Sustainability is the buzzword nowadays.
But what does it really mean to be sustainable and more importantly, what practical habits can we adopt to make this a part of our lifestyles?
It can sometimes be confusing for consumers who are looking for a healthier and more environmentally-friendly way of living. Ecological products or food can be expensive or difficult to come by in certain areas. The marketing for health products can also be misleading if people are not well-educated about what it means to be truly healthy and sustainable. We want to bring a bit of greenery into our lives but how do we do it in a way that is efficient and not energy-draining?
We spent a beautiful day with Leanne Butler and Cardia Forsyth of Grow Sustainable Living at Toms Creek who are on a quest for a new way of living that is in harmony with the environment around them.
They go beyond merely romanticising the idea of keeping things natural. They look honestly at the difficulties and challenges of making the change - how they can make this change doable and accessible to their community. They are also big on education and they are incredibly generous souls who want to share their knowledge with others in the community.
After a day with Leanne and Cardia, we felt inspired to soak up more information and make some changes to how we live, not to mention pick up an amazing recipe for the most delicious chocolate cake ever!
CONVERSATION WITH LEANNE BUTLER
(While trying not to get distracted by the all-natural super-healthy moist chocolate cake sitting on a plate…)
Sustainability is Exciting
Everything here is about sustainable living. At Toms Creek, we have a natural environment that entices people to stay for hours and for people to visit and enjoy the disconnect from their usual pace surrounded by nature.
We are really excited about people learning from our team of experts about sustainable practices such as beekeeping, permaculture, and creating plant-based food at our workshops. This is where people can come and learn about a new way of living and eating.
We are creating an outdoor kitchen so we can conduct demonstrations and teach people how to prepare healthy food such as everyday dishes and botanical cocktails made from natural plants around them, and also for those with a sweet tooth, we can also do some baking and desserts. People can come for a morning or afternoon to see for themselves how to make different foods, enjoy a tasting, and take home some products.
We want to encourage people to grow their own produce, like making a winter harvest soup from your very own vegetables in the ground or enjoying cake that is not just a treat but good for you. All natural, all healthy and you know exactly where it comes from and what goes into it.
Making a Change
People are more health-conscious nowadays but it is a challenge to stick to a healthy diet and choose healthy food. Say 'health food' and what comes to mind is denial. I will scream if I see another protein ball. It's not a very effective way to get people interested in eating healthy. I believe there has to be another way to eat healthily and still enjoy it.
One of our chocolate cakes is made from pureed chickpeas and coconut flour and topped with fresh lavender. The chocolate ganache is made with cocoa, maple syrup, coconut cream - nothing but good ingredients. A power-packed healthy chocolate cake. And delicious to boot.
Eating healthy is not about punishing ourselves and it is not about denial and punishment. You don’t have to follow rules or make sacrifices to enjoy foods that you want, just be flexible and open to changing your thinking. The only compromise we make is thinking laterally and deleting a lot of unnecessary ingredients. When I want to make traditional foods, I consider what ingredients I can use to substitute the gluten, fats and sugar to create dishes that are not only nutritious but look and taste even better than the 'real thing'.
And Making that Change Together
Getting the community and local businesses, producers and artisans involved is key to our idea of sustainability. Provenance is important and it involves getting like-minded people to collaborate. Getting the right people takes patience and time. It is also about the ethos of each business - are they totally sustainable, is everything completely natural, is everything reusable or can be recycled and have they been created with a minimum of production (to save energy). These are questions we have to consider when we think about the partners we would like to have with us on this sustainability journey.
Cost is the other challenge. It would not make much sense putting natural or ecological products out on the market if they are so expensive and exclusive that most people cannot afford it. It is really about making sustainability accessible, not just geographically in terms of where it takes place in the community, but also economically accessible, for us to offer it, and for others to receive it.
Easing into Healthy Eating
For the average person to get started on healthy eating, putting them on a vegan diet can feel like too much of a challenge and the idea is not to put people off or give them the wrong idea about what healthy eating involves.
