Urban Agriculture’s Health Impact: Sam Betteridge Interview

Sam is an Urban Agro-ecologist and Regenerative Educator. His role as Education & Community Manager at Pocket City Farms, in the densely populated City of Sydney, is to teach people the importance and achievability of Urban Agricultural practices.

Sam Betteridge: The Importance of Urban Agriculture for Human Health and Why We Need to Integrate rather than Segregate Introduction 

I believe we have so much to learn from our First Nations people about connection and respect. Well, this week we spoke to Blair Beattie, the CEO of the Farmer’s Footprint, and that’s an organisation that’s dedicated to promoting the best practises of regenerative agriculture around the world. Now this month also happens to be the urban agricultural week. So I thought I would invite my son-in-law, Sam Betteridge, who is the education officer at Pocket City Farm in pretty close to the centre of Sydney. It’s a farm, well, I won’t spoil it. I’ll let Sam explain it to you. But I know that Sam has been passionate about urban agriculture, permaculture, and regenerative agriculture for many, many years, and his background is as a primary school teacher. So taking on this role as education officer at Pocket City Farm is a wonderful opportunity to spread urban agriculture far and wide. So in this week’s Healthy Bite, I thought I would share with you this conversation I had with Sam Betteridge.

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another Healthy Bite. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders – past, present, and emerging.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:15] I believe we have so much to learn from our First Nations people about connection and respect. Well, this week we spoke to Blair Beattie, the CEO of the Farmer’s Footprint, and that’s an organisation that’s dedicated to promoting the best practises of regenerative agriculture around the world.

Now this month also happens to be the urban agricultural week. So I thought I would invite my son-in-law, Sam Betteridge, on who is the education officer at Pocket City Farm in pretty close to the centre of Sydney. It’s a farm, well, I won’t spoil it. I’ll let Sam explain it to you. But I know that Sam has been passionate about urban agriculture, permaculture, and regenerative agriculture for many, many years, and his background is as a primary school teacher.

So taking on this role as education officer at Pocket City Farm is a wonderful opportunity to spread urban agriculture far and wide. So in this week’s Healthy Bite, I thought I would share with you this conversation I had with Sam Betteridge.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:34] Welcome to the show, Sam.

Sam Betteridge: [00:01:36] Thank you very much for having me, Ron.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:01:38] Sam, we have just done this week. We’re focussing we’ve often focussed on regenerative agriculture and we’ve recently spoken to Blair Beattie, the CEO of Farmers Footprint and Zach Bush is coming out to Australia. We will be attending that. But this month’s a pretty special month in terms of agriculture for all of us. Can you tell us what’s happening this month of November 2022?

Sam Betteridge: [00:02:01] Yeah, well, thanks again for having me, Ron. This month is very exciting because it’s Urban Agricultural Month and essentially Urban Agriculture Month is just to raise awareness for people in urban environments. Or, you know, if you’re not in an urban environment, the awareness can be raised there as well.

And essentially, it’s used to bring to the fore this understanding that agriculture does occur in the urban environment. And in fact, you know, if you speak to many thought leaders in this space that we need to incorporate more agriculture into the urban environment.

Sam Betteridge: [00:02:32] So it’s just a month where we get to sort of reflect and think about how we can integrate rather than segregate things that we often think only occur on large, broad acre farms, you know, outside in satellite towns or satellite villages, and bring them into this space where a lot of people seem to be, you know, over the past century, we’ve seen a lot more people come into an urban environment. So how do we start to make it a part of the daily regiment of the city as well as satellite villages?

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:03:07] Well, you are part of Pocket City Farm, which I thought would be interesting. And we want to hear about that. Tell us about Pocket City Farm and how come you got involved in it. What’s your role there?

Sam Betteridge: [00:03:19] Yeah, well, so my role at the farm is the educational and community manager. So I manage the education programmes that are run on-site that are offered to anywhere from long day care centres, very young children at long day care centre all the way up to like we have something called a team retreat where corporate businesses can come on-site and experience urban agriculture in the city.

And the site itself is very unique because it is essentially it was an old bowling green that got developed over time, you know, to be an RSL club and then it sort of exhausted its use as that type of entertainment centre in the suburb where it is in Camperdown here in Sydney and has now become an urban farm. So we’re really lucky because we’re right in the middle of the city. We have this ability to showcase and demonstrate in a very weird environment.

Sam Betteridge: [00:04:17] As we touched on before, a lot of these farms occur in areas that are satellites to a city. So, you know, we have this unique opportunity to show people that even in the dense, populous city of Sydney, you can produce food and not only just be sustainable on the farm. I like to communicate that we are moving beyond sustainability, that we’re moving towards regenerative. And regenerative agriculture is something that I’m very passionate about and I’m very passionate about teaching it to my students of all ages on the farm.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:04:49] It’s interesting you use the word sustainable versus regenerative because if we’re sustaining what isn’t great, to begin with, that’s really what we could be doing better. Tell us, what do you understand about the difference between sustainability and regeneration?

Sam Betteridge: [00:05:03] Yeah, well, I mean, the term sustainability, in a nutshell, my understanding is that you know, it’s something that can be sustained, something that can continue as is. And as you rightly pointed out, there are a lot of things in the agricultural context that we don’t necessarily want to continue as is, you know.

Regenerative agriculture, which is moving beyond sustainability for me is this sort of adding more into the system and not just allowing the cog to turn and turn over, and this is how it always works. It’s like, “No, let’s find and focus on ways to improve that system.”

And it’s really useful in this context of agriculture to think about the site or any site that produces food or agricultural outcomes as a system. And we understand as regenerative agriculturalists that we need to improve our system constantly so that it can actually provide more or offer more abundant outcomes in the long run.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:06:07] Pocket City. I mean, just to put it in perspective, how big an area is it? I mean, you mentioned bowling greens. How many bowling greens are incorporated into Pocket City Farm?

