Seeds of a good idea

By Amanda Linnell

Did you know that in the past year food seed sales in New Zealand, Ireland, the UK and the States, for the first time ever, have out-sold flower seeds?" Pete Russell fires across the table at me. "There's been a 60 per cent increase on the previous year. Food growing is a mega trend."

It's a warm summer's afternoon on Waiheke Island. We're sitting in the shade of a giant willow tree, someone nearby is strumming an acoustic guitar, the vibe is mellow and serene, but there's no hiding Russell's passion about his latest venture Ooooby (Out of our own backyards) - a movement designed to support growing and sharing local food production.

We're at Ooooby central - a newly opened store and garden centre that is just one face of Russell's vision. It is a place where people come and exchange the food they've grown at home with food or seeds others have grown. There's the chance to also swap tools, attend workshops, buy plants, or simply sit and relax under the trees.

The other face of Ooooby is the fast-growing online community at www.ooooby.org. The website launched just six weeks ago and already there are more than 200 members, the majority from New Zealand but also from as far afield as London, Canada, Spain, France and Australia. Here people talk about what they're growing, exchange skills and knowledge and recipes for how to cook what's in season.

"The purpose of Ooooby - be it on the ground or online - is to inspire, encourage and enable people to grow food and to connect with other food growers," explains Russell. "Everything we do here is to aid that purpose, so it is a positive experience whether you are an absolute beginner or a more experienced gardener. And our plan is that no matter where you are, in New Zealand, in the world, you too can be part of the Ooooby community."

Russell arrived in New Zealand with his partner Katherine and about-to-be-born son Toby (now five months old), less than a year ago. A highly successful entrepreneur in Australia, he is the co-founder and director of a food company which imports frozen produce from Europe and distributes it across Australia through major supermarkets and food service outlets.

"My plan when I got here was to take New Zealand produce to Australia using our distribution channels. But when I started my research and got talking to people, I decided to step back to look at the bigger picture as opposed to the micro-picture of just my company.

" I started to realise there was a problem with the centralised food model, in that it is so highly dependent on a stable economy, particularly when exchange rates are involved. I could see that if exchanges rates shifted - which they have since done - it would leave our company in a precarious position."

While Russell's aim was to localise the food model in Australia utilising his business' current infrastructure, the board wasn't so keen. Things were too good as they were.

"But by then I was so infected by the idea of 'going local'. It's such a big movement internationally, and I realised that the best place to start was at an absolute grassroots level. We have to encourage people to grow their own food and to connect with other people and encourage diversity - so we're not eating pumpkins for weeks on end - and, more importantly, facilitate a transfer of knowledge. Connecting with your community is a magical experience, and something that has been missing in much of modern society. Community gives a sense of strength and a resilience to be able to deal with things. This kind of communication is a magical thing," Russell adds with a twinkle in his eye, as he explains about how they regularly host Ooooby dinners where guests bring what they've got from the garden and then they Google whatever they have on the bench for recipes and then make them. "It's amazing. We're focusing on the fun side rather than thinking the world's going belly-up."

There is, of course, also the economic advantages of growing your own produce, especially in the current economic climate. "We can't just sit around and complain about prices going up, we can do something about it."

For Russell, the economic advantages aren't that great personally, yet. He's currently self-funding Ooooby and running it as a social enterprise where all profits are reinvested into the community. "We're not asking people for money, we want to generate our own money to reinvest. Our bigger goal is to get local micro-businesses (Ooooby-preneurs) and pair them with people who have money in the bank (Oooby-rollers). From there we run the venue, help manage transactions, generate customers, and we all generate profit, which is poured back into the micro business or into community initiatives like community gardens in the area, or scholarships for people who want to learn."

While Waiheke is an idyllic place to set up the prototype, it is the world's cities that are Russell's main target. "We're currently scoping out somewhere in Grey Lynn or Ponsonby as a potential place, but really you can do it anywhere, anyhow. There's no trademark on Ooooby, anyone can start up a stall at their local market, create a cafe or garden centre around the philosophy, even start having Oooby dinners. When you connect you contribute. Get on line, join up, make yourself visible about your garden, your skills, what you're willing to trade. Engage in some way, it's addictive."

Russell is also keen to see schools embrace the Ooooby way. "Kids can connect online or start their own gardens. It's about learning to be responsible and look after themselves. We can learn from the generations before us.

"Ooooby, of course, can be about everything. We identifed that food was the most urgent place to start and the place to start creating a positive culture. People who grow food are in the mindset of nurturing, they tend to be more generous and giving in their nature and mindset. If we focus on food and build a social network of people with a certain culture and philosophy, then why can't we trade other things?"

Now there's food for thought.

* To find out more, go to www.ooooby.org or visit the Ooooby store, 12 Putiki Rd, Ostend, Waiheke. Ph: (09) 372 7243.

- NZ Herald

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