We refer to plant-based as opposed to vegan, as it's more flexible. Although the basis of our foods is vegan, plant-based gives a freer range of ingredients so people can use butter, eggs, milk or honey if they prefer. It is about easing people into being interested and excited to know more and try new things, rather than setting down rules. We offer the idea of possibilities and options so there is something for everyone.
Forget the Diets
Diet plans are the staple of New Year Resolutions.
Few people who got on a diet succeed and stick to such restrictive eating. We don't even talk about dieting - it's about eating well so you don't have to watch what you eat.
People should be enjoying what they eat. It is not about denial, counting calories or weighing yourself. If you eat well, you do not need to waste your time with any of these distractions - you will feel good, look good, and the fit of your clothes will be the guideline to your ideal body size.
A good way to choose good food is to note the number of ingredients in a product. Even when a product claims to be natural and healthy, many of them are full of fats and sugars, chemicals and additives that can make us feel bloated, tired, even unwell. The average processed food label has way more than seven ingredients, and for me, more than seven to ten is a warning. How many of those are healthy and necessary?
A Mother's Love
I have my mother to thank for what I am doing today. My mother was already into healthy eating when I was a child, so I grew up with healthy food like beansprouts sandwiches on wholewheat bread. That was not exactly the most exciting sandwich on the playground when it comes to swapping time, but I am grateful now for what I grew up eating. My mother gave me her love for patisseries and chocolate and this continues to inspire me today. My mother is my inspiration for my beautiful chocolate cakes that are actually healthy and delicious.
Coping with Natural Setbacks
Whether it is the drought, the COVID-19 pandemic or floods, natural disasters have brought about even more setbacks for what is already a difficult sector to thrive in.
When we had the terrible drought, the area lost a lot of trees. What you see here now is only a third of what there used to be. Trees are expensive and it is also emotionally deflating when you plant something and it does not come into fruition.
During the pandemic, what we realised was, because everyone was in lockdown, it made it all even clearer the benefits of turning to and relying on locals and regional people to help get each other's businesses going. We found a way to combat being isolated and shut off by selling our workshops on our website which was set up in August 2020, so thankfully, cyberspace is still open and no restrictions there.
The floods had caused the area to be shut off and as our business is just taking off, we had to regroup and think about ways of starting again.
We tried to keep some workshops running but the stopping and starting is wearing down the business that is still in its early stages of development.
Part of the challenge is also not about simply selling sustainable or healthy products. Yes we can sell our products online, but we also need to stand out so there is a reason why people are buying our products from us and not from somewhere else. It is about putting something that is different out there, that can only be found at GROW. Coming up with unique offerings - that is our offering.
Passing it On
Sustainability is also about passing on the message and sharing the good stuff we have got here.
We have some beautiful hiking trails that can serve as a wonderful respite for people. We are now launching WILD Recharge Retreats for people who need a break but want to do more than sleep and meditate to make some changes in their lives.
Companion planting is a method used in the gardens as a natural healthy way for plants to grow and help each other grow. We are also introducing different pollinators and minimising invasive bugs by combating nature with nature. There are 'good' bugs that are very welcome in a garden and this is also a good opportunity to get children involved with their little magnifying glasses hunting for these good bugs and learning about what they do and how they help.
Interestingly enough, we tend to view weeds as 'bad plants'. Truth is, when there are weeds, it just means there is a healthy ecosystem for things to grow. What we can do is change that and convert it into something we can eat or something that is beneficial than something invasive.
Monarch butterflies are great pollinators and bees are wonderful as well. To help them, you can put a little bit of sugar in a dish in your garden in winter time. They have no food in winter so that bit of sugar will help them. You can use plain sugar or sugar water, or sometimes even honey.
We also look a lot at the 'infrastructure' of the whole gardening process. For example, to help with a more efficient use of water, we have two water tanks that will drip feed down naturally. Occasionally we pump and top up the tank and it pretty much takes care of itself. It is less labour intensive.
CONVERSATION WITH CARDIA FORSYTH
(While trying not to get distracted by all the beautiful natural products in the shop and wondering if we could buy everything…)
Permaculture is Key
Permaculture to us is creating sustainable long term methods and gardening. It is a way the ecosystem self regenerates and keeps going. It is also a way to eliminate the workload for ourselves by simply assisting nature and letting nature work its own magic. We are working with growing our own produce, but making it in a way that is practical and viable.