Sam Betteridge: [00:06:15] It’s very small. It’s only two standard-size bowling greens and even though there’s a bit of variability there in size, but it’s about 1200 square metres, so I think it’s less than a quarter of an acre and that is our predominant growing space where we demonstrate, you know, the stereotypical rows of crops that have, you know, irrigation lines running the length of them. But you know, the farm itself is so much more than just those converted bowling greens. It’s actually in permaculture design.

We talk a lot about the edge, and part of my role as the educational manager there is to demonstrate edge potential. So the farm exists where we, you know, we have rows and rows of crops and there’s a large diversity of crops in those rows, but on the outside perimeter and all of the edges of the fences and the walls and all these little nooks and crannies that one would not actually think you could grow food are taken advantage of. And that’s part of the absolute joy that I have in teaching urban agriculture is letting people know that there is a lot more edge in a city environment that can be taken advantage of or leveraged to grow food as well.

So, you know, we have an espalier tree systems, which are essentially trees that are grown up and a long wall, especially obeying a French word for splaying out. And we also have smaller demonstrations of like a courtyard-sized garden where we have raised beds that have wicking reservoirs. And there are all sorts of things demonstrated on site that are not just the stereotypical rows of crops in the ground.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:07:55] What sort of stuff is growing there?

Sam Betteridge: [00:07:57] We grow everything. And over the course of the past seven or so years, we have experimented with many different crops from your standard, like things that you might find in a salad mix all the way up to, you know, rare, rare fruiting varieties of trees that may exist on other continents, in different climates. And you know, that’s part of what we’re doing on-site is we’re not just about producing food for financial income. We’re about demonstrating to the community that many things can be done inside this seemingly bizarre context.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:08:34] Yeah, you’ve done this. I know you’ve approached your home in this kind of way as well because tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing at home and putting into practise. What you’re talking about on Pocket City Farm?

Sam Betteridge: [00:08:47] Yeah. So look, very briefly over the last I think we’re up to about four years now, I’ve been sort of playing around and experimenting and just going on a bit of an adventure with what is possible in the urban environment. And the way I like to think about it is I’m creating a novel ecosystem, and novel ecosystems move far beyond just a biological field.

It’s not necessarily just a garden space, which a lot of people may think of when they’re thinking about agriculture, or even in the permaculture space, people think, “Oh, that’s about gardening.” But I like to incorporate the biological space, the built space, and also the behavioural. And sometimes we refer to them as fields because there are many different ways that you can interact with these fields.

Sam Betteridge: [00:09:34] And currently, in 2022, I kind of I have decided that what I’m aiming for is to be someone who is an urban, I guess you would say, an urban agro ecologist. So seeing how agriculture and the broader ecology of agriculture intersect with the urban environment and just really playing in this niche space and experimenting and then sort of recapitulating these, you know, these experiments and the results that I get from these experiments out to the public. And, you know, I do that a little bit on social media. I do that a lot on the farm. And I also just have conversations with people who are interested in the community.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:10:15] And the edges of your, because I know when you look at your garden, which I’ve obviously been to, but I look at the garden itself. It’s a-size it’s probably what would you say about four metres by about six metres?

Sam Betteridge: [00:10:31] It’s about six by eight.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:10:33] Six by eight.

Sam Betteridge: [00:10:34] But that’s not including the vertical fence.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:10:36] That’s what I was going to say. Yeah. Space considerably increases the amount of space available.

Sam Betteridge: [00:10:41] It does and I love speaking about this because a lot of people think, “Oh, you know, I’ve only got like this little strip.” And I say, “Well, you have got the vertical strip, but like this, there’s a fence line there. Or maybe you have the opportunity to place a tree there and create vertical space.”

And for me, a big communicative point for people who are interested in learning about urban agriculture is showing them that there is a lot more potential in this space than you might first think. So, yeah. I mean, when we had our fence line put in for because, you know, I live in a fairly standard semi-detached block and we have shared fence lines. 

And one of the decisions I made when that fence was being replaced was that I requested to the neighbour, “Hey, do you mind if the actual support timbers of that fence face towards me?” You know, and there’s a general sort of like consensus that there’s an orderly fashion of how fences go up.

And, you know, usually, you have one fence on one side where you see the nice face of the timber pailings. And on the other that you see on the other side, you can see the supports. Well, I’ve got both supports facing inwards because, you know, by exposing those horizontal support structures, those timbers, I then have an opportunity to build off of that and really take advantage of the edge.

And I guess in a nutshell, you know, that kind of frames the way I think about spaces is how can I stack functionality into a space and how can I tie other elements into my system? As we spoke about before, I think about the space systematically and how it will evolve over space and time because, you know, in an urban environment, a lot of there is a lot of change over time. And it’s useful to think about time as a variable in your design.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:12:33] Hmm. Because you must be very popular with your neighbour because most neighbours want to see the pailing. Yeah, so hang on. This guy is actually telling me what’s the other way around.

Sam Betteridge: [00:12:42] Yeah, they were very happy too.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:12:43] Yeah, I’m sure. And you’ve mentioned a couple of times permaculture and we’ve had David Holmgren. Just give us again Permaculture 101 and perhaps. Yeah, well let’s talk about that. What is it?

Sam Betteridge: [00:12:56] Well, that was a fantastic conversation that you had with David Holmgren, who I actually see as an indirect mentor, someone that I’ve studied for quite a number of years now, picked up his book RetroSuburbia, about three years ago and pretty much changed my life. And the way I think about things across these three fields that we talked about before behaviourally, built field, and biological.

Sam Betteridge: [00:13:18] But for me, Permaculture 101 is about understanding all spaces holistically, which is something that you and I share. You know, we share conversations regularly about thinking about spaces as they exist within other spaces. You know, this everything kind of exists in a babushka of other things and it’s actually quite useless to think about things in isolation because everything else is connected to everything else.

So permaculture for me is design science. And it’s about understanding through observation and interaction that a space can be designed in cooperation with nature. And in fact, your best friend is nature, because nature has evolved for aeons to develop algorithms, if you will if I can sort of take a mechanical way of thinking things to produce abundance, right?

