“We start on the 1st of Feb,” says Ben Clarke.
We’re in his front yard, crouching over a pile of drying apricots he got from Northampton, about 50kms north of Geraldton – about as far north as you can grow stone fruit, Ben informs us.
“We got these from a local farmer’s market that is starting up. There’s a few people who are selling stuff there already on Sundays. And that encourages community, when you know the people that are growing your food, and they know who they’re providing it to.”
This is the onset for the 100-mile diet.
Not a weight loss program
It has nothing to do with losing weight or looking after your posture. Rather, it has everything to do with connecting to the people, the land and the produce in your local surroundings.
It is an attempt to re-engage with place through food. As a teacher in sustainability at a local high school, this is something that is close to Ben’s heart.
“[As people] we’ve re-imagined ourselves as global Gods and say that we live in a global village, eating stuff that comes from all over the place. When you look at recipes in newspapers – nine times out of ten the asparagus that you need is not in season unless you import them from Chile or somewhere else.”
As such, the 100-mile diet involves taking a firm stand against the globalisation of food distribution, and what Ben refers to as ‘replicating humanity as a series of McDonald’s chains.’
“What we’re saying is that to live in Geraldton and to be a part of the community in Geraldton, we need to be committed to working out what it means to live here. What seasons are here and what kind of food can you produce. Because, otherwise you end up in a global suburb where you don’t really know what’s different.”
Preparing for the diet
Next to the apricots, a few corncobs are looking nearly ready to be ground to flour. Another first for the Clarkes, who love their organic experiments. They swapped the corn for a few chooks they had to spare. Although they are already reaping the benefits of having their own wheat flour, this process is different, and again, the only way to learn is to try.
We carry on through the front yard, through an array of plants and vegetables. Some struggling, others thriving. Ben grabs a handful of the sandy soil that is typical of the mid-west coast. He shrugs as the sand runs through his fingers.
It’s not a particularly good soil for growing a lot of typical European vegetables, but Ben is absolutely determined they will find there are loads of things that will grow here, eventually.
Even in the scorching hot and dry, windy, summer of Sun City there ought to be ways to keep a domestic garden in good health. The only way to find out what, and how, is to experiment with ways of keeping the moisture in the ground, and dry composting, Ben says.
In the kitchen his wife Tamara is cooking up a large pot of apricot jam, infused with ginger. The house smells like an organic heaven. With six children to feed as well themselves, the couple need to approach the starting date with a bit of preparation.
They know that they will have to give up on a lot of big things. Sugar, rice, and possibly coffee are the first major things to be crossed off the usual consumption-list. But Ben’s not fazed at all. A cheeky smile and a truckload of enthusiasm spell out the strong determination behind the diet. He draws a link to travelling, and to discovering a fresh new, local, cuisine.
“The other day we went down to one of the beaches and got some cockles and boiled them up. And the indigenous people of this area know a lot about the food that you can eat. They’re going to take us to some places and show us some of the things that they eat. But, again, it’s seasonal, and it’s not a lot that is in season at the moment. This is traditionally the hottest and driest time of the year. So you wouldn’t expect to find a lot of stuff.”
“Biting the bullet”
-So why would you start such a diet at the supposedly ‘worst’ time of year?
“We talked about it all last year, so we gotta bite the bullet and start,” Ben laughs. “Rather than looking at it as a negative thing in terms of what we’re going to miss out on, we’re excited to see what we are going to find and how it is going to connect us to this place.”
“Our generation loves being nomads, to be able get up and have no commitments. And I think in one sense we are richer, but in another sense we are poorer.”
Ben and Tamara have lived in every state of Australia. They have spent five years in Eastern Europe, and their kids are well travelled. But, he says he would like them to know and understand the seasons, and to know what land does over time.
“How does this affect our land into the future? What happens if we put seaweed on it? Is it going to be a good thing or is it going to increase the salt content of the soil so much it is going to be useless? I don’t think it will, but unless you actually do that, you’re not going to find out. Is bringing sheep manure going to be a good thing? How many chooks can we run as a family?”
Ben is a man of many ideas and many experiments. Possibly, he’s a man with even more questions. And he wants those questions answered. But, more than anything at the moment, he’s ready to start the family’s new diet.