Magic Harvest home gardening program – across South Australia and beyond

In 2009, Tori Arbon created Magic Harvest to share the magic that comes from gardening and supporting your community. We talk to Tori to learn more about the famous book series that inspired her and the journey this program has taken.

THE KEY STATS

  • Year established: 2009
  • 📍 Location: South Australia and beyond; originally established within the City of Onkaparinga
  • 🚜 Main energy sources: Human power
  • ⚡️ Capital: Tori works free of charge, which “frees her”. The program was established using her own resources and volunteer time, and continues on volunteer time. Some new programs have been funded by local councils and OPAL. Tori created a ‘Do it Yourself – Magic Harvest’ gardening guidebook, which she paid for out of her own pocket, but recouped the costs after selling copies. Once she recovered the initial cost she began to release the guidebook for free. The Magic Harvest documentary was funded through grants.
  • 👩‍🌾 Staff and volunteers: Voluntary, hundreds of volunteers
  • 🥕 Main production: Food plus groups for gardening and cooking
  • 🤝 Suppliers/inputs: Lolo Houbein as main mentor and inspiration, Diana Bickford for support, seedlings, supplies and gardening advice; Amanda Fleming assisting with Magic Harvest In Schools
  • 💰 Markets: Primarily driven by word of mouth and Facebook. Amid the COVID 19 global pandemic, Tori is beginning to establish a stronger online presence. 
  • 👫 Reach: The ‘Do it Yourself – Magic Harvest’ guidebook has been sent to the UK, Japan and across Australia. Magic Harvest groups have been supported by OPAL in the Northern Territory and groups have formed in NSW and Victoria.

WHAT’S THE PROJECT, IN A NUTSHELL?

Magic Harvest is a low cost, simple to implement, enjoyable, accessible and flexible home food gardening program. Food growing and cooking concepts within the program are based on the Magic book series by Lolo Houbein, author of One Magic Square, Outside The Magic Square and Magic Little Meals (the latter was co-authored by Tori Arbon).

These books are all based on using the simple idea of growing food in one square metre plots. The program promotes community connection through networks that share and implement small-scale but intensive gardening. Together, the networks help families to grow their own food and prepare nutritious meals at home.

“Magic Harvest’s purpose is to contribute to creating the world I want to live in – one of abundance and health for all.”

– Tori Arbon

Tori isn’t sure just how many Magic Harvest groups there are, but believes at least 200 groups are currently active. They span areas from North Adelaide to the Northern Territory, across Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Whyalla, with offshoots in the United Kingdom and Japan.

“Magic Harvest is not an organisation, it’s just me and an idea I share and spread and ask everyone to pass it on,” she says.

HOW DID THIS ALL GET STARTED?

Tori started out working within the food industry, wanting to share the knowledge, skills and simple ways we can all have access to the best food if we learn to grow and prepare our own.

She says, “It is so simple yet radical as it gives us control over our food source, which is fundamental to survival.” 

Tori’s own experience of the benefits of growing her own food gave her “a deep passion for wanting to share this with everyone”.  While working in event management, production management and running her own business, Tori and her husband, David bought a block of McLaren Vale land and started growing veggies on the weekends.

“We ran sheep and chooks, kept planting fruit and nut trees, growing grapes and making wine, and pressing our own olive oil. We started milking our own cow and growing grain to make our own bread,” Tori recalls.

This passion-fuelled lifestyle soon turned into their own business, sharing the growing, preserving and cooking skills they had acquired. Tori’s time working with local and state government on food industry development as head of Fleurieu Peninsula Food also gave her valuable connections, but she wanted to go further. 

Throughout 2008 and 2009, Tori remembers looking for a way to get more people growing their own food and feeling compelled to reach people who  had never grown food, or thought they never could.

Part of her research led her to the local Fern Avenue Community Garden, to hear Lolo Houbein speak. Tori’s idea for her own program began to take shape after hearing Lolo say, “Australia’s best agricultural land is covered by suburbs, that’s where we should be growing food.”

“I had a vision of faceless suburbs returning to connected villages with everyone swapping produce, recipes, sharing tools and skills.”

– Tori Arbon

Turning that vision into reality took a lot of planning,background work and “testing out theories on willing guinea pigs”. She relied heavily on relationships and trust built over previous years. But once Tori  convinced her local City of Onkaparinga council to support a pilot program, Magic Harvest fell into place quickly. 

“I wouldn’t say it was easy but the development and process has all been an enjoyable, stimulating journey,” she says.

While running Magic Harvest workshops,Tori has been  struck by how many people lack even the most basic food preparation skills. Many have almost no skills in growing and preserving food either.