Sam Betteridge: [00:14:17] So it’s in our best interest to design with nature and sort of take not advantage, but just leverage what already exists in nature because that is going to ensure that you build resilience into a system because nature is tried and tested and also that you are going to sort of design for permanence because you’re a lot closer to how the natural systems already exist anyway in your design. So very long-winded. It’s essentially a way of looking at the earth also on a social level and how to best work with those natural cycles, those natural patterns, and those natural ways of existing.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:14:59] Hmm. I mean, I think we’ve both listened to Charlie Massy and him saying enable nature, don’t dominate it. And he also talks about the five cycles. But the fifth one is the most challenging – the human social cycle.

Sam Betteridge: [00:15:14] Yes.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:15:15] Which brings us back to the actual bringing this to the urban environment. How do you think people listening to this going and that’s I’ve got a little well I don’t know how much space I’ve got, but whatever it is, how do we get started?

Sam Betteridge: [00:15:33] Well, I mean, there are multiple ways that people get started, right? And, you know, the way I started was just out of pure interest. And I was lucky enough that this field of gardening or design and building sort of engaged me. So I decided to move forward and just try things. And I do tell people as I’m like, “You just have to try something.” And obviously, that’s a lot. That’s easier said than done for some people.

But, you know, if you want to think about the size of space, which is usually a variable that people still don’t get far out, I don’t have enough space. on the farm and in my own home, I demonstrate spaces that are, you know, about five centimetres deep and about a metre long. And what does that look like? Well, that looks like a windowsill.

And, you know, there are various YouTubers, there are various people on social media, there are various examples on Pinterest of people taking advantage of small spaces such as windowsills to simply displace maybe a mug you have and a little bit of soil that you have and then a seed. And it really does just start on that very small scale where you begin to understand it’s actually embarrassingly simple to grow things. It’s actually embarrassingly simple to tap into the natural patterns that already exist around us.

Sam Betteridge: [00:16:58] And it is like anything, a journey. It takes time. Things do exist in the time field. And, you know, for something to grow, it can be anywhere between four weeks and 14 weeks and you begin to start to plug different things in and determine what is going to best suit your context.

And to kind of wrap that question up in a nice little package: Context is key. Because it’s one thing for me to go out and say, “Hey, you should try this first and this is how it should be done.” But everyone’s context behaviourally in their built environment and in the biological environment is completely unique.

And that’s why in permaculture design, the first principle that we think about and is actually a principle that has been derived from many ancient cultures, is that you need to spend a lot of time observing before you make an interaction because you will learn what your context is through that, through that process of observation. And that’s how you make your decision of what works in your space.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:18:09] So it’s why I mean, it’s one thing to look, but it’s another thing to see. And what should people be looking for? What what what are they observing? What are some of the things they should be observing and kind of building the foundation for their decision about what I’m going to plant?

Sam Betteridge: [00:18:24] That’s a great question. And it’s going to tie back into something that is evolving as a theme here in this conversation the natural patterns that already exist. Earlier we spoke about, you know, using natural patterns as a guide. And those natural patterns are as simple as some of the cycles that Charlie Massy talks about. You know, we’re observing the sun and how it moves across the sky seasonally and also throughout the day.

Then you will be observing your own natural patterns like is this area of, let’s say, my garden somewhere I frequent often, am I going to be spending a significant amount of time in there to allow for more observations so that I can learn even more? You know, water. How much water is coming into a space? Is it a case of, “Hey, I know that this suburb is getting a lot of rain this month, so I’m going to put this outside.” Or is it something where it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to spend a lot more time watering this personally because there’s not a lot of rain coming in.”

So, you know, at the very basic level of interacting with the space before you embark on some sort of growing journey or building journey is understanding how the natural patterns intersect with the space? And they will guide you. They will let you know. If the sun isn’t shining, it’s probably not a good space to start growing something. They find a space. It is. And that’s where you will make your first decision to interact in that space, in that context.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:19:58] And then see, well, when it comes to sun, I mean, it’s really when you start looking at these things, you realise how changeable the sun position is during the year. I mean we observe it here, looking out onto the horizon, there’d be at least four. I don’t know what the angle of change is, but it would be 45 degrees maybe where the sun was in one spot in the height of winter. And then the height of summer and all the shades of in-between. Yes, really? That’s an observation, isn’t it?

Sam Betteridge: [00:20:28] It is an observation. And it’s a very potent observation, particularly in the urban environment. You know, this month, being about urban agriculture, people in urban environments do need to think about, particularly the sun, quite a fair bit more than you would in a big, large open pasture, like a blank slate scenario, because we have fence lines that we’ve talked about.

So, you know, just while we’re talking about the sun in an urban environment as a great place to start. You know, I have to think about the 1.8-metre height of my fence to the south because, you know, to the north, rather, because, you know, in winter, when the sun is low in the sky and it’s moving closer to that 45-degree angle, I get less sun, you know, in my yard. So, you know, if you walk into my space and you’re looking directly east. Half of my yard is I’ve committed to an agroforestry system. Right.

Sam Betteridge: [00:21:28] Agroforestry just means, you know, agriculture and forestry. Like there are a lot of trees there because they grow over space and time. And, you know, in the winter, once they’ve reached a certain height, I don’t have to worry too much about sunlight because they’ve grown and reached the sunlight.

But everything, you know, sort of like if you split my yard down the side, everything to the left, I have to think about things more on an annual cycle. So I’ve got this, you know, 4 to 5-month window where I can really take advantage of that space because that’s when the sun is highest in the sky and it’s above. And then I can, you know, use that observation to interact with the space in my context more meaningfully.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:22:14] And what sort of trees have you planted in your garden? And, you know, what are you hoping for?

Sam Betteridge: [00:22:19] Well, I’ve got an array of trees. And like I said earlier, I’m really interested in novel ecosystems. You know, part of my legacy that I kind of want to leave in this space is providing a laboratory for other people to look in and go to what works in my environment. And is there a potential for me to take that to their context?

So I’ve got trees that range from, you know, tropical and subtropical climates. I use my trees for different reasons. Like I use bananas, for example, as an actual pit to put my grass clippings or other clippings into because I understand how banana functions as a system. So very briefly, in permaculture, you know, there’s been these classic elements that they are code that people draw upon to demonstrate how functional something can be.

