Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In food and drink, one such person is Bruce Pascoe, award-winning author and co-founder of Black Duck Foods.
Bruce Pascoe has become a household name for his 2014 bestseller Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, a non-fiction book that explores and reexamines Aboriginal Australians and their history as farmers, as opposed to hunter gatherers. But his work spans across multiple industries, and it’s to the food space that he’s currently turned his talents – namely in the area of bush foods agriculture.
Pascoe is an award-winning author, advocate and farmer and a Yuin and Bunurong man. He’s currently in the process of working on three more books and continues to work on his 60-hectare farm on Yuin Country near Mallacoota in East Gippsland. He is also working for his family-run company, Black Duck Foods, which aims to produce native bush foods on a commercial scale. In writing the history of his people and producing their food for a wide-scale audience, he aims to educate others and share his culture in a bid to support all Australians with a focus on Aboriginal Australians.
“The education that I had was incredibly politicised in terms of the history that was taught, and people think I'm trying to politicise it, but I'm not, I'm trying to depoliticise it. I'm trying to depoliticise the history of the land,” he says.
“I'm interested in the Aboriginal community, our welfare, progress and our education. What I'm doing at the farm, and in my writing, is trying to make sure that Aboriginal people are included in society and the economy, and that we increase the opportunity for education and employment in our community, as well as looking at a more sustainable way of farming. And, we're trying to show that Australian Aboriginal people have been here for 120,000 years and have been able to live sustainably all that time,” he says.
The importance of Aboriginal people growing bush foods that are native to the land on which they live is vital to both Aboriginal communities and the environment. “By growing the food here, selling it, and employing Aboriginal people to grow it in the traditional way – and not all the methods are traditional, but these are our traditional plants – we are trying to look after Mother Earth the same as our ancestors did,” says Pascoe. “If we can prove that we can do that it will show other farmers, land holders and land care groups, to try a different method, a more sustainable one.”
“And it's already happening. I probably sent out about 30 kilograms of seed today in two-kilogram lots to farmers who just wrote to me and asked me, you know, 'I've heard what you're doing, how can we do it?'”
At the farm, there’s a focus on root vegetables and grass seed for milling into flour that’s used to make bread. “We also do a lot of work on Aboriginal salad vegetables, and I don't think anyone knows how big that's going to become.” Currently, the team are excited about a Yuin vegetable that grows on the margins of salt swamps. Chef and owner of Attica, Ben Shewry, recently tasted the leafy vegetable and was shocked at its flavour profile. “It looks like Vietnamese mint and doesn't taste very salty but rather tangy, and we use it mixed up with other salad ingredients from the farm,” says Pascoe. “We throw in a few tomatoes, oil and vinegar dressing – all those sort of modern things – but it just handles it beautifully, and we’ve noticed it'll stay fresh in the fridge for a week.”
“We’re experimenting at the moment to see how widely it grows and to find a place for it in the market. We've got plenty here to supply our markets, but if Australians start eating it, can we grow it elsewhere other than salt marsh? That's the thing we have to find out. I've got an experimental plot up here which hasn't seen saltwater for two years. It's still going very well. So that could be a market garden plan.”
Pascoe believes the farm has an important role to play in connecting Aboriginal people to their culture and land in a way that is both empowering and crucial.
“We've just had a group of people here, some of whom had been separated from their culture and were very, very low in confidence about identity. They felt like they didn't know enough and they didn't feel Aboriginal enough. We had them at the farm for a few days, and we just kept on encouraging them that this was their culture. And, you know, three days later you know more about these plants than most Australians. So you're now in a privileged position knowledge-wise about your culture,” he says.
So what advice and hopes does he have for future generations? “I would advise them to get the backing of their Elders. Help the young people keep going to school with a view to working on these farms, running these foods, but to be backed up by education, because things change in your life. And there's nothing quite as secure as a good education. You know, obviously, our cultures are our basic security, they’re our blanket, but we also need to defend ourselves economically. We don't want to remain a government statistic. We want to break free of government welfare, and become independent – intellectually, physically, economically and socially. That's my dream for my people.”