If you were to enter the only supermarket in the remote Queensland community of Doomadgee, you would pay at least three times the average price for grocery items.
“I pay $600 for my big shop at the store in Doomadgee, that’s compared to about $200 if I go all the way to Mount Isa,” Doomadgee councillor Elijah Douglas said.
“Out here, we are living pay cheque to pay cheque, and we share a lot between families because sometimes people don’t have enough.”
But among the town’s dusty, red plains, a green oasis has cropped up providing hope for a more sustainable future.
John McCracken has spent a year building the town’s first greenhouse. This month was the first community market where residents were able to buy boxes of fresh produce for a gold coin donation.
While the first market was a “bit slow”, Mr McCracken expects momentum will build when word gets out.
“We sold about eight boxes of produce and we made about $54,” he said.
“That money goes back into the community for the kids’ Christmas show. So any profits are going back into the community.”
A bountiful success
Mr McCracken admitted he was surprised by how prosperous the garden had become.
“People said I wouldn’t be able to grow spinach. Now I can’t control the things, they’re metres tall,” he said.
“The basil is out of control.”
The garden’s bounty also includes seven different types of lettuce as well as eggplants, celery, parsley, tomatoes, silverbeet, chillies, capsicum and beans.
“We’re also building soil beds so we can grow root vegetables because the locals want to have onions, carrots and potatoes.”
Mr McCracken says the garden’s aquaponics set-up is perfect for the water-tight community.
“It involves three tanks full of about 160 jade perch fish,” he said.
“Fish faeces is collected in swirl tanks which is then drained into a bubbling tank where it is cleaned for three weeks before being pumped through to the vegetable troughs in the greenhouse.
“It’s a closed system, all the water then drains from the vegetable beds back into the fish tanks. So there’s minimal water wastage and the fish do all the work,” he said.
Meeting demand, creating opportunities
The high cost of groceries has long had dire ripple effects on the standard of nutrition and health in communities like Doomadgee, Mr McCracken said.
“Locals won’t buy fresh veggies because it’s cheaper to buy a pie at the shop than buy groceries to make a decent meal.
“You can’t blame them for that because the cost is phenomenal.
“But that’s the main thought behind this whole thing – if we can provide cheap, nutritious produce, down the track, you hope that’s going to improve the lives and the health of the people in the community.”
Mr McCracken also hopes the project will provide residents with a small business opportunity and knowledge on growing their own gardens.
“The whole concept was that once it was up and running, we’d train locals to take it over as an ongoing business for themselves. That’s sort of further down the track.
“What we also want to do is use it as a training exercise to train local residents in how to produce their own vegetables and everything else and make miniature set-ups,” Mr McCracken said.
As for the near future, Mr McCracken has flirted with the idea of inviting the ABC’s garden guru Costa Georgiadis for a visit.
“Wouldn’t it be great to get him out here for a little demo with all this amazing produce we’re growing.”