic produce is still increasing – even some fast-food chains use it these days – the new badge of authenticity seems to be 'local'. Charting a watershed moment, in January this year the American supermarket trade magazine FoodNavigator reported that "consumer desire for 'local' products is increasing and the claim could quickly replace organic as the most desirable qualification by many consumers".  

Definitions of "local" are fluid, but generally involve stipulating a produce catchment area with a particular kitchen or store at its centre. Beneath the claims and critiques of this 'locavore' movement, as it's called, a central question remains: is it actually possible?

We decided to find out.

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For a period of seven days we – that is, this reporter, my wife Sahm and our seven-year-old son Cato – determined to eat exclusively foodstuffs grown or bred within 100km of our central Victorian home. We decided to extend the definition back one iteration – bread baked in the zone could only be eaten if the grains that made the flour were local; ditto pasta, pies, and so on.

This led to some obvious and immediate deletions from the household menu, including rice, soy sauce, sugar, bananas and chocolate. Worse: none of our excellent regional breweries use local grains or hops. Fortunately, wine-making and cider-pressing are artisan pursuits common in the area. 

There was, however, one exemption to the 100km rule made right at the start: coffee. Coffee is essential. Adequate supplies of coffee are a necessary prerequisite to civilised behaviour. Coffee was reclassified from beverage to medication.

"You could always make dandelion coffee," said Alexis Pitsopoulos, a chef based in Hepburn Springs who specialises in cooking 'wild greens' – common plants more usually regarded as weeds. He was drinking a cup of proper coffee when he said it.

Pitsopoulos' culinary passion – for which he is justly admired – illustrates one of the three primary food streams that typify the locavore approach. A strict local diet combines ingredients sourced from farmers, stuff grown in the back yard, and bits foraged from hedgerows or scrubland.

We began our experiment with some advantages. We live in a rural area. We have a healthy veggie patch – currently featuring tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and corn – and a thriving herb bed. Six chickens live up the back, and dutifully lay eggs. The streets and open spaces hereabouts sport the neglected remnants of European settlement: wild apples, feral plums, aging quince bushes, gnarled old mulberry trees.

There was, however, one exemption to the 100km rule made right at the start: coffee. Coffee is essential. Adequate supplies of coffee are a necessary prerequisite to civilised behaviour. Coffee was reclassified from beverage to medication.

The fields are full of wheat. Only one property in the 100km radius, however, turns its own grain into flour. Powlett Hill – in Campbelltown, 20km from us – stone-grinds wheat, rye and spelt. It is used by several local bakeries, generally mixed with other flours from more distant parts.

"We like to look after the local independent bakers – they're all good fellas," said Andrew Fawcett, whose family has run Powlett Hill since 1865. "But to maintain a business like this our products have to go much further afield."

Fawcett's flour is available in many provender stores within the area, but clearly an exclusively local market isn't sufficient for the millers. Different markers of authenticity drive the business – biodynamic, small-scale, family-owned, artisan – and drive it well.

"We're flat out," said Fawcett, noting the looming challenge of finding someone extra who knows old-style milling techniques. "We had a bloke come out and teach me and my son – and then we've just had to learn as we go along."

With no bakery in reach that uses exclusively local flour, our locavore experiment necessitated home bread-making with Fawcett's products. I baked big chunky loaves, while Sahm made flatbreads for Cato's school lunches. This had to be done every couple of days – a satisfying diversion, but one that illustrates an unavoidable component of using local raw materials: time. Lots of time.

And salt. Bread needs salt. Indeed, with the diet suddenly bereft of industrially processed things, salt reasserted itself as an essential mineral. The nearest salt producer was at Pyramid Hill, 167km away, so a necessary exception to the ground rules had to be made. (A nice lady from a Castlemaine provedore service agreed to deliver some to another nice lady at a Ballarat fruit and veg store, from where we picked it up, meaning the salt travelled 240km before it reached our kitchen. A kilo of French imported foodie fave Fleur de Sel, by comparison, would have to travel 64 times as far.)