And the classic one is usually a chicken. And they talk about, you know, chickens can do a billion different things if you really think about how the chicken functions and how we can tap into its natural processes.

Sam Betteridge: [00:23:27] I’m demonstrating on my site how a banana can be used as a pioneer species. So pioneer being something that will kickstart an agroforestry system and it kickstarts by I know that bananas grow incredibly fast. Like I put a banana at the beginning of the year and within 2 hours I watched it grow about 40 centimetres. Wow. Like, it just starts to emerge.

So I’m using that banana as a pioneer in my system, and I’ve placed it off the fence line so that it grows up to a certain height where it cast shade back this way so that I can then nurse other plants. And I also mentioned just before that the banana is it’s actually a voracious eater. If you don’t have a compost bin or something like that, you can throw all your scraps into a banana, which naturally forms a pit, and it will eat it very quickly.

It will break down those materials a lot quicker than most things will. It’s also voracious it’s very thirsty, you know, so, you know, by putting all those things in there, it’s sweating. And then I’m creating a little microclimate where the water and the nutrients go down into the banana system and spread out laterally into the root systems of all other trees. So that’s just one example of the way I’m thinking about my urban agroforestry system. And, you know, I can spend a long time talking about all the other trees…

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:51] Give us another example because I know you’ve got one… I know you’ve got two or three bananas going there.

Sam Betteridge: [00:24:55] Yeah, I’ve got four at the moment.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:24:57] Of different species?

Sam Betteridge: [00:24:58] Different species from different climates.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:25:01] How did you get them in the first place?

Sam Betteridge: [00:25:03] Well, you know, like a lot of people, I jump online and I tap into various nurseries that are selling different species. But there’s a couple that I think you’re pointing to in my yard that I actually sourced from a local environment that I had observed for about probably about two years. It’s being like a really healthy crop.

So, you know, one of the ways I learnt about the banana was from observing this natural plantation of bananas. So I simply just pulled a pop, as they call it. They shoot pops. They don’t really grow from seed. And I planted that in the garden. But, you know, while we’re talking about the functionality of some of these plants. I will specifically plant trees to integrate into my system, to grow, not for the food, but for the speed at which they grow.

Because what I’m really interested in, and this is really important when we’re thinking about an urban agricultural month and moving beyond sustainability to regeneration, what I find really interesting to communicate with people is that plants have certain roles in an ecosystem. Right. And, you know, we’re talking about designing with natural patterns. If you begin to understand the types of services that a plant can offer, then you can move into a regenerative phase just by planting the right trees.

Sam Betteridge: [00:26:31] So as I mentioned, you know, a banana will bring me fruit. But as I’ve laid out here, I’m using it for many other reasons. And there are other species in my forest that I know will only be there for maybe five years, because I know that’s how long they take.

But I know that they create so much biomass that I then have this opportunity to harvest that biomass and send it back to the soil so that I’m not going to your local bunnings and buying a bag of soil that comes in some plastic bag that, you know, has soil shipped from somewhere else, which you and I have talked about is a big problem.

We do a lot of, you know, moving soil around when we should be focusing on building soil in situ. So, you know, some of these trees are used as soil builders, as nursery trees for other species that come up in the system as a way of me re-diverting my waste so that it’s not going to landfill. As a way of connecting in a novel ecosystem with other plant species and determining how well they communicate in the mycelial land below the plant.

Sam Betteridge: [00:27:40] You know, there’s a whole forest below the floor that we could speak about for hours as well that is equally as and in most cases probably even more important to focus on because agriculture is about soil. Agriculture is about soil culture. That’s the derivative of the terms agro and culture. It’s soil culture. So, you know, for me, it’s coming back to that simplicity of going, I’ve got to focus on building soil in situ, and then everything else is kind of informed by there in terms of what sort of things I’m plugging into the system.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:28:15] I remember we were listening together to Charlie Massy when he said most of the farmers now who move into the regenerative space recognise that irrespective of what it is they’re growing or selling, they are actually soil farmers.

Sam Betteridge: [00:28:30] Yes. Yes.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:28:31] And I remember he said a healthy teaspoon of soil has about a billion microbes in it, and a cubic metre of healthy soil has 27,000 kilometres of mycorrhizal fungi. I mean, that’s just mind-boggling.

Sam Betteridge: [00:28:48] It is mind-boggling. I use that little sort of that little thought bubble on the farm a lot. I pick up a handful of soil and say, in this handful of soil, there’s more life that has ever existed on the planet, ever. And I go, Well, and I have to think about it. There’s more life in this little crumble of dirt in my hand right now than has ever existed across time on this planet, as far as we know.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:13] Yeah.

Sam Betteridge: [00:29:14] And then another little one I like to add in is I pick up a seed every cent most seeds have anywhere between I think it’s anywhere between six and 9000 different species of micro-organisms already on its outside and on its inside. That’s your species level.

And then, you know, then you think, okay, there are 9000 different species. How many though? There’s somewhere between like I think it’s like 13 and 15,000 different microorganisms living on this little seed that is just ready as a package to be placed into soil and then inoculate the soil around it to create its ecosystem in a favourable tribal way.

Sam Betteridge: [00:29:53] So yeah, things like that are such great ways to engage the public in this space. It’s been many years since, you know, farms and agriculture have been in the city. But when people start to realise the amount of life that is involved in this game, essentially, I think that’s a real eye-opener for people.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:30:16] Hmm. And actually connecting with the soil. Connecting with you. If I’m in all of that, I think. Now your background, Sam, is primary school teaching, in fact. You know, I mean, a lot of kids are not even aware about food. What’s been your observation when you were a primary school teacher. I mean, what do kids know about food?

Sam Betteridge: [00:30:38] A lot of kids know about food, but they don’t know about food. And by that I mean, like they say, “Yeah, I eat food in the morning. I have maybe I have some toast or something like that or I sometimes I eat veggies.” But they don’t really I mean, my observation has been, you know, generally speaking, the connection between the actual soil in which a plant grows and their mouths.