It’s because most of us don’t have mentors, knowledgeable grandparents or wise elders, to pass down this knowledge to younger generations, Tori believes. That makes sharing this information among ourselves even more crucial. 

“When is this going to happen and who is going to do this? Now is the answer to when, and all of us are the answer to who,” she says.

ANY TIPS FOR THOSE WANTING TO START SOMETHING SIMILAR?

Tori’s key tip for getting started on a food-related project is to do a lot of research:start by looking into what’s already existing, who you can work with and what resources you can tap into.

“You can ask for help,” she says – a lesson she wishes she’d known at the beginning of her Magic Harvest journey.

Tori says she did a lot of work and heavy lifting herself, only to find later on that others would have loved to have shared the load. She frequently asks for help now and lets others take the lead. 

“The power is in sharing.”

– Tori Arbon

Tori offers a few key readings that were especially helpful in guiding her journey:

  • One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein – a guide to growing food in one square metre plots, which became the foundation of her Magic Harvest program.
  • Outside the Magic Square by Lolo Houbein – a handbook for food security. 
  • Magic Little Meals by Lolo Houbein and Tori Arbon – how to make the most of homegrown produce. 
  • Ministry of Food and Pass It On program by Jamie Oliver – Tori says she found these to be useful tools and inspiring.  
  • Harvest of the Suburbs by Andrea Gaynor – an environmental history of growing food in Australian cities.
  • Fair Food: Stories From a Movement Changing the World, edited by Nick Rose. 
  • Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE SO FAR?

Tori says that one of the biggest challenges is running out of steam. But she overcomes this by having a solid network of volunteers who help spread the word and keep more programs popping up. 

She’s also battled to build an online presence – communicating what your project is through online platforms is important, but navigating this virtual world can be difficult. Tori hopes to overcome this by recruiting online-savvy supporters, but she says that she’s still working on this. 

Like many of us, Tori agrees that climate change will bring a number of challenges – but she also believes this reality will only make the Magic Harvest program more necessary and important.

“Being even just a little bit self-sufficient is wise and growing your own food might be the most important thing we all do,” she says.

For now, Tori says she’s not  making a living from Magic Harvest – but she’s actually totally comfortable with that.

“I know it would be possible but it’s not my aim. No one ‘owns’ growing our own food and that is how spreading the learning should be – free.”

WHAT’S THE BEST PART?

Tori loves that her work with Magic Harvest has such a positive impact, helping create “a beautiful world we can all share in which people and nature are thriving in harmony with plenty for all”.

She’s committed to contributing to local food networks, which are becoming even more important amid events that undermine our way of life, such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can’t do this in isolation, we need our neighbours, local networks and systems in place.”

– Tori Arbon

“A powerful health and wealth for all can be found in fair localised systems.”

To her delight, Tori has also unexpectedly found many participants of her first council-run workshops were using the program as therapy for depression.

“The most profound impact was the large number of long term unemployed men who felt a sense of pride at putting food on the table again,” she says. 

“I hadn’t expected this little project to connect me with such diverse areas but of course it makes sense – gardening is the answer to everything.”

TELL US ABOUT THE FUTURE – WHAT’S NEXT?

This year, Tori will start a Magic Harvest pilot in about six South Aussie schools, with support from the Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board. 

This program will focus on skills rather than infrastructure, meaning that no large school vegetable garden or kitchen is required. “All you need is a one square metre plot, one gas burner and one hour per week,” she says.

The aim is to teach kids how to grow and cook their own fresh nutritious food, sharing their skills with the whole family to keep growing and cooking at home.

 Two members of the school staff or volunteers (or both) will meet with the children weekly to facilitate the program, centred on the veggie plot. This can be in class time or after school, each school will adapt the program to suit their needs. During the program children will learn, share skills and resources, participate in activities, produce swap, and pass it on.  

On a personal level, Tori hopes to build a permaculture food forest on her McLaren Vale property for sharing with family and community. She’s planting a bush food block for native animals and humans to forage, restoring her creek and going deeper into regenerative farming.  

But her biggest dream was inspired by a thought shared by Lolo: “There are over 5 million backyards in Australia, can you imagine if they were all growing veggies?” 

Tori hopes loads of local groups will pick up her Magic Harvest program and run with it, spreading the word, adapting and making it their own.

“Eventually, I hope that Magic Harvest isn’t necessary in the future, that we just all do growing, sharing and swapping as part of our everyday lives,” she says.

WAYS TO GET IN TOUCH

Email: harvest@producers.net.au 
Facebook: @MagicHarvest  

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