sustainable communities Feed

Wouldn't you rather speak to a real person?

I want to stop talking to machines. Only a few years ago, talking computers were rare. These days I find myself being forced into a conversation with a machine far too often.

I'm starting to envisage a future where our days are devoid of casual chats and instead are full of frustrating interactions with computers. It’s a vision I don’t like.

Shopping is one of the key ways we interact with our community.

A quick chat with the post office clerk. A smile from a checkout teller. A helpful tip from the hardware lady. A conversation with a farmer about their crop. 

Farmers Market haul. Produce purchased from real people not machines. little eco footprints

Farmers Market haul. Produce purchased from real people not machines comes with bonus nourishment for the soul. 

These brief moments all contribute to our sense of being part of a community.

For many, particularly the elderly, the opportunity to chat to someone at the local shops is an important part of their day. And for my daughter, shopping is one way she learns how to politely talk to strangers.

But being served by a real person may become a rarity.

Our supermarkets, hardware stores, and many of our service providers, are switching to self-service technology. We get to serve ourselves – with the help of a talking machine.

Imagine a world where we have to talk to machines each and every day

A few frustrating moments with machines has me imagining what life might be like if we’re forced to deal with talking machines too often.

I popped into a supermarket early in the morning and had no choice but to go through a self-serve checkout. I was in a good mood. I’d bumped into a good friend and we’d had a quick chat. I put down my sweet potato – "assistance needed". I picked up and put down one of my cloth bags. "Assistance needed". Then the machine couldn't give me all my change because the coin outlet was blocked. "Assistance needed". In total I got an "assistance needed" error four times. Each time I had to wait for someone to walkover from the front counter to fix the problem. I walked out of the shop grumpy and rushed.

I had a similar frustrating interaction with a machine when trying to speak to a real-life person about my telephone bill. I found myself yelling at the automatic computer voice. My daughter looked on confused. "It’s OK – it’s just a computer" I told her, as if the fact that I was talking to a computer made my yelling acceptable. The machine gave me answers to questions I didn't ask and told me to have a nice day – and hung up. I phoned multiple times until I discovered an answer that would put me through to a person.

If I found myself in a future where I was forced to talk to machines regularly, I'm guessing I would be one very grumpy person.

How to encourage a future filled with real-life people rather than machines.

Seek out and embrace opportunities to connect with and be served by people – the farmers’ market, greengrocers, butcher, baker – and small local hardware store.

If we don’t support these small local stores, we may find ourselves in a future where we have no choice but to be served by machines.

If that happened, I'm guessing our communities would become filled with very grumpy people.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 6th July 2015.


Skills for sustainable living - workshops in the Hunter Valley May 2015

One of the aspects of sustainable living that excites me the most is that there's so much to learn. There's seemingly endless knowledge to acquire and more than a life-time of skills to gain.

Thankfully, there are plenty of individuals and organisations out there providing resources and courses to make learning easy.

Here's a selection of upcoming courses and workshops for the Hunter region this month.

Click on the headings for more information and to register. 

Wild101, May 15-17 with Wildcraft Australia

Note: registrations for this workshop closed yesterday - but maybe they can squeeze you in if you ask nicely :-)

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft 101. Little eco footprints

Niki from Wildcraft Australia starting a fire without matches. Little eco footprints

This weekend course is for anyone interested in wilderness survival skills, bush crafts, nature and developing bush confidence.

Learn how to start a fire without matches, build a shelter, weave a natural basket and forage for bush tucker.


Hemp Masonry, 16th - 17th May, with Shepherds Ground and The Australian Hemp Masonry Company.

This hands-on workshop provides a unique and exciting opportunity to learn how to build your own hemp masonry walls.

You will go away with a whole new skill set and a manual. 


Part-time mid-week Permaculture Design Certificate, 10 weeks starting Wednesday 20th May, with Purple Pear Farm

This one has me seriously tempted. A part-time mid week PDC! (updated: I've registered! Anyone want to join me?)

For more than ten years Kate and Mark have offered the PDC to people of the Hunter Valley and beyond and have seen many people go on to do great things around the world. From consultancy and aid work to teaching and simply providing for their families, graduates of the PDC at Purple Pear Farm have gained the confidence to live life in a sustainable and regenerative way.

