On a 40-acre property on the banks of Cedar Creek in the Samford Valley, Alice Star and Phil Garozzo (both 28) run Loop Growers, a market garden with a very big difference.
The duo lease about an acre of the property, owned by Alice’s father, growing produce that they sell to cafes and restaurants in Brisbane, a mere 30 kilometres away. They collect the fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells and other organic matter from those same cafes and restaurants, turning it into nutrient-rich compost or using it to feed their ‘epic’ worm farms.
‘Closed loop practices like this make perfect sense because it’s how nature works – there’s no waste in nature. Waste is a new concept created by humans. And it’s so ingrained in our culture now, that’s it’s very difficult to avoid, even when you are conscious of it,’ explains Phil.
‘Most people have no understanding of what they’re throwing out – you just put what you don’t want in a bin and it magically gets taken away. No one thinks about it because they don’t have to,’ tells Alice. ‘That’s the beauty of a project like ours, people have to interact with what they’re throwing away, they have to think about it. And because of that chefs start throwing out far less. It even affects their purchasing decisions in other areas and sends waves through their business.’
So how did these two Gen Y’ers find themselves ensconced in a farming career?‘We both grew up in Brisbane but were on completely different career paths for many years. When we met, Phil was working as a barista and I was helping my father with his small hobby farm. I was selling some of the produce grown at the farm to the café where Phil worked,’ Alice explains.
Phil was in the process of developing a separation system for collecting kitchen scraps coming out of the café and composting them at a rooftop garden. ‘We were both on a similar trajectory and it wasn’t hard to see that combining compost collection and growing veggies would work perfectly together,’ she adds. ‘I don’t think I ever really saw farming as a career choice, I see it as more of a lifestyle choice. It’s all encompassing and it’s simultaneously so beautiful and difficult. We are time and money poor, but we’re so rich in everything else. Our quality of life is very high.’
The pair agrees it’s been an incredible journey, though not without plenty of challenges. ‘Apart from managing to find time for it all, we’ve had to learn how to farm at a time when our climate is destabilising and our communities are more disengaged from the food growing process than ever before,’ says Phil. ‘What we’re doing is flying directly in the face of the current paradigm, which is geared at mass food production and extensive distribution, with zero concern for how to replenish the land and the communities from where it was grown or raised.’
Alice and Phil started Loop Growers in 2015, cultivating a tiny 80-square-metre patch and working with just one Brisbane café. ‘I think the fact that we started small made it all possible, it would have been too hard to take on in the beginning without much experience or financial backing.’
They grew the farm and the business slowly as their systems became more efficient and their knowledge broadened. ‘The community that has built up around this project and the relationships that we’ve formed with business owners, chefs and café customers has been incredible. It’s amazing what you can create when everyone is working together,’ says Alice.
‘It’s a mutually beneficial relationship because we’re providing something that they need and they’re giving us something that we need in return. It’s not just a monetary exchange. We pick up 80% of their refuse, or what we like to call ‘yield’, and they’re investing in a plot of land to grow their food. It enables them to align their actions with their values, and importantly, legitimise their business as truly sustainable,’ she adds.‘We’re also giving consumers the power to make that choice and spend their money with eateries that align with their beliefs.’
Loop Growers now partner with 15 cafes and restaurants throughout Brisbane and also collect spent grain from breweries, wood shavings from cabinet makers, coffee chaff from roasteries and even hessian sacks. ‘There are all of these businesses with these resources that they’re literally throwing away,’ Alice says. ‘People from all over are responding with such open hearts and minds to our philosophy and it’s amazing. We wish we could take more businesses on, but we just don’t have the capacity – our truck can’t fit any more bins!’
‘As much as we’d love to be able to work with all of the venues in Brisbane and feed every person, we’re too small to manage it. And the scale is what makes it all work. What we need are more growers to emerge within this new paradigm. Growers who are focused on building strong community relationships and cycling valuable organic resources from within it,’ tells Phil.
‘It’s a really sustainable way to start an agricultural business in this modern age when there are more cafes than you can poke a stick at,’ he adds. ‘Closed loop farming is the way of the past and the future, but it’s going to be a long, hard path to get us all there again.’
Will Work For Food is a creative partnership between writer Karen Locke photographer Honey Atkinson, who are working to elevate the importance of sustainable, ethically produced food. Find out more on their blog Willworkforfood.com.au.