The idea of salt naturally led to thoughts of its companion, pepper. A tropical-zone spice, there seemed no point in looking for it – but there was perhaps a very fine alternative in reach.

I remembered, dimly, a decade earlier visiting a hotel in the village of Newstead, 38km away. There, a gardener friend pointed out a huge tree right by the pub verandah. "That," he said, "is pink peppercorn." The species, a South American native, isn't related to proper pepper, but produces a profusion of little berries – red when ripe and dried – that can be used as a very perky substitute.

Thus, the day after purchasing bags full of produce at the Daylesford market (44km from home), we hopped in the car and headed through the back roads to the old pub. The tree, magnificent and looming, was still there. Sadly, it was the wrong time of year: the berries were plump and green, unripe and unusable.

It was a nice day for a drive, however, and 13km further up the road the village of Maldon was hosting its monthly market. A visit produced some beautiful beef mince from a farm in nearby Welshman's Reef, as well as a tub of marinated mushrooms from down Ballarat way.

In central Victoria, as elsewhere, many towns have regular market days, and these form important distribution nodes for regional food producers. Many growers travel to several a month. 

And therein lies one of the complications in the locavore narrative. For many of its advocates, local food is an environmental positive. The less distance food has to travel before it gets eaten – the fewer "food miles" it accumulates – the better it must be for the ecosystem.

It's a powerful argument – but not as clear-cut as it seems. In his book The End of Food, US food writer Paul Roberts – an advocate for sustainable agriculture – measured the fuel usage of a laden semi-trailer driving 500km from an agri-business farm to a Wal-Mart in Reno, Nevada. He compared that with the total fuel used by pick-up trucks from small farms within 32 km of the same city, ferrying equivalent tonnage to farmers' markets. The semi-trailer won hands down.

A 2008 study from Lincoln University in New Zealand compared the energy costs of UK-grown lambs delivered to an English supermarket with Kiwi lambs delivered to the same place. The New Zealand product used four times less energy – a difference largely attributable to the greater need for fertiliser and feed-stock to supplement degraded English farmland.

Another bit of research by FoodNavigator magazine found that one in five American shoppers thought "local" and "organic" were synonyms, even though neither term implies the other. Similar confusion sometimes arises here. 

The 10 kilos of spuds we bought from a roadside box in Blampied – 33km from our place – were definitely local. But all the potato farmers in the area grow for major national food processing companies and make no claim to organic virtues.

For Musk Vale orchardists Kate Ulman and Brendan Eisner, however, the two labels sit happily together – although it's the organic one that has priority.

"People saying that they prefer local in preference to organic is very frustrating for me," said Eisner. "In terms of the sustainability of food supplies, and of the planet, organics is the most critical thing we have to deal with. People say local food doesn't travel far, but what about the food miles of the fertilisers and pesticides – where did they travel from?"

The orchard, 49km from us and called Daylesford Organics, contains hundreds of trees that yield more than 40 types of apples. 

On our Sunday afternoon visit – onsite sales having been announced on social media – we stand inside Ulman and Eisner's big shed, sampling Jersey Mack, Blenheim, Gravenstein and Akane heritage apples. One of their daughters has hijacked Cato, the pair happily off exploring the grounds. 

A few other people roll in – a local smallholder, a couple of restaurant industry types. Conversations bloom between strangers. We leave, eventually, with three kilos of bought apples, another two of free windfall fruit (perfect for juicing), and a tired but happy son.

And in that experience lay a matter fundamental to the locavore idea, regardless of any environmental complexities. Selecting local produce necessitates meeting people in the regional community. It helps wire you into where you live. And that is perhaps benefit enough.

Of course, it also persuades you to try new foods. This was particularly evident at our next ingredient-gathering stop, a 485-hectare sheep, beef and trout farm near the village of Smeaton (21km from the house), called Tuki.

Owners Robert and Jan Jones encourage visitors to catch their own trout with supplied rods. We did so, targeting three for the following night's dinner. Cato had never caught a fish before, and was thrilled when he hauled in a particularly vigorous specimen.