The course follows the curriculum set out in the Permaculture Design Manual by Bill Mollison and continues with the teaching of David Holmgren. 


Brian Keats workshop, 23rd May, with Hunter Biodynamic Group. 

Brian Keats has been publishing an annual Antipodean Astrocalendar and moon planting guide for decades. His calendars are widely used by biodynamic practitioners to understand natural rhythms and guide gardening and farming practices.

A morning seminar will be followed in the afternoon by a Q & A session on using the Astrocalender.

In the evening, a star - watching session will be accompanied by stories from Greek and Australian Aboriginal Cultures.


Medicinal herbs in cooking, 23rd May with the Common Sustenance Project

Nissa Phillips, Common Sustenance project coordinator at The Commons Cafe. Little eco footprints

The Commons is delivering a series of ten classes on healthy, frugal and sustainable cooking. Other upcoming classes include healthy cooking on a budget, cheese making, and cooking for kids. 


Grass identification, 23rd May with Trees In Newcastle and the Australian Association of Bush Regnerators.

Themeda triandra,  Little eco footprints

Grass expert Van Klaphake is coming to the Lower Hunter to present a 2 day plant identification workshop on native and exotic grass species of the Greater Sydney region. 

This hands-on workshop is suitable for bush regenerators, landcarers, botanists, plant enthusiasts, council vegetation officers or for general interest.


Introduction to Biodynamics, 30th May with Krinklewood Vineyard.

Peter Windrim and a few of Krinklewood Biodynamic Vinyards many compost piles. Little eco footprints

This hands-on workshop will be relevant to anyone wanting to produce healthy organic produce - whether you have a small backyard veggie garden or a large commercial farm.

Biodynamic practitioners John Priestly and Hamish Mackay will introduce workshop participants to the application and benefits of biodynamics.

Peter Windrim of Krinklewood vinyard (pictured above with a couple of Krinklewood's many compost piles) tells me "Participants will learn how to make compost, use a planting calendar, and make biodynamic preparations that can be used to enhance the fertility and life-energy of their soil".


Learn How to Make Goats Milk Soap, 1st June with Honeycomb Valley Farm 

This hands on workshop will teach you basic goats milk soap-making techniques including how to mix lye, how it saponifies and how to cure soap for a delightfully mild bar. 


Other regular sustainable living workshop providers within the region:


Purple Pear Farm

Kate and Mark deliver a range of courses on permaculture and skills for simple living. Courses over the coming months include cheese and yoghurt making, introduction to biodynamics, compost making, worm farming, plant propagation, and urban food production.


Herbalist Pat Collins

Pat delivers regular courses across the Hunter region on foraging, using herbs, and making your own skin and hair care products.


Master sourdough baker Warick Quinton

Warick runs regular workshops on how to make artisan sourdough bread.


Happy learning. 

A slightly shorter version of this post was originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 11th May 2015.

Riches without dollars: embracing the gift economy

Somewhere along the line, money took over our lives. The dollar became almighty. And now we’re paying for it. With our happiness, our health, and the environment.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

We can embrace alternative economies. These informal economies can provide many of our needs – without the exchange of money. And as a bonus, the fuel for these alternative economies – sharing, trading, generosity and gratitude – build stronger and more resilient communities.

Generosity breeds generosity. A basket of homegrown mushrooms recentlly gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. Little eco footprints

Generosity and gratitude builds strong communities. A basket of home-grown mushrooms I gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. 

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition, argues that the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. In contrast: "In a gift society, if you have more than you need, you give it to someone who needs it."

Eisenstein suggests generosity is how you earn security: "Because if you have built up all that gratitude, people are going to take care of you." He says that "if there are no gifts, then there is no community. And we can see, as societies have become more monetised, that community has disappeared. People long for it, but you can’t just have community as an add-on to a monetised life. You have to actually need each other."

The gift economy builds community. A basket of gifted sourdough cinnamon scrolls. Little eco footprints

A bakset of homemade sourdough cinnamon scrolls I gifted to some strangers that had had a rough few days. I'll never see these people again....but perhaps they will (intentionally or unintentionally - it doesn't matter) pay it forward. 

