Noel Blencowe says CERES’ present day success was borne of innovation and hard work.

How an abandoned dump became a green icon

Brunswick East’s CERES Community Environment Park will celebrate its 40th anniversary this weekend

Words and pictures: Mark Phillips
Monday, March 21, 2022

220320_Noel Blencowe

How an abandoned dump became a green icon

Noel Blencowe says CERES’ present day success was borne of innovation and hard work.

How an abandoned dump became a green icon

Brunswick East’s CERES Community Environment Park will celebrate its 40th anniversary this weekend

Brunswick East’s CERES Community Environment Park will celebrate its 40th anniversary this weekend

Words and pictures:
Mark Phillips
Monday, March 21, 2022

Words and pictures:
Mark Phillips
Monday, March 21, 2022

RUSTED car bodies sticking out of the ground. Thick weeds up to knee height. Piles of concrete slabs and bluestone rocks. When the original group of community volunteers took possession of what is now CERES Community Environment Park 40 years ago this month, it was far removed from the peaceful green oasis it is today.

For hundreds of years, the Merri Creek and its banks provided food for the area’s traditional owners. In the late-18th century, what is now CERES was the site of Chinese gardens selling tomatoes, lettuce, celery and other produce to Melbourne’s fresh food markets.

But in the 20th century it was plundered as a quarry to provide the bluestone that is found in laneways and guttering in older parts of Brunswick. When the quarry closed down in the early-1970s, it became a dumping ground for hard rubbish on the edge of an industrial estate.

“When we got hold of it [in 1982], it was a very degraded site,” says Noel Blencowe, who ws present at the birth of CERES, was on of its first employees, and spent 30 years working at the park until his retirement a decade ago.

“It was a tip. There were car bodies poking up through the soil and it was covered in fennel and box thorns and one of the first things we did was get some sheep and goats to eat the weeds.”

On March 26 – the date of its annual Harvest Day festival –CERES will celebrate exactly 40 years since the signing of the first 10-year rent-free lease with the then-City of Brunswick for the four hectares site.

It will be an opportunity to reflect on CERES’ growth from those humble beginnings into one of the true gems of the inner north, a green oasis and model for urban farms around Australia, a living education centre for environmental best practice, and an experimental testing ground for new renewable energy technologies.

More than half a million people visit the site each year, and its social enterprises – which include cafes, market gardens, an organic grocery and bakery, a retail nursery, school education and vocational training programs and regular events and festivals – employ hundreds of staff and volunteers, and generate almost $20 million in income.

These three images from CERES’ early days show just how much work was needed to transform the tip into a thriving community garden. Photos courtesy of CERES Community Environment Park.

These three images from CERES’ early days show just how much work was needed to transform the tip into a thriving community garden. Photos courtesy of CERES Community Environment Park.

It took the vision and hard work of the early pioneers like Mr Blencowe to not only see the potential of an industrial wasteland, but to make it a reality.

“We were given a dump with no money on a 10-year lease and told ‘See what you can do in 10 years and if it’s something useful we will think about extending it and if not we will take if off you’,” Mr Blencowe recalls.

The founders named it the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies, or CERES for short. The name had a double meaning as Ceres was also the Roman goddess of agriculture.

They had modest ambitions to provide a space for community gardening, create work for Brunswick’s large jobless population during a deep recession, and teach local school kids about where fruit and veggies came from.

Work began to rehabilitate the site soon after the council granted the lease. The first section chosen was at what is now a meditation garden near the Lee Street entrance.

“This area here was covered in piles of concrete slabs that had been used as paving in Brunswick and piles of bluestone because it used to be a quarry,” Mr Blencowe says.

“Our first job at that first working bee was to make a circle of those slabs and put a barbecue pit in the middle. We made a big pot of soup and everyone had lunch together.”

Some of the trees planted that day are still on the site.

The organic farm and community gardens occupy more than a quarter of CERES’ present day footprint and supply its grocery store, cafes and markets.

For its first decade, CERES had few aspirations beyond developing its community gardens and hosting visits by school children. But that changed when it was plunged into crisis soon after the election of the Kennett Government in 1992, which removed all funding with just three months notice.

“We had to reinvent ourselves very quickly,” Mr Blencowe says. “It was a case of do or die.

“We called the community together to say what can we do to be more independent of government and self-sufficient?”

Out of that grew a series of social enterprises, beginning with education. Up until 1992, CERES did not charge schools for their visits. Fears that to do so would cause visitations to plummet were not realised; over the next 12 months, the number of visits had doubled and within half-a-decade, CERES was earning $1 million a year from schools. These days, more than 65,000 students and teachers visits are held each year.

Another idea that came to fruition from the crisis was the beginning of annual events and festivals, including the Kingfisher Festival, and the first CERES café was built between the gardens and the creek. This period also saw CERES branch into trialling alternative forms of energy and water conservation, along with the opening of the bike shed.

Some projects were more successful than others: a commercial worm farm never really took off, while Mr Blencowe takes pride in CERES providing Melbourne’s first kerbside recycling collection in Brunswick in the 1980s.

From $70,000 a year in government funding, within a decade CERES was earning 100 times that from its enterprises and was the second largest employer in Brunswick. It has never looked back since and in the most recent financial year its various operations generated almost $20 million in revenue and it is 95% self-funding.

From the begininng, CERES has been driven by a philosophy of how the organisation can contribute to better and more equitable social and environmental outcomes.

In practice, that philosophy is delivered through organic family practices, water recycling, and the development of the energy park at the corner of Roberts and Lee streets where CERES has been able to trial wind and solar power technologies, including a futuristic Scheffler dish and the first electric vehicle charging station in Victoria. The most recent development has been a trial of a large-scale biogas system to convert vegetable and other waste into renewable energy.

As the size of CERES’ operations grew, the organisation also began to look beyond Brunswick at ways its experiences could be used in other parts of the world dealing with more severe problems of inequality and environmental degradation than Australia.

Since the mid-2000s, Mr Blencowe has led teams of volunteers under the CERES umbrella on annual visits to India to work on social programs such as building schools.

“I think that’s the thing that pleases me most, that there’s a model there for other communities to follow and to be inspired by,” says Mr Blencowe.

For his decades of involvement at CERES, Mr Blencowe was bestowed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2014,  but he plays down his own role in the development of the park. He said the main drivers in the early days were Gil Freeman, the head of the Sydney Road Community School, Chris Ryan, a lecturer at RMIT, and Neville Stern from the Brunswick Unemployment Group.

They spent about four years developing the CERES concept until the council granted a lease for the land.

Mr Blencowe’s own involvement began in the late-1970s when, as a teacher at the Sydney Road Community School, he was invited to contribute ideas for how the vision for the park could could be used in education programs  for his students.

That led to a government funded job as an on-site educator when CERES opened to the public in 1983, but he never expected it to be such a big part of his life for four decades.

Now aged in his late-70s, he is delighted to see the connection continue when he takes his  grandchildren to visit the park.

“It’s great to see all the activity and the myriad of interesting projects that are contributing significantly to the wellbeing of people in the local area and to better solutions for climate change and other environmental impediments, and that it’s inspired a whole lot of people far and wide.

“I think that’s the thing that pleases me most, that there’s a model there for other communities to follow and to be inspired by.”

The 40th anniversary of CERES on March 26 will celebrate all of these achievements, with more than a dozen events on-site, including food stalls, Indigenous storytelling, a scarecrow making competition, a tour of the free range egg farm, and cooking workshops.

The community gardens will reopen after a major overhaul and upgrade, and the day will culminate with the four-course Merri Harvest Feast.

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