Visiting Bingara’s The Living Classroom

KSCA’s first night in the New England region was spent in Bingara, at The Living Classroom‘s bunkhouse (nothing like bunk beds to make you feel like you’re on a road trip!). Here are Laura Fisher’s impressions:

We were welcomed by Rick and Susan Hutton, Linda and Garry McDouall and Francis and David Young and Francis’ mother Barbara. All came from farming families or are currently manage farming properties, while also being highly dedicated to community projects in Landcare, the Arts and education.

A bit of backstory: several years ago, Rick and Garry and others had led a community initiative called Bingara 20/20. Like so many country towns in Australia, Bingara is struggling with a dwindling population (currently around 1000) and the challenge of creating employment for its community. 80% of the region’s economy is agriculture, predominantly grazing properties, but the number of people who are actually employed in agriculture is very very small.

The Bingara 20/20 visioning process was a grassroots ‘community consultation’ project that generated a set of ideas that have since been resourced financially (largely through the tenacity of Rick and Garry), and are being put into action. Is such a thing really possible??? Having distilled some core values from Bingara 2020 around sustainability, community wellbeing and economic prosperity, Garry and Rick managed to persuade the Gwydire Shire Council to back the plan. The four pillars for The Living Classroom are agriculture, education, tourism and conferencing (it is well placed geographically to provide this service to the region). And at the heart of it all is the concept of regeneration: regeneration of the community, and ‘regenerative agriculture’ as an ethos of farming in which soil health, water conservation and avoidance of chemicals are central. You can read about this in some detail in the Bingara Business Plan, prepared by Adam Blakester of Starfish Initiatives (pdf can be downloaded at this page).

Here are a couple of essential ideas:

 

“The Living Classroom’s focus is on food quality and the connection between soil health, plant and animal health and human health.”

“The Living Classroom aims to become a showcase of future agriculture, a centre for education, for experimentation and inspiration for all generations, and for all levels of learning.” 

 

A beautiful symbol of this idea of regeneration is Bingara’s one-of-a-kind Orange Festival. A long time ago one of the main streets of the town was planted out with Orange trees as a ‘living memorial to Bingara residents who served at war’. Once a year the oranges are ceremonially harvested by the children of the town, with many additional festivities to boot.

The word ‘visioning’ was used frequently as the story of The Living Classroom’s establishment was told, and it was a word that we muddled over quite a bit. Given that KSCA is very interested in the future of land use, we are always thinking in a creatively prospective way – but developing big plans that are executed over several years and lead to big, tangible things: that takes a certain kind of drive. Interestingly, on our first night when we shared a couple of Futurelands2 newspapers around, Linda McDouall opened it to the page which featured Ian Milliss’ ‘Welcome to Kandos’ poster. She’d evidently seen it before, on the KSCA website, and looking around she said ‘who is responsible for this, are they here?, this is GREAT visioning.’ (Ian Milliss, if only you had been with us for this moment!). The fact that it had been created in a somewhat satirical spirit made no difference – the impression was that something similar was going on.

The next day we were given a tour of the site. A whole range of ecological farming methods and food cultures are in various states of development: swales have been created along Yeomans-inspired contours to retain water, and there is a Mediterranean garden, a bush tucker garden, and an area designated for a carbon farm. Here a baseline measurement of carbon levels in the soil will be undertaken by the CSIRO, and a spectrum of carbon sequestration methods will be tested and illustrated. Permaculture principles, childhood education and play, cultural storytelling – these are all informing the design of The Living Classroom.

Bingara represents the paradox of the country town in Australia. It’s a town surrounded by farms, servicing the New England region’s agricultural sector, but you’ll have a hard time buying local meat and local produce. This is because the farmers are part of food supply chains that are highly centralised, geared for the big supermarkets and export markets. We all scratch our heads and ask: given transportation costs for example, surely it’s more cost effective for some farms to serve the local community? As co-founder of IGA, Rick Sutton has seen the inner workings of the food marketplace and indeed tried to make that happen with local, grass fed beef – unsuccessfully. In the food system we’ve now created in Australia, profitability depends upon economies of scale: huge acreages (“broadacre” farming), monocultures, mechanised efficiency with the cropping cycles, centralised processing and abattoirs, and so on – delivering food to a Coles or Woolworths near you.

The Living Classroom shows up the absurdity of the system. Its ludicrously ambitious and yet totally common-sense aim is that within the next decade, it will indeed have established a large working farm that serves the local community.