Mechanisms to facilitate alternative economies can be formal and structured – like the many new collaborative consumption tools. These effectively enable sharing, lending, trading, renting, and gifting. These traditional actions are far from new, but new online technologies have made them easier. For example, there’s Freecycle, TimebankingLETS, Car Next Door, Airbnb and Home Camp, just to name a few.

There’s also more local options available. For example, a gifting circle that Eisenstein describes in Sacred Economics sounds delightful. In this weekly gathering, participants state one or more things they would like to give and one or more things they would like to receive. Often, a magical synchronicity of wants and needs unfolds. "You need a potato masher? We have three." Or, "You need a ride to the airport on Friday? My husband is flying out then, too."

My favourite way to embrace alternative economies is even simpler – take money out of the equation as often as you can. For example, our laundry is out of action. Rather than pay to use a local laundromat, I’m using a friend’s washing machine. As a bonus, I’m catching up with our friends each time I drop off or pick up laundry – and it makes them more comfortable next time they ask us a favour.

These days, money has taken over situations where generosity is more appropriate.

A friend had been minding my daughter a lot lately. I haven’t offered money for the favour, nor has she asked for it. But what we each get out of the interaction is far more valuable than money.

I recently said to her "I owe you big time". With a cheeky grin she said "yes you do". I like that one day I’ll be able to return the favour. 

What you give comes back, but not necessarily from the person you gave to.

A treasured original painting by Brian Nunan. - a gift from a friend. Little eco footprints

I was recently given a beautiful original artwork. The painting was gifted, not because I was generous to the giver, but because she has observed me being generous to a mutual friend. Generosity breeds generosity.

Money only has value because society gives it value. But there’s nothing to stop us putting greater value on non-monetary things. Wellbeing, kindness, fresh air, biodiversity, family and friendships. We can decide these things are of greater value than money and live our lives accordingly.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 27th April 2015.

Interested in exploring the idea of the gift economy more? 

Here's an inspiring story by Sash from Inked in Colour about the creation of a local timebanking project

The Flower Exchange by Grown and Gathered provides a beautiful example of the gift economy in action. 

Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition by Charles Eisenstein can be read for free here

How you can help Shepherds Ground grow

I’ve been watching with interest the progress of a proposed rural land sharing community here in the Hunter Valley.

The Shepherds Ground Village and Farm is forging ahead and provides an inspiring model for how communities can live and produce food sustainably.

Port Stephens Council has granted development consent and almost half of the 29 memberships have already sold.

Shepherds Ground members (from left) Marco Forman, Leonore Bastow,  Lucie Bruvel and Lucie's son Angelo. With the Sheherds Ground site in the background. Tricia Hogbin-800x534

This project makes me almost disappointed I already own a rural property.  Otherwise I’d be buying a membership. For less than what we paid for our nine-acre powerless property with no home and no water, members get a brand new sustainable home overlooking more than 200 acres of productive farmland and restored bushland. 

Members will also have access to their own large garden plot or can be part of the co-operative that will establish a diverse and sustainable biodynamic farm. There’s also a community hall, commercial kitchen, and plans for a bakery, apiary and market garden.

The village lifestyle is one of the main attractions for Lucie Bruvel (pictured above, second from right), one of the key drivers of the project. ‘‘I’ve lived in communities and small villages in Europe and love the sense of connection and co-operation that comes with village life. There’s always someone to share a meal with or mind the children,’’ Lucie said. 

Shepherds ground village and farm plans

There’s a diverse range of people and ages joining as members, ‘‘all with a common willingness to become part of a greater movement towards a simpler more healthy and connected way of life’’.

They already have half-a-dozen families with children and Lucie tells me they are considering getting a community bus to transport the kids to nearby schools.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is that it will facilitate the restoration and sustainable farming of a heavily grazed and degraded piece of land that would otherwise be beyond the financial reach of most farmers.

Without the Shepherds Ground project, the property would most likely be  bought by a wealthy tree-changer and become a picturesque weekender. 

The 29 village sites help to fund the purchase of the farmland so that it can grow food and support the dreams of aspiring young farmers. 