There’s a big disconnect. You know, the steps in between, the life that’s involved, the processes that are involved, the actual health benefits that are connected to a food source that is, you know, from a land that is cultivated and stewarded well, is a massive gap that I’ve observed.

Sam Betteridge: [00:31:24] And so much so like I have this thing where we have on our farm, we have a composter soil zone. Right. And I’ve been making an effort to have the students who come to the farm wash their hands before they come in. And I say to them, how do you wash your hands usually? And they say, “Oh, get some soap and some water.”

And I’m usually standing over a wheelbarrow filled with like really well-made compost. And I say, “Okay, well, today you’re going to wash your hands in this soil.” And they put their hands in the soil. And I say, “On this farm, we’re looking to invite healthy microbiomes into our system and into your system as a healthy human.” And they’ll go, “What? What’s going on?” And that usually helps me to fill the void that I’ve observed, the void of, like this deficit of life in between you as an eater and food that may exist in a supermarket.

But it actually goes back further to existing in the soil biome. So there’s various like sort of, I wouldn’t call them tactics, but like learning experiences that I like to provide for students to help them fill those voids because the voids are huge. And I think what a great opportunity I have in the city to have all of these people who are coming to the farm to help fill those gaps and let and, you know, through the observations, show them that there’s a pathway from the soil to your own health. And that’s really exciting for me.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:32:55] I mean, that’s a lesson not just for kids to learn because Pocket City Farm is not just a school. Tell us about some of the groups that have come in there and some of the workshops that you do with them.

Sam Betteridge: [00:33:06] Yeah,ell, we do all sorts of things. And as you said, as I mentioned earlier, between, you know, long, long, day-care centres of children who are, you know, two and three years old all the way up to sorts of corporate organisations who are looking to come to see the full spectrum of ages. We have a really, really something I’m really proud of is a really strong volunteer basis.

And we offer volunteering opportunities once a week and we have, you know, once per month we have this big event where we put some food on and some beverages, and essentially the farm gets all of the help that it needs to be maintained through our community volunteering. So the farm itself could be considered a volunteer or a community farm. And we invite people into the space on the verge of the farm, on the outside of the border.

We have a community food forest that is open for the community to come and pick food and fruit. And, you know, if people are having a rough week or maybe their pay hasn’t come through and they need some food, we have a community pantry there that is restocked and things are put there for free often or for much cheaper. And there’s a bartering system.

And, you know, we’re really experimenting with like circular economics in the space and also outside the farming in the community space, too, to help people feel like they’re a part of the community and also to let them know that they can contribute to this wonderful space that is urban agriculture.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:34:42] Hmm. It’s interesting, isn’t it? About connection? Because, you know, I think one of the things we learn so much about lessons from the past and whether you go back only 50 years, let alone thousands of years of millions of years, our connection with nature has been essential. This this re-engage is us with that connection, really, doesn’t it?

Sam Betteridge: [00:35:05] It does, yeah. The re-engagement is, again, in a city environment, that’s one of the biggest challenges because the city environment, you know, thinking about this from a bit of a meta level for saying let’s get up in a big hot air balloon and look back down at a city like a city of these.

Columns of concrete which appear on the surface to be devoid of nature or outside of nature. And, you know, incredible populations of different ideas and of, you know, life forms interacting with different ways. And there’s there’s often so much more going on in a city that offers opportunity to be disconnected to nature than there is opportunities to be reconnected with nature.

So I really see my role as an urban agricultural agriculturalist and a regenerative agriculturalist is to reintegrate these cities that I think you and I can agree. There’s going to be more cities developed on the face of this planet. There’s probably going backwards. There’s not going to be less.

So, you know, the problem here becomes the opportunity. You know, there is so much in this area of a city in terms of opportunity to reconnect people with the essentials of the biological field and the behavioural field and just generally speaking, how people reconnect with this ancient, ancient, ancient practise.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:36:32] Case of growing food.

Sam Betteridge: [00:36:33] That we still rely on. And just as we agree on cities emerging still, we’re still going to rely on food. Hmm.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:36:40] So and actually, I mean, I feel a bit optimistic because I think we are headed towards automated transport. You know, when we’re going to have a lot of cars driving around that we can just pick up like a tuba anywhere, any time, which will make us owning a car seem a bit indulgent, which means there’s going to be an awful lot of space in old parking stations and old garages.

And actually, you talk about looking at things, seeing the sun and all that as you walk around our neighbourhood, even in our street here, the amount of grass growing around the house, you know, on the verge. Yeah. I mean, what an opportunity. That is a huge.

Sam Betteridge: [00:37:19] Opportunity then right there. I mean, and a lot of these opportunities exist right now. You know, we’re playing around these ideas of what what may occur in the future. And we talked earlier about, you know, cities as evolving over time and they will forever evolve over time. And it’s wonderful for us to prognosticate forward and, you know, insert vision of utopia here or insert vision of through topia here, which is another time that I’ve begun to think about recently, and I divulge that.

We’ll talk about that in a second. But but what we’re talking about here is, you know, these opportunities as we see things changing to put more nature back into the space, to bring more of a biological field into the built environment. And yeah, I mean, that’s a that’s a fascinating thing to do. And I’m really pleased that people are starting to do that because, you know, no one, not everyone wants to sit there and contemplate a doom scenario.

People actually are really hungry and really thirsty for, you know, visions of the future to look a lot more, a lot more natural, biologically focussed. And that’s a wonderful thing that we can do in the urban environment. We can like we do it poxy farms. I showed people again this is how you can do it. It’s, it’s you mentioned.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:38:38] Utopia, you talked about through topiary. I hadn’t heard that one.

Sam Betteridge: [00:38:42] Its true through type is an interesting term like. Okay, so we’re talking about things that we can see on the horizon, right? Like we exist on the planet in 2022 in a time where climates are shifting. And I think most people could agree right now that those climates are shifting a lot more radically than they have done in the past.

