A brave new world—againHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 3 » The goods » A brave new world—again
With its thriving artistic scene and historic river, Whanganui has always had a coolness about it. Now it’s become a shining example of sustainability as well. Francesca Price suspects former resident James K Baxter would be impressed
It’s a Saturday morning at the end of July, and around 2°C in Whanganui. But the market, overlooking its famous river, is buzzing. At least 100 traders have braved the cold to make their way from further upstream and in-country to sell their produce and wares to the urban dwellers and tourists like me. This is what a good market should be about: real people selling real food.
A man from Ranana is offering food from a hangi he laid down last night. The nuns from the convent at Jerusalem have their jams and preserves on display. Another woman, who has just jacked in the job for a self-sufficient lifestyle, has honey and honey-based salves for sale.
An older lady stops to tell me how excited she is to have bought the last Monty’s Surprise seedling. The apple variety, now famous for its anti-cancer properties, is in high demand in Whanganui, where much of the research was carried out. I am slightly unnerved by her friendliness but I guess this is how good old-fashioned communities operate: you talk to the people you shop alongside.
Presiding over it all is Annette Main, who is responsible for driving this weekly event. She sells a variety of home-made produce too, including amazing muesli I get to sample later when staying at one of the reclaimed wooden cottages further upstream. She and some other locals set up the market three years ago with the aim of getting local produce back into the Whanganui diet.
“At the time, the supermarkets wouldn’t stock local food and many of the producers were struggling,” Annette says. “The market brought out the apple growers and the veggie growers as well as the people who were trying to get new ideas off the ground. It was a chance to showcase what Whanganui people were doing and capable of doing.”
You can, of course, use cash to buy produce here. But you can also use REBS (River Exchange and Barter System), an alternative currency established to move Whanganuians towards a more self-reliant future. A similar scheme was introduced in Totnes in Devon as part of the Transition Towns movement a few years ago. Now Totnes pounds will buy you everything from engagement rings to pints in the local pub. I use my REBS to buy dinner from the other traders. They, in turn, will use them to buy from each other and from any business that supports the scheme. Hence, the local economy benefits.
The day I’m in town the new Environment Centre is having its official opening. This is the brainchild of former Aucklander Laurence Boomert, who moved his family to Whanganui three years ago with the dream of a sustainable life in a more affordable part of the country. The new centre acts as a meeting point for various community projects as well as providing information on everything from worm farming to cloth nappies. There are already various waste disposal and alternative energy systems on display, while a library of magazines and books about all things green has at least half-a-dozen people thumbing through its pages.
Already popular at the centre is its Green Bike Scheme, which makes donated bikes roadworthy, then lends them for a small fee. There is a food group that encourages locals to establish backyard veggie gardens, and a seed savers network, which asks gardeners to save seeds from plants that perform particularly well, so they can establish a local seed bank. A parent network organises eco-outings for kids, and a weekly meditation group serves those with a more spiritual bent. In all, it’s an inspiring display of community togetherness.
I have to admit, I have always had a soft spot for Whanganui, being dispatched there fresh out of journalism school to work at the radio station 20 years ago. The locals were very friendly and forgiving as I learned the ropes, and I spent my weekends driving up the river, discovering the smaller inland towns.
Whanganui, I realised, is real pioneer country. In years gone by it was sheer necessity that made the people here self-reliant and inventive. Today, in the face of new challenges, that pioneer spirit has returned and is helping turn Whanganui into a model of a truly sustainable town. We wish it well.