Marco Forman, one of the young farmers that will create a sustainable and diverse biodynamic farm at Shepherds Ground. Tricia Hogbin-800x534

Being able to farm, without taking on a huge financial burden that forces unsustainable farming practices is what attracted biodynamic enthusiast Marco Forman to the project. He  is looking forward to being part of the team that establishes a sustainable mixed farm. ‘‘There’s enough space for multiple small farming enterprises that can grow food, not only for the village, but the broader community as well,’’ Marco said. 

We can all help this worthwhile project suceed

I love that the Shepherds Ground team are generously allowing everyone to be involved in this exciting project.

I’ve signed up as a Friend of Shepherds Ground and have also donated to their current crowd-funding campaign.

The campaign closes at the end of February and is the final push to raise the remaining funds to buy the land and make this dream a reality.

If we all donate a little, we can give this worthwhile project a big boost.

Donate to this not-for-profit project here.  

(Long-time readers will know that I rarely suggest ways for you to part with your money.  I'm making an exception for this project because I believe it will be a valuable model for how we can grow food sustainably and also live meaningful and healthy lives). 

The Edwards in Newcastle is hosting an evening get-together 21 February to help raise funds for the current campaign. It will provide an opportunity to find out more about the project and meet like-minded people. Anyone is welcome.

For more information and to contribute to the funding campaign visit 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th February 2015.

Shop for your community - big is not always best

My favourite local greengrocers Peter Hajevsky and wife Mary O'conner at The Fresh ingredient in Georgetown with a bunch of locally grown lettuce. Little Eco Footprints

Shopping can be a bothersome chore. Or it can be a way to contribute to your community. It’s your choice. You can pop into the supermarket, check out via an automatic teller and support a large national company more interested in profit than people. Or you can wander into your local greengrocer, butcher or independent baker and chat to a familiar face and contribute to the viability of small business in your community.

One of the first things I did after our recent move back to Newcastle was visit our local greengrocer. After living in a town where the last one closed years ago, I was excited to have a greengrocer again. Mary spotted me and said "You’re back?". Her familiarity was a huge contrast to my visit to a nearby 24-hour department store. I made a purchase without speaking to a soul and a self-serve checkout computer told me "to have a nice day".

For some people, particularly the elderly, a visit to the local shops may be the only time they speak to someone. Do we want their only interaction to be with a self-serve computer?

For me, one of the main benefits of a local independent greengrocer is that I’m more likely to find local products. For example, The Fresh Ingredient stocks local products I’d never find at the nearby big supermarket. I can buy local Udder Farm Milk, locally-baked Bills organic bread, and Turners ice creams – made by a family business operating in Newcastle for more than 70 years. Plus there’s a suite of local fruit and vegetables including Sandy Hills avocados grown near Nelson Bay and colourful lettuce grown by Hinchcliffe Hydroponics near Cessnock.

In a quick visit to the local greengrocers I can easily contribute to a handful of local producers.

The benefit doesn’t stop there. Peter, the other half of The Fresh Ingredient, told me their success is linked to the viability of all the other stores in their local shopping strip. "The chemist, newsagent, butcher, hardware store and so on – if any of those stores closed down, we would feel it." By supporting the local greengrocers, I’m supporting the viability of all the other small businesses in the shopping strip.

And the benefit doesn’t even stop there. Money spent in small independent stores tends to stay local, whereas money spent in the big supermarkets promptly disappears from the community.

The disappearance of small greengrocers is also disastrous for our farmers. With few alternatives than to sell to the big supermarkets they can be at the whim of their bargaining power

The consolidation of suppliers and distribution centres by the big supermarkets is also decreasing our food security. All the stock on the shelves of my local big supermarket comes from a single distribution centre in Sydney. The distribution centre also supplies more than 600 other supermarkets across NSW and Queensland. That scale doesn’t leave much space for small and local.

Carefully choosing where you shop is one way you can contribute to your community. We each have the power to make a difference. As Coles managing director John Durkin has writtenthere are 30,000 independent grocers and food retailers in Australia, which means customers can always vote with their feet”.

Let’s do just that. Let’s vote with our feet and choose to shop for our community.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 25th January 2015.