Christian Hampson has got a few things on the boil. In three short years, since leaving NSW National Parks to co-found Indigenous start-up Yerrabingin, he’s been busy designing a couple of rooftop gardens for major global banks to working with the likes of Kylie Kwong and Maggie Beer. But it’s the South Eveleigh Native Rooftop Farm, an experimental hub growing over 2,000 species of edible native plants and 30 bush foods, that has perhaps garnered the most attention—here and abroad. The recent phenomenon of urban rooftop farms is a global one. As for one growing only natives? It’s the first of its kind in Australia. 

With NAIDOC Week upon us, we caught up with the Woiwurrung and Maneroo man during lockdown to chat caring for Country, the future of native foods (hint: it’s Indigenous-owned), and a Wildflower native sour beer collab in the making. Tips on cooking with paperbark and planting a native garden of your own, also incoming...

 

Christian, what’s happening in your world?

I’m currently holed up down near Picton. It was my 50th yesterday, so super duper fun...

Ah, happy birthday! I take it the original plans are on hold?

Yep. We were supposed to be celebrating with 100 people down at the Bargo farm, but not to worry. I’m sure there are lots of people in a similar position, and there’s no harm in moving it to next year. 51 is the new 50, anyway!

You’ve always worked with the land in some way, from your 20 years as a Senior Cultural Heritage Manager with NSW National Parks to co-founding Yerrabingin. How did you end up on that path?

I was very lucky through my family to learn about our cultural heritage. As a teenager, we would camp with Uncles and Aunties and learn about reading the landscape. I remember one day, an Old Uncle asked us to watch the ants. That night around the fire, he asked me, "So what was malian (wedgetail eagle) your ngali (meat or totem) doing today?” I of course was very confused, as I’d just spent the day watching Djung the Ant.

He went on to explain, when the shadow of Malian is around, all the small lizards that normally prey on the ants go into hiding, meaning the ants are safe to come out and forage. This interdependence, relationship and balance within the ecology is what he wanted us to learn—that they were an extremely important part of the ecosystem, and our kin, and should not be harmed. I’ve always taken that lesson with me.

The South Eveleigh Native Rooftop Farm is the first of its kind in Australia, which you’ve spoken of as an experimental hub. What’ve you discovered up there so far?

The initial idea was all about exploring urban food production. We wanted to get as many native species as was practical growing up on a rooftop to contribute to this incredible biodiversity in the middle of Sydney.  Some of the plants come from the desert, some come from temperate areas. 

The great discovery was that, by employing a permaculture approach, lots of species that even we thought wouldn’t grow up there ended up thriving. As you said, it was a bit of a first, a prototype so to speak, and I guess that was the beauty of it. It proved it’s possible, and in the future, I’d love to see 100 of them on rooftops all over Sydney. How good would it be if chefs could one day go up to an urban rooftop garden near their restaurant to forage a basket of food to serve that night?

Speaking of chefs, that rooftop project attracted a few big names, such as Kylie Kwong and Maggie Beer. What’s it been like working with these well-known chefs?

It’s been great. We worked with Kylie on a few bushfood projects through the rooftop garden. More recently, I’ve been doing some interesting stuff with Maggie Beer, looking at how people in aged care can have access to healthy, affordable, tasty food. She’s long been a champion of bush foods and actually told me her restaurant in the Barossa was the second to begin serving kangaroo years ago. 

We’ve been introducing native bush foods to her initiative, particularly teaching people in aged care how to grow and prepare plants that come from the area they’re living in. It’s great for anyone to learn, but particularly for older Indigenous people to be able to connect and share their own knowledge with others.

You're also collaborating on a native sour with Wildflower Beer, right?

That’s right. Native raspberries are my favourite, as they grew in the country my grandparents come from up around the Snowy Mountains. Native raspberries are quite beautiful, almost jewel-like, and much more tart than the regular ones you’ll find in your local supermarket. The collab with my friends at Wildflower actually came about through us testing them out on our 30-acre farm in Bargo, southwest of Sydney. Currently, no one’s really producing them at scale, and Wildflower has been super open to experimenting with us.  

Can we expect to get our hands on some soon…? 👀

It’s still in the early stages. But maybe sometime in the next year...

The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week is ‘Healing Country.’ What does Country mean, beyond a marker of physical place?

As First Nations people, we see ourselves as being a part of the land. That responsibility to sustain Country is a system of reciprocity and care for future generations: if we sustain the land, we are sustained by it for generations to come. That said, in First Nations cultures, the key is we're not one homogenous group and there is no homogenous way of doing things—there is, instead, a complex web of knowledge that has been maintained and passed down through our Songlines, from one generation to the next. Look at the land here in Australia. It’s incredibly diverse, from snow-capped mountains to rainforests and deserts, and that’s all reflected in our complex systems of caring for Country.

As someone who lives and breathes it, what’s the current state of the bush foods industry right now?

At present, only around 2-3% of native food businesses in Australia are Indigenous-owned. So, how does that mature into a space where we get to a third of the market under Indigenous ownership? At Yerrabingin, we’ve been designing around this question. If we could empower Aboriginal communities that own land to create cultural and economic value through growing native foods—particularly in regional and remote communities—the social benefits would be massive. For the future, First Nations ownership is key.

You’ve got a bit going on and a few ideas on the boil. What’s next for Yerrabingin?

It’s certainly pretty crazy at the moment, in the best kind of way. Designwise, we’re working on everything from a rooftop garden for Macquarie Bank to a public housing project in Collingwood, Victoria. Beyond that, our attention is really turning to the farm in Bargo. We’re trying to take what we’ve learned on the South Eveleigh rooftop and scale that up from 500 square-metres to a 30-acre farm. So! That’s probably where we’re going from here.

QUICK 5

For those at home wanting to plant their own bush food garden—where to begin?

The key with natives is to always, first, think about where you live. If you’re living on Gadigal/inner-Sydney, you can reach out to your local Indigenous-owned native nurseries. IndigiGrow in La Perouse is a good place to start.

Top 5 plants to grow on Gadigal:

🌿 Anise myrtle and lemon myrtle.

🌿 Saltbushes are great close to the coast, but you can also keep them super flavourful with salt water. 

🌿 Seaberry saltbush is a bit like a succulent and great for garnishes or salads.

🌿 Midyim berries, which are kind of like a delicate, tiny blueberry.

🌿 Warrigal greens are like a native spinach and can be foraged all over coastal landscapes in Sydney. You’ll generally want to blanch or cook these before eating.

Your favourite ingredient to cook with right now:

Strawberry gum’s an interesting one. As a kid, I used to chew on it like it was gum, and it’s great for all kinds of desserts and cocktail syrups. Another great trick is wrapping your fish in paperbark and cooking it over an open fire or even on your barbie. Lemon myrtle syrup in a margarita is also on high rotation.

Your reading list:

Design: Building On Country by Alison Page

Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly

We’re also working on a book project over the next 12 months!

Advice to someone wanting to connect to Indigenous cultures in their area:

It’s a personal thing, I think. If you head to Welcome To Country, there are plenty of opportunities to access Indigenous tours in your local area. There’s a joke that we’re the most consulted group in Australia and the least listened to, so it’s always being mindful about that and going in with good, honest intentions and an open mind.

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