Check out the sustainability stars in Wagga Wagga and the Riverina

Poppy Johnston

Sue Salmon

If you’re dreaming of going regional, to visit or even live, the Riverina region in NSW, near the Victorian border, deserves your consideration. There’s an emerging appetite for sustainability in the community, with businesses trying hard to do their bit. 

On a farm near Wagga Wagga, NSW, part of the Riverina region, former environmental campaigner Sue Salmon has been growing vegetables on her family’s farm that she’s returned to after many years in Sydney. Some of her more exotic and heritage strains are finding their way to the tables of new restaurants in town such as Meccanico and Pastorale that serve a keen and growing patronage.

Sue is keen to stress that her enterprise is “only very tiny”, boutique in the extreme, but it’s a start. It’s a contribution that helps reduce food miles and puts fresher, seasonal and often unusual produce on her neighbours’ plates. And it’s part of a growing ecosystem in the Riverina of small start up businesses, each exploring a variety of sustainable, locally based and resilient alternatives to food and other goods and services that leave industrialised mass production way behind.

And by all accounts the businesses are loving it and finding a niche. Certainly enough to keep most of them determined to stay in the game.

NSW’s Riverina region is Wiradjuri country and extends from the north-west of the Snowy Mountains right through to the Murrumbidgee River catchment area.

Ben Holt from Erin’s Earth

It’s probably not where you’d expect to find an emerging green business movement. The region’s economic backbone is firmly primary industries, mainly agriculture and forestry, but the Wagga Wagga hospital (the largest in the region) and the army base at Kapooka also generate a fair share of town-based jobs.

“If I had to encapsulate it in one word, I’d say the appetite for sustainability in the region is ‘gaining’,” says local environmental educator Ben Holt.

Ben is an education officer at ErinEarth, a local community organisation and from its half hectare native garden base in the town of Wagga Wagga, or Wagga as it’s more often called, it spreads the sustainability message through school visits, social media and educating people about how to improve their quality of life while getting more in touch with natural systems and saving money at the same time.

The job isn’t as hard as it might have been 10 years ago. Ben tells The Green List that environmental literacy is on the rise everywhere, with the latest ABC Australia Talks survey revealing most people think the government is failing us on climate change, no matter what their political persuasion.

Regional areas like Wagga might be lagging the big cities a bit, but catching up fast.

A serious breakthrough, he says, is the Wagga Wagga City Council’s recent commitment to net zero targets. Locals say it was quite a contentious process, but in the end they settled on a 2040 net zero target for its own activities, such as council owned buildings, and they’ve got a broader target by 2050.

For the Riverina the big four sources of emission are agriculture, energy, transport and waste. Buildings, and the energy they gobble up, are another major source of greenhouse gasses.

But here too there’s change starting to seed and take hold.

Sewell Design, for instance, now has its own Passive House certified architect, Building designer Anthony Santini has just skilled up in this ultra efficient system for

Glenn Sewell, Director at Sewell Design

housing that originated in Germany. In a nutshell it means extremely low energy use and hugely comfortable interiors in winter and summer alike, that’s also pretty well sound proof and pollution free.

The team is happy to be already working on two Passive House projects in the area. One of the clients – a big fan of Passive House – wants to rent the finished place out on Airbnb so that anyone can get a first hand taste of what it’s like to live in this idea of ultimate comfort.

Director at Sewell Design, Glenn Sewell, notes that while the practice does get the odd client like her, the vast majority still put sustainability down the list of considerations after price and aesthetics. This includes, but is not limited to, his volume builder clients, which build the vast majority of homes in the region.

“This is where the market is.”

People love their solar

But with the big appetite for solar energy which is growing irrespective of attachment to wider sustainability, it’s reasonably easy to make an impact. Sewell likes to insert passive

solar design as standard, which means getting the orientation right to take full advantage of sun angles and cross breezes.

Solar is something all Australians love if you look at the numbers that say one in four Australian households now have solar on their roof – and the Riverina is no exception. One local supplier is SolarWise Wagga whose managing director Alex Manley says the local market is quite competitive for solar.

Alex, who started his business a decade ago, say people were initially attracted to solar because of the generous feed on tariffs that allowed them to make money selling renewable energy back to the grid. But now with much lower prices the technology has now matured to the point that it no longer needs feed in tariffs to stack up financially, and that’s kept a steady stream of customers coming though his doors.

Most – businesses especially – want to keep their costs down, but there’s also the occasional renewable energy enthusiast who just loves the technology in its own right.

man giving talk on solar to children

SolarWise’s Alex Manley talking to local school children

Farmers are at the centre of the region’s sustainability story

As in many rural communities, it’s farmers who are at the centre of sustainability action.

In the Riverina you’ll find sustainable and regenerative farming champions such as Michael Gooden, an advocate of rotational grazing and produces 100 per cent grass-fed beef. He’s also a senior advisor and educator at RCS Australia, which is where you can get some training about regenerative agriculture.

There’s also Leanne Wheaton and Gordon Shaw who produce 100 per cent grass-fed beef (GrassRoots Beef) on a property located east of Holbrook.

Leanne Wheaton and Gordon Shaw from Grassroots Beef

Sheep and cropping farmer Col Harper is another of the region’s regenerative farming pioneers. On his farm in Ariah Park he uses a range of biological farming techniques to improve the quality of his soil, including the carbon content. Healthy soil leads to nutrient dense plants, he told The Green List, and much healthier animals that eat them.

He claims his flour, which he supplies to a few local restaurants, is 50-60 per cent higher in certain nutrients.

Col sells his lamb at a local farmers market, where he gets plenty of repeat business from customers who notice the incredible flavour of the meat, which he says is thanks to its high mineral content.

People tend to be sceptical when they sample his basic lamb sausage on a toothpick that he hands out at his stall. They ask what he’s added to make it so tasty. Harper can be proud to announce that there is nothing but lamb: no preservatives, no fillers.

But outside of the markets, he’s struggled: most cafes, restaurants and butchers can’t afford to charge their customers extra for a premium local product. He also says it would help if people were better educated about how ecologically-supportive farming practices can affect taste and nutritional content.

Meccanico Espresso + Wine owners Karl Hulford and Richard Moffatt

Cafes and restaurants are a good sustainability entry point

If you go to Wagga Wagga to check out the region, be sure you check out the retail and hospitality joints getting in on the action. There’s Meccanico Espresso + Wine and Pastorale by Meccanico as mentioned earlier, and The Brew café, which is doing its best to secure local produce. Store manager Emily Podmore says the café is also focused on educating customers about how to live greener lifestyles, and encourages people to bring in KeepCups and other reusable items.

And there’s Mates Gully, a family owned and operated business in the heart of Wagga. It also has a sustainable bent, serving its customers certified organic coffee, bread baked with local certified organic flour and fresh seasonal produce.