You know, our observations of how weather and climate and all these things fluctuate, it seems like it’s fluctuating a lot differently than it has in the past. So you know, it’s one thing to plant a utopian vision on a space and go, wow, let’s aim for that. That’s beautiful. What a scenario that is. But, you know, in these uncertain times and I think it’s fair to say that there is an uncertainty when it comes to climate at the moment that a through topia is like, how do we get through these times while still aiming for utopia? Okay.

And you know, earlier I touched on the book Retro Suburbia by David Holmgren. David Holden’s work in Retro Suburbia, which is retrofitting suburban environments, is essentially a story, an invitation to a story through topia. Through Topia. How do we get to at least aim for a utopia through uncertain times? And I think it’s just worth it’s worth contemplating because everything takes time to happen anyway. So you might as well figure out what’s the best path forward through this time of uncertainty.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:13] Yeah, no, I like that. I like that you mentioned waste as well, because some people may not have or may not think they have space to. Grow things. But a windowsill is more than enough for them. What we all have is waste. And turning that waste into something useful is is a really important thing to do. Yes. How do we get going on that? What’s some hints about utilising waste constructively?

Sam Betteridge: [00:40:39] Wonderful. I’m going to give you three amazing things that I’ve done in my living design because my design is living and it’s evolving. So at like a let’s say at a table level. Right. So food scraps, right, everyone? Well, maybe not everyone, but a lot of people maybe on the weekend will get some sort of takeaway wrap. And what I’ve been really encouraged by recently is a lot more takeaway containers than just recycled cardboard or paper, where hopefully the rest of the world and everyone is at least aiming to trend away from plastic single use.

So what I use my paper, let’s say I get a burger because I’m a real person as well. I eat a burger, you know, and to those those cardboard boxes, that is a carbon source. Now, thinking about waste, I’ve got compost bins that require equal parts nitrogen to carbon. So with all those garden clippings that I talked about before going to my banana, I can also add my shredded hamburger box into my compost. And that actually encourages the breakdown and decomposition.

So that’s one way I’m diverting waste from landfill or recycling pan and actually integrating it back into my biological system. Construction waste is actually there is a lot of construction going on around me and in a city, a lot of people will observe construction sites everywhere. I’ve I’ve lined a lot of my garden beds and even garden paths with surplus bricks from other houses that were being demolished anyway. And those bricks, as the conversation ensued with the builder, we’re going to go to landfill.

So another example of diverting something that would have become waste and sort of reframing it as a surplus material and integrating into my system as a very valuable thing. So, you know, at a table level, we’ve got things like food scraps that can be turned into soil packaging that helps to decompose the soil. And then, you know, as building and construction continues, looking at the waste products that seem to just manifest on site after a new build actually as being something you can integrate into your built environment and used in a functional way.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:42:55] I’m looking at food scraps, though. I mean, what do we do with that to make it work? Because just throwing it into a pile doesn’t always end up with the best compost. You mentioned mixing it with other things. How how do you do that? How do you make a better compost pile in the in the city?

Sam Betteridge: [00:43:14] Yeah. So for anyone who’s never started a compost pile before, it actually there is actually, you know, there’s, there’s a bit of an art form to it. I would say the general rule of thumb, if you’re looking to begin decomposing your vegetable scraps, fruit scraps or whatever is, you need to have a good ratio between the grain materials and grain. I mean, I know a banana is yellow, but that’s considered a green material because it’s closer to the living form that is the dead form, having an equal like a 5050 ratio of greens to browns and the browns or anything that’s dry that that has lived before.

So paper dried leaves some people you know, you know, some people would literally rake leaves out of a pot because it’s brown and crumbly. And you kind of know from the texture, if you get those two together and you kind of just keep layering it and also aerating it needs to be kept aerated. You can’t just let things decompose in a vacuum because if they don’t get air and it’s actually the life that’s decomposing, the matter doesn’t get air. You produce ammonia and that’s what the smell is.

So, you know, if you’re beginning the composting journey, the first thing I would think about is or I need if I’ve got a bunch of food scraps, I also need an equal pot of dry brown materials because as you alluded to, you could just throw your food scraps in a pile, but it will begin to smell it will not break down very well and will over time, if you leave it for 100 years, it will. But to really tap into the decompose decomposition process, we need to think at a chemical level, equal parts, nitrogen to carbon. And so getting that 5050 ratio right and making sure it gets aerated.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:45:02] And how long do you think it should take for you to be able to use what is broken down in the garden in a lot? Yeah.

Sam Betteridge: [00:45:09] Well, again, there’s various ways of composting and without overcomplicating the manner, if you’re there’s two ways you can think about composting. There’s coal composting and then there’s hot composting and a. Essentially you get cold composting moves to hot composting when you have a sufficient amount of mass. Right.

So on our farm, for example, we demonstrate both at the sort of garden scale, a cold compost and that’s where you feel it being at maybe like excuse me, maybe about 400 litres, but that 400 litres of mass isn’t quite enough to get the nitrogen exploding to us to a specific heat. Right. So you’re in a cold compost zone and that can take months. On my in my backyard system. I only use coal composting because it doesn’t make sense in my context to do a larger pile of hot composting.

So if you’re using a cold composting system where you haven’t got a lot of mass in a big pile for it to begin heating up, hot enough for it to break down quicker, then it will take longer. But if you convert to larger piles. So for example, on the farm, we have these giant cylinders of a thousand litres of materials like it’s a tonne. And because that is so big under all its own weight and its own, it creates a thermal mass that you wouldn’t get in a cold composting scenario.

And we actually have to monitor it with a thermometer because it can get too hot. That’s a whole other story when we talk about like microbe microbiota, population ratios, and stuff. But the one thing you want to think about if you’re considering, how long is it going to take before I can use it, is your thermal mass.

So depending on your context, as I said before, the smaller the pile of day decomposition is, and provided you get those ratios right, it’s going to take longer. You’ve got more mass. It’s going to take it’s going to be a lot quicker so quickly that you can you know, for example, coal composting can take nine months, hot composting. If you really dial in the art form of it, you can get something in. You can get like half eaten in 18 days. Well, so there’s ways of speeding and wind farms.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:47:26] I mean, I know we live in a in an environment where our back garden is really small. I mean, I think it’s like three metres by about seven metres. So it’s posted, it’s not big. But we do use a worm farm in Lyra. That’s, that’s a really effective way of creating stuff. I mean worms are pretty important to other worms.

