When South Coast residents were isolated during the bushfires, then again due to the COVID-19 pandemic - people's awareness of and need for local produce shifted.
Australian Community Media reached out to growers, fruit and veggie shop owners and the SAGE Farmers Market ... and found stories of resilience and aspiration.
Young couple dig into Borrowed Ground
Central Coast couple Alex Chiswell and Eliza Cannon have embarked on a journey to become small-scale farmers at Moruya.
During a summer internship at Old Mill Road BioFarm, the couple was instantly inspired. They were given an opportunity to lease a patch of land, and start their own market garden aptly Borrowed Ground.
"We are operating on leased land and given how expensive land is to buy, we don't see ourselves owning anything in the near future," Eliza said.
"Most importantly, the name is an acknowledgement that, as non-Indigenous Australians, any land we cultivate is borrowed ground; Indigenous peoples will always hold deeper knowledge, right and responsibility over it," Eliza said.
The keen couple crowdfunded to buy all the basic tools and equipment to sow their first crop. Despite COVID-19 and extreme weather, Alex and Eliza felt optimistic about their future in agriculture. The Moruya scene was exactly what they wanted.
"We find a lot of meaning and purpose in this work and we really want to get into it," Alex said.
"We are seeing a shift in people's mentalities about prioritising the local food economy," Eliza said.
We are seeing a shift in people's mentalities about prioritising the local food economyEliza Cannon - Borrowed Ground
"People also have a lot more time on their hands and are rediscovering things like cooking and trying to get the freshest ingredients," Alex added.
Looking ahead, Alex and Eliza hoped the community continued to make "ethical choices" and supported growers.
"There are major benefits," Eliza said.
"You're interacting with the person who has grown the food; you can potentially visit the farm and pick it up from there. The flavour of the vegetables grown organically and regeneratively - there's no real comparison."
"You're also giving someone a wage to do something they really enjoy, which is then circulated back through the community; It's a plus for everyone," Alex said.
Once their crops are ready for harvest, Borrowed Ground will have a weekly farm-gate stand and may deliver. They'll also sell at Moruya's SAGE Farmers Market.
COVID-19 grows custom for Southlands Fruit and Veg
For seven years, Katie Painter and Steve 'Spud Boy' Hamer grew their business to cater for the shire.
From a single van to two trucks today, Southlands Fruit and Veg sprouted into a wholesaler to cafes, retirement villages, Moruya TAFE and more.
Last year, fresh produce prices were through the roof due to drought, then bushfires, leaving Katie and Steve apprehensive about investing.
However, there has been a high demand for local food and the future looks promising. Steve and Katie said consumer behaviour turned to shopping local - they hoped that would stick.
"We hope it's a permanent decision," Katie said.
"It gives farmers the confidence that there's the capacity to sell their food and then further their business or start investing," Steve added.
Steve said the community slowly started to get back to a normal routine after the bushfires, and everyone was "hanging out for that Easter trade".
Then came COVID-19. Steve felt for the shire's cafes, restaurants and Moruya TAFE who cancelled orders during lockdown. Southlands lost 70 per cent of their wholesale - 45 per cent of the business.
However, in-store purchases sky-rocketed: "The shop was getting belted; the volume was two-to-three times normal - it was insane!" Steve said.
Katie created a website to keep up with demand and offer safer online sales.
Producing opportunities for growers
At the start of the lockdown, Katie and Steve took a huge leap and opened a store at Narooma.
It was a bold move, but they wanted to give farmers in the shire south an outlet. They saw an opportunity and took it.
Katie said the previous fruit and veg shop tired at the 30 year mark: "We have been given the chance to do it justice." She said Narooma was grateful: "People have thanked us for opening, the local support has been amazing."
About 15 "backyarders" sell produce to the Southlands stores.
"We sell their chillies, cheese, anything really - we don't say no," Katie said.
"It's important to keep the money in the area."
By supporting local growers, Katie estimated $800,000 per year was pumped back into the economy. Katie said life would be logistically easier without dealing with local growers, but "their stuff is amazing".
"It's nutrient rich food," she said.
"The stuff that comes to us was picked that morning."
Lettuce turnip the beet after bushfires and challenging times
On New Year's Eve, bushfires cut-off the coast and food was quickly running out.
There were no truck deliveries as fire cut the highways.
"Everywhere was running out of food, and we had to prioritise the retirement village," Steve said.
The line out of Woolworths was something never seen before. People were stocking up, not knowing how long they would be isolated.
On New Year's Day, Southlands was open but without power for two and a half days.
Steve said mothers with small children were coming into the shop grateful to grab basic supplies.
A trip to town was a risk, as the bushfires surrounded Moruya and roads closed everywhere. No one knew when the power would return.
Steve said "Brett O'Connor was a lifesaver" after he managed to deliver produce via circuitous route.
"Compared to supermarkets, our supply chain is quicker," Steve said.
"We can chop and change suppliers and easily source things."
However, Steve said the demand fluctuated.
"It has been hard to manage orders with changes in buyers' behaviour," he said.
"It's inconsistent, so we make orders twice a week."
Steve said if people were more consistent in shopping local, it would improve the supply chain and availability of produce.
"It's taken a disaster and then a pandemic for people to change their habit," he said.
"We don't know if those habits will change or stick."
Basket not short of fruit at Moruya's SAGE Farmers Market
Moruya's SAGE Farmers Market has bolstered local produce, supported growers and the local economy.
Stallholder numbers were down during bushfires when growers stayed home to protect their property, but the markets never closed.
SAGE started 10 years ago and chairman Stuart Whitelaw said it continued to rebuild the local food system, even through a pandemic.
Amid the COVID craze at supermarkets, Mr Whitelaw said the Australian Farmers' Markets Association lobbied the government to reclassify farmers markets as an "essential service."
It was big news for SAGE, meaning the markets could stay open in the lockdown.
Instead of being considered a "bit of a joke", and pretentious by some, Mr Whitelaw said the perception changed after farmers markets were classified as essential.
Regional areas are realising they need to take responsibility as much as they can for some of their basicsStuart Whitelaw - SAGE
He said people became conscious of the supply chain.
"People are more aware of how it works and how fragile it is," he said.
"Regional areas are realising they need to take responsibility as much as they can for some of their basics."
Mr Whitelaw said many did their weekly shopping at the market and it had created "a dozen" full time jobs and was "building more".
"By shopping there, people are also making a difference to people's lives - the growers," he said.
Throughout the pandemic, the markets continue to operate on Tuesday afternoons - but much differently.
Mr Whitelaw said social distancing was tricky, but market managers did their best to situate stalls safely.
"Social distancing did pose challenges," he said.
"A line of 30 people, 1.5 metres apart - the line went back 40 metres."
Mr Whitelaw said there was no "market atmosphere", but people appreciated the setup and were more relaxed.
Customers who wanted to totally avoid contact, took to SAGE's e-market.
Before COVID-19, the e-market was close to crumbling as 10 orders per week were not enough to cover costs.
"We were thinking of shutting it down after Easter, but when coronavirus struck - our biggest week has been 56 orders," he said.
Foot-traffic at Moruya's Riverside Park grew also.
Mr Whitelaw said new customers had given positive feedback.
"They find the food is so fresh and that their wastage is minimal," he said.
"What you see at the stalls was generally in the ground that morning - it's bloody fresh!"