While waiting for our trio of trout to be cleaned and gutted, we decided to have lunch at Tuki's onsite restaurant. Lamb tenderloins and whole baked fish were duly ordered. When the meal arrived,  Robert Jones expertly filleted the trout at the table and offered Cato – still pumped from angling – the eye. His usual squeamishness was nowhere to be seen: the eye went straight in his gob. "Yum," he beamed.

New foods were also much to the fore the following day when Sahm and I met up with Hepburn Springs chef Pitsopoulos for a walk in a park 47km distant from our place. "This is called dock," he said, picking up a wide-leafed weed. "Very good for making dolmades; better than grapevine leaves."

Many common introduced lawn pests, it turns out, including dandelions, plantain weed, thistles, salsify, clover, and hawk's beard, once suitably prepared, can be eaten. (Indeed, it might be why they were introduced in the first place.) Pitsopoulos often combines them into a traditional Greek sauteed combo called horta.

"How come all these foods are just ignored?" he asked. "People don't even think about them – they're just weeds. There's an amazing cultural brick wall. Where did that come from?"

Despite good intentions, we didn't end up making our own horta. We did, however, make good and copious use of the free fruit hanging from the dozens of old plum, apple and berry trees we found on public land. 

Funny: many of them we'd passed by every day, never seriously regarding them as food sources. After making delicious jams, tarts and various desserts, we won't make the mistake of dismissing them again.

Away from all this Arcadian goodness, however, a current of unease was bubbling inside the locavores of central Victoria. It's been a mild summer, and the region's tomato crop was running way behind schedule. In back gardens and allotments everywhere, all but the smallest varieties were still green, still a couple of weeks away from ripe.

The tomato situation is a stark reminder that local food networks can be vulnerable to even minor annual variations in climate. It's a development not unfamiliar to Alla Wolf-Tasker, co-owner and executive chef of Daylesford's multi-award-winning Lake House restaurant, and prominent advocate of local food.

"Our operation is as local as possible," she said. "But we're not a locavore restaurant – we're too big for that. Even in the best season, we might have to supplement our supplies from further afield.

"Pure localism for a restaurant like ours just isn't possible. What about if there's a hailstorm? Or what about this year, when the tomatoes are late?"

For Wolf-Tasker, prioritising local ingredients brings several advantages: it reflects regional identity, strengthens the local economy, and gives her greater influence over quality.

"Given the choice between an organic peach from Mexico and just a peach from Bob down the road, I'll choose Bob's every time," she said. "I don't know what constitutes organic practice in Mexico, but I know I can talk to Bob, find out what he does, and tell him that if, say, he stops spraying his crop I'm much more likely to buy it."

Ms Wolf-Tasker says the food-miles measure for local food is unhelpful. The key driver, she says, is quality: get the best you can, as close as you can. She sources yoghurt from Meredith dairy, 55km from her kitchen, but buys haloumi from far north Queensland.

So how did our seven days of localism end up? Busy. We finished the week with guests for dinner and a locavore feast: more trout and lamb; home-made gnocchi; cherry toms and cucumber from the garden to top our own breads; dips and fritters made from Bacchus Marsh beetroot and Hofinger's zucchini; cheeses from Creswick; butter home-churned from Dunnstown cream; fruit tart from orchard and wild ingredients; wine from Clunes, Denver and Ballarat; cider from Harcourt.

It is possible to do it. It's actually a lot of fun to do it – great food, great people, what's not to like? It's time consuming when completed in extremis, however, and perhaps unnecessarily limiting. After all, what's so wrong with soy sauce?

The overt environmental and implied health claims of locavore life need rigorous analysis before any reasonable conclusions can be drawn. One thing, however, became clear from our experiment.

Procuring and using only a limited palette of produce focuses the brain wonderfully on the often ignored preciousness of food. In making more of it, you eat less of it, for all the right reasons. Sorry to get uncharacteristically hippy on your ass here, but eating turns out to be much more satisfying when it's done mindfully.

The first time I ate a slice of commercially baked bread after the seven days were up, I couldn't finish it. Alla Wolf-Tasker rang the other day, and told me of a farm about 50 km away that grows proper pepper. I'll head there next week.