Sam Betteridge: [00:47:45] They’re incredibly important. One thing I.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:47:47] Mean is that the sign of a healthy compost, if you can see worms in.

Sam Betteridge: [00:47:50] There, I would say there are many signs of a healthy compost. If you’ve got worms in your compost, you’re definitely on the right path. Worms. It’s funny because worms actually considered animals and most people who are worm farming can actually consider themselves an animal farmer because you’re farming worms.

But when farms are a fantastic example of how you can redevelop waste into a meaningful system and create your own fertiliser, career, and soil and provide habitat for something that we’ve just agreed on as being a very beneficial animal to include in a biological system. Relatively easy to do, doesn’t smell as much because you’ve got the animal population in there helping to break it down.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:48:32] In a very small space. I’m a very small space. I mean, the worm farm we have would be why? Don’t know. What’s that? A metre wide by a half a metre. Made it a rectangle. Yeah. It’s a rectangle of about a metre by, by 500 and, and there are three trays and we just keep rotating them around. So yeah. You know that’s how we deal with almost all of our food waste. Yeah. Although, although meats are another one and I know you’re composting with meat.

Sam Betteridge: [00:48:58] Yeah, well, you can. I mean, a common misconception is that meat cannot be composted. Right? And I would say that is true at the beginning of a decomposition process because it actually, you know, what breaks scraps down is the life in that soil, the life in those systems. You know, you’ve got more life than ever existed in a crumble of soil in your hand.

Well, a compost bin is a biome in its own right that only breaks down through bazillions of microbes, biota eating away and breaking it down through various chemical processes. So mate does take a longer time to break down. But if you develop your compost biome to a point where it’s got a healthy population of microbiota, then it can then it then holds the capacity to break me down.

So it’s just about getting the timing right and understanding where your biome is in terms of its life cycle. You wouldn’t do it in the beginning because it’s going to stink. You don’t have the right amount of population or animals to help break it down once it gets about the whole way full. And maybe that system has been well looked after for about two months. You can throw anything in there.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:50:10] Hmm. Hmm. Yeah. You mentioned worms being, you know, animal farming, but chickens are another one. And I know. Well, they’re an incredible creature.

Sam Betteridge: [00:50:20] They are.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:50:20] They are. They’re of. Easily. I mean, that, you know, they’d be shitting everywhere and. And what is dynamic lifter is exactly that. But the other two, they wreck the garden as well. What’s the story with chickens? I know you are exploring this yourself.

Sam Betteridge: [00:50:37] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve been fluctuating for the past couple of years between getting quails or chickens. And again, that’s, um. That’s because of my context, right? I don’t necessarily have a lot of space you have to think about, like, you know, for every chicken you want to, to be, like, respectful to the animal, which is something I’m very interested in. You want to make sure they’ve got sufficient space to roam because I don’t want to have caged also in the room.

So what that means is, you know, I can only have a certain amount of chickens because they’re a certain amount of size. And that’s the ethical partnership that I’m interested in partaking with that animal. Whereas with a quail, because there’s lots more, you can have more of it, but then there’s a trade off and it’s a whole thing. But the chicken or any poultry is an amazing creatures. There’s a reason why the permaculture zone glass kind of pulls the chicken out and uses as this prime example of a soil builder. Because, again, coming back to agriculture, it’s soil building, right?

And not only does it the chicken give you eggs and perhaps mate at some stage or feathers as a as a as a fibre, it also is something that you can employ to apply self regulation. So we’re talking about a natural pattern run. The chickens have evolved their own natural patterns. What do they do? They eat the food scraps on the floor and they scratch. What do we do when we’re building soil? We add food scraps and we aerate and move it.

So the chicken is like it’s a composter. So, you know, a chicken can be employed in a functioning system on a backyard scale for multiple reasons, and hence then being identified as such an amazing, amazing creature. And also, you know, if your soil is healthy, you’re providing food for it. Mm hmm. Because you’ve invited those worms in that we talked about. There’s multiple bugs coming through the biodiverse plantings and the food scraps. So you have to be careful to answer the second part of that question.

If you’re going to manage them in environment, there are you know, you may have to exclude certain areas of your garden or if you do what I do, you employ things like agro forestry and, you know, planting species of plants that grow high that they can’t get to. And they were allowed to forage around below and actually create soil and benefit the soil below in situ. There’s various ways of managing, but it all depends on your own context.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:53:00] Hmm. You’ve mentioned that word before. Context. And I know we’ve talked about this because when I had the pleasure privilege of interviewing Allan Savoury. Yes. He talks about the holistic context.

Sam Betteridge: [00:53:14] Yeah. It took me many years to really realise that it’s everything.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:53:19] Yes.

Sam Betteridge: [00:53:20] As Alan Savory says is everything. Because no one parcel of land is the same. No one humans interaction is the same as someone else’s interaction. With their environment. With the built environment. With the biological environment. Context is king. Hmm. If. If we’re engaging in good design, you need to move from patterns to details. Right.

Anyone can grab from a goody bag of things like, Oh, this is awesome. I want that. I really. I want a chicken tractor, which is something that you can employ in your backyard. But if it doesn’t make sense in your context, then you’ve just included something into your system that makes the design less functional because you’ve now got all these other challenges and problems to deal with.

So, you know, I mention context all the time now because I’ve realised after embarking on my design journey in my own space that, you know, I can jump on the Internet, go, Oh my God, that’s so cool, that’s so exciting. And then I build it into, Oh, oh, that doesn’t work here. That doesn’t fit my context.

So it’s through that process of observing, interacting, where you start to develop the data that helps you determine what your context is. Then you move from a pattern to a detail instead of from a detail to a pattern. You’ve got to figure out how you’re interacting with the space first before you just slap anything in.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:54:43] The context to I like fun. It’s interesting we hear so much about carbon sequestration and and climate change and all this in a holistic context to me in this space would be, well, what can I, as an individual do? Well, I guess I can plant something because from high school, chemistry, photosynthesis, I think Elon Musk was offering $100 million to anybody that could come up with a way of carbon sequestering stuff.

