Still Farming In The City, After All These Years
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday October 13, 2007
FROM the air they are little more than a flash before the wheels hit the tarmac, a blur of green among the terracotta tiles in the final plunge.But on the ground, tucked up against Sydney Airport and the sprawled housing of Rockdale and Kyeemagh, the Occupation Road market gardens are a remarkable sight.Here in inner city suburbia, ageing men and women in traditional Chinese hats tend perfect rows of bok choy, choy sum and Chinese spinach, using farming methods that have barely changed since Federation.When the sun reaches its zenith, the workers retreat to the shade of 150-year-old shacks made from wood and rusted corrugated iron - the only 19th-century market gardeners' cottages left in the inner suburbs."When the water is good, is OK," one worker, Tony, said. "Spinach good, bok choy OK this year."The Occupation Road gardens are a reminder of the days when metropolitan Sydney fed itself, before the urban sprawl took hold.Records from the NSW heritage office show the first seeds were sown there in 1842, when Rockdale and the surrounding suburbs were a patchwork of small farms.The farms played an important role in food production for the local and regional community, particularly during the Depression and during and after the wars, when Chinese market gardens were a main source of vegetables for urban dwellers.In 1999 they were placed on the state heritage register as one of just five surviving market gardens in the metropolitan area."There would have been market gardeners along all of our waterways in those days," said Meredith Walker, the heritage consultant who did the first study of the site. "It was mostly leafy vegetables, things with a short crop-growing period like lettuces, bok choy. They always practised good husbandry, sometimes allowing the field to go fallow."These days the remaining gardens supply the city's diverse collection of Asian shops and restaurants. Simon Su and his family have tended the soil for 30 years, surviving plans for a freeway and a golf course."I bought [it] when we came from China," Mr Su said. "It's really hard, but we're happy here. We're not leaving."Occupation Road's heritage listing means it is protected from development, but the remainder of Sydney's market gardens have not been so lucky. The small farms on the city's north-west and south-western fringes, which produce the lion's share of our fresh vegetables, are being wiped by housing developments.Semi-rural suburbs such as Marsden Park and Kellyville in the north-west, which were home to dozens of market gardens, will soon be enveloped by the 60,000 houses of the north-west growth sector."These resources around Sydney are very much diminishing," Ms Walker said. "They are threatened by the notion that the best use of land is how you make money out of it. Who knows where we'll get our vegetables from in 20 years when the sprawl goes all the way to the mountains. Of course, people need places to live and there's nothing really wrong with golf courses and sporting fields, but you can't eat them and there's not a lot to learn from them."The heritage significance of the Sydney's inner-city market gardens had been largely ignored by historians. But the sites are gaining greater respect."They didn't fit into the traditional practice of history based on documents and photographs," Walker said. "With the Rockdale gardens it's a case of just driving up Occupation Road and there it is - this little patch with a few shacks that's hardly changed in over 150 years."