When I had my first child (Lion), I lived in Abbotsford. My little factory workers’ cottage in Paterson St was 4.5km from the smacking centre of Melbourne’s CBD. This working class nook was built on blood, sweat and crime. It’s tendency to flood before the sewer system was installed in Melbourne meant that housing was cheap. It filled with Irish, then followed Greeks, Vietnamese and other immigrants. The smell of fish sauce, frying oil and malt still fills the lower atmosphere on most days. The brewery has stayed, “Little Saigon” resides on Victoria St, and the Retreat hotel is perfectly preserved in time. But other relics have been gentrified or completely dissapeared. The Skipping Girl still jumps over her vinegar sign, but there’s no factory underneath. Modern warehouse appartments have filled the voids. The Denton Hat Mill and Trennery Cresent textile factories have likewise been adapted to the changing population. The nuns are all but gone from the convent. But the Collingwood Childrens’ Farm remains, bigger and better than ever.
I don’t know what images are conjured in others’ minds when they hear the word “Australia”. I suppose it’s probably kangaroos, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ularu and Lara Bingle. But I think of Eycalyptus trees, with scent so heavy you can almost feel the oil dripping on your skin as you walk underneath. I see country shacks – weatherboard suitably weathered, a corrugated iron roof, rusting in the elements, a verandah and a fat old blue heeler plonked in front of the fly-screen door snoring its head off. I see paddocks, green and muddy, with tufts of golden grass seeding in the wind, flimsy fence wire inexplicably holding back a one-ton cow. I smell hot pies from the bakery, sitting in their steel hot-boxes, wattle microbes that jump up my nose and make me sneeze, and horse poo – incredibly, a smell I love. This little 15 acre farm has all those things, and it’s practically in the city.
When I took Lion back, he couldn’t believe we’d wanted to move out of the area. The Yarra here is beautiful – brown, of course, as it always is, but surrounded by Australian bushland without a boat-shed or road in sight. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the Eastern Freeway over the hill, but you have to strain over the sound of bell birds, neighing horses and overly social geese. Chickens have right of way, and there has to be over a hundred of them. They cluck and peck under picnic tables, in your path and beneath your feet – not in the slightest bit scared by human interference. They roost when they feel like it, and visiting children are encouraged to collect eggs. That’s not all they get to touch. Goldilocks became personally acquainted with Sandi, Nibbles, and about eight other guinea pigs I have forgotten the names of. For some reason these ones do not die in fright or flee in panic at the sight of small children, and every one gets a cuddle. In the barn, it’s possible to have a go at milking Heather the cow, and in season, bottle-feed the lambs.
The surrounding fields (in Australia, we call these paddocks) contain goats, sheep, cows and a particularly noisy calf, donkeys, horses and up on a rise above the barn, some lovely Berkshire pigs – neighbours to the red and tiger earth worm colonies within the compost heap. Ducks, peacocks and cats also wander the area, living in organic peace, and the bees can be visited on the second and forth Sunday of each month. Closer to the buildings and barn are the organic orchards and vegetable plots. These in turn look over the community gardens – kitchen gardens away from the kitchen so to speak. We would have been able to apply for one, had we still resided in Abbotsford. A vineyard, currently pruned within an inch of its life, nestles in a recess between these and a magical wishing tree.
The entire area is a little other-worldly, and it’s not just because it’s in such contrast to the sprawling metropolis that surrounds it (over 4 million people live in Melbourne). It was a gift to the council from the St Heliers Convent, and has somehow retained something Godly, or at least Samaritan about it. And at other times it is distinctly pagan – the winter solstice is celebrated in feral wonder around a bonfire each year, and is definitely worth attending. What I have christened the wishing tree, with its mammoth skeletal form and sitting stones also appears slightly surreal. The farm is entirely organic, and it rubs off on the people who live in the area. It was the farm, the local plots and the market held there, that drove me towards organic produce and a more natural life about 10 years ago. Returning now, and watching the young parents on their bikes, with their hemp bags, teaching their children to compost and eating stone-ground bread from the convent bakery, I see it’s not lost its effect in that decade. Now I too, wonder why we moved…
The farmers market held on the second Saturday each month is now one of Australia’s greatest. More information on Melbourne Community Farmers Markets here.
Collingwood Childrens Farm Official Site
with great information on the origins of the farm and the general area here.
Currently the cafe is closed, but there is a wonderful development just up the hill at the convent, where you can get a drink at the Boiler Room Bar, get your first dig at Japanese soul food at Kappaya, go veg at Lentil as Anything or eat a full meal, or just some daily bread at the Convent Bakery. More information and maps here.
For those seeking out similar farms in their own area, Europeans have a look at the cityfarm website here. UK, look at farmgarden here.
I could not find a general list of farms in the USA, but they definitely exist. There is an article in Time Magazine here, and I suggest looking them up city by city.
Those interested in starting up a project themselves, look at this wonderful site – cityfarmer.info – which has a blog detailing the process, seasons, and other farms’ stories.