Sam Betteridge: [00:55:12] Yeah. He put something out like that. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [00:55:15] Whereas we all learnt about that in high school. Yeah. First-year high school was photosynthesis. You know, carbon dioxide and water taken up by plants puts carbon in the soil and releases oxygen. So we’ve just got 100. Yeah. We should write to him and say we probably would’ve cracked it.

Sam Betteridge: [00:55:34] Yeah, it’s interesting because, you know, and this is a whole side conversation, but I know his brother is a regenerative agricultural star.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:55:41] Right?

Sam Betteridge: [00:55:42] Right. So, you know, I’ve I’ve got an interesting view on Elon. I think Elon has many, many good ideas for our civilisation. And I think, you know, his context is he’s the tech guy. That’s his context. Right. And perhaps like you and I, he feels a particular level of urgency that he has. Either doesn’t think we’re going to get there quick enough if we just use high school science. Yeah. So I’m going to I’m going to give him that, you know, and say, look, okay, Elon’s maybe a little bit. He hasn’t really thought about how embarrassingly simple it could be, which I think you’re right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:56:18] But but to the point, I mean, I Elon’s got Elon, but, but to the point of a person listening to this, the holistic context would be, well, I want to do something about climate change. Maybe I should plant something.

Sam Betteridge: [00:56:30] Yeah, there’s.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:56:31] A holistic context.

Sam Betteridge: [00:56:32] And embarrassingly simple to do. You know, trees are the answer.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:56:38] Hmm.

Sam Betteridge: [00:56:39] And they will always be the answer when we’re talking about a changing climate. They regulate climate. They decide how climates move and shift that, which is the same as what regulation means. But they build the soil, they provide life. They literally exudate the thing that we take in every second, every breath. Mm hmm. That’s just basic logic, as far as I’m concerned.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:57:04] And I think we touched on another holistic context, and that was I need to be I need my children to understand what food actually is. It’s more than just a packet in a in a supermarket. So with those two holistic context, I want to do something about climate change. I am going to plant something. I want to be more. Acted with what food actually is and we were in ag month urban ag and someone’s listening to this going, I want to this is it. I definitely want to engage. Let’s finish up by giving somebody a couple of hints, maybe two, three or four hints about, okay, here’s how you get going.

Sam Betteridge: [00:57:45] Yeah, well, how you get going is, funnily enough, I think it begins with waste. It’s understanding that your waste goes to places where it’s not beneficial. So like we talked about food scraps, let’s start getting people to think about how does that break down? Because it’s, you know, when that breaks down in an unfavourable manner, that’s when you get excesses of gases that we don’t want up there. Right.

So getting people to think about where their waste goes is a great first place. I would suggest if you’re really considering about how you can have affect on the climate, not allowing things to be aerated means methane is produced and then there’s excess. So think about how you breaking your waist down. And then on another level, I think it’s worth just thinking about, you know, as simple as it sounds, you’ve got to think about what is the food that I’m eating, right? And then when you start thinking, what is that food is like, okay, is that grown? Is that developed? Is there a process?

And I would suggest that one of the greatest ways to improve your own health is to start to understand what it is you’re eating. And that sounds very cliche, but it’s in that’s really simple as it is. And when you start to put your your lens in that realm, it’s like, okay, what is this that I’m eating? Where does it come from? Then you start to encapsulate two things. You start thinking about your health because you’re eating it, and then you go, What? How is that grown? Where’s that coming from?

And then a whole other world of, you know, supply chain and production methods is then opened up to you as well. And as I said at the beginning of this, like, it’s a journey and I love that this is a bit of a bit of a tagline for you and this podcast. It’s a journey. Don’t expect to have all the answers straight away. Understand that, you know, by opening one door and spending some time to observe and interact, what’s beyond that door will lead you down other paths that you will get to, you can get to. But it’s a step-by-step journey.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:59:51] Hmm. Sam, thank you so much for joining us today. We will, of course, have links to Pocket City Farm, which is just an incredible initiative, and Urban Agriculture Month. Well, this is one way of getting people engaged with it. Thank you so much.

Sam Betteridge: [01:00:05] No worries. Thanks for having me around.

Dr. Ron Ehrlich: [01:00:06] Well, we will, of course, have links to Pocket City Farm, but there is so much in that about holistic context if you are looking for a reason to do things. And I think climate change and health are two pretty compelling ones. And you have the influence, the ability to make choices.

We referenced the work of Charlie Massey, who I’ve had as a guest on the podcast. He wrote that book, The Coal of the Red Warbler, and he identified five cycles that are central to regenerative agriculture. The first a solar cycle. The fact that photosynthesis is a great way of using the sun. The second is the water cycle. Water has the ability to run off of property very quickly, particularly if there is not much organic matter.

However, if there’s organic matter within the soil, it will penetrate the first inch or two within 10 to 30 seconds. If there is no organic matter in the soil, it can take 10 to 20 minutes and in the process, people lose soil and water. So the water cycles important, the soil mineral cycle is another one. Sam, We talked about the amount of microbes and mycorrhizal fungi that are rosin within the soil and they are an essential part of the exchange which goes on between soil and plant and ultimately us and provides us with the nutrient nutrient dense diet we need.

The fourth is biodiversity, and the more diverse that more biodiversity is, the healthier we all are. And that’s true of the gut microbiome. It’s true of the oral microbiome, it’s true of the soil microbiome. The more diverse, the more bio and in fact, of nature in general, the more biodiversity there is, the healthier that gut, mouth, soil, or planet is. So there’s an important lesson there to learn.

And the final cycle, which is arguably the most important cycle, is the human social cycle. Because without you and I making those right decisions in a holistic context, then things are going to go backwards. And I liked Sam’s reference to Utopia and through Topia. And that’s what this podcast is all about, helping you achieve Utopia through a constructive and holistic through Topia. I hope this finds you well. Until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.



This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. This content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.