That is what we are doing here at Toms Creek. It is not about fighting with nature and forcing sustainability. In fact, nature is very efficient if you learn how to use what is already there.
Weather conditions are a challenge - first with bushfires, then droughts, then COVID and then floods. What we have learnt is, it makes more sense to get educated as quickly as possible on all the natural disasters and how to cope with them. And permaculture is something that we have to keep coming back to and keep asking ourselves, well, is this working? And how can we diversify to make more improvements to keep the system as sustainable as possible?
Getting the Fun Out
We are developing an outdoor kitchen for demonstrations and tastings of plant-based foods. GREEN, run by Leanne, is all about introducing people to new ways with plant-based foods and the approach is innovative and creative. We are trying to get a little community happening. This region has so much to offer. And food is always on the top of people's minds!
We want to have a family friendly bar, a place where people come to have picnics, we have cheese boxes and lemonade stands. It is about giving people a bit of old-fashioned values and a bit of something different for them to explore. There is nothing outlandish about what we are doing, we are keeping it humble.
Education is key, and we have our workshops for that. We want to share about growth and sustainability, and these classes will be run on site all year round. We have got a good group of teachers together teaching different crafts, different skills like weaving or beekeeping. Everyone in the family can get involved, and even for children it is fun for them to learn about bugs and go exploring in nature.
For people to learn about growth and sustainable living, we have our website and Facebook page and we are starting to become quite popular! We had something like 2000 hits in the first months and it's been growing steadily ever since. Curiously, most people are from Sydney but we also want to attract the local and regional community. We want to tell people we are here and this is a huge opportunity for us whenever we can get the word out about what we are doing!
I came from a background of interior design which means I worked a lot on making things look attractive and putting together things that people appreciate, and there is a lot of effort and attention to detail.
In a garden or on a farm, that is quite a whole different ballgame. It is difficult making things look 'pretty'. You need to learn about how nature works. We are trying to create an environment that is for our community. It is not something they expect in a place like this in the middle of nowhere, but it is a beautiful space they can come into and we have so much to share with others. I find it all rather enchanting actually! We have got a greenhouse, a garden, picnic spots, and we have got a beautiful creek, and it is just about allowing people to go to nature and have a bit of time away from the hustle and bustle and just get off the Internet or the phones for a few minutes and just have a look around and get curious about their environment.
We were locked in for six weeks because of the floods and that was a huge challenge for us on so many levels. The curious thing is, animals know things before we do. They seem to be able to sense things like that and our livestock herd had already gone up to the highlands, so they were fine. We were stuck here with management issues looking after stock. We were so worried about that, but we were lucky enough to just be here and find a way to deal with the circumstances. It was horrific though. Right outside the greenhouse, we had so much water six meters high and just rushing past.
We do realise that no matter how well prepared we are, something could still happen. That is Mother Nature doing her thing, and we can only respond and adapt as best as we can.
Thanks to Leanne and Cardia, and we are already looking for another opportunity to visit Toms Creek so we can soak up more of the healthy energies there.
Sustainable living is even more desirable now with our modern lifestyles. The constant exposure to junk food, pollution, stress can wear down our bodies and spirits. Everything we do can have an impact on our environment. While it may be too overwhelming to think about climate change and how huge and impossible it may seem to reverse the effects, we can still make a difference by little changes we make now. It could be as simple as making a different choice, to use something that is natural, sustainable, reusable and recyclable.
Grow Sustainable Living is empowering people with the knowledge and tools to make that change. Their micro-courses teach people how to incorporate sustainability into their lifestyles regardless of where they live, and it is a way to expand one's perspective on clean and green living. When the stress of modern life gets too much, there is always something at Toms Creek to escape away to, whether it is a picnic, a goat tour or a farm tour. Living sustainably is easier than we think, and it is a philosophy for life!
2001 Toms Creek Road, Toms Creek, NSW 2446 Australia
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