Situated on the banks of Australia’s longest river lies Tocumwal, a small town in the southern Riverina region of New South Wales, near the Victorian border.
For the past seven years Tocumwal has been home to arts, music and culture festival ‘Strawberry Fields’, which is soon to celebrate turning 10 this coming November.
Speaking with Strawberry Fields festival director Tara Benney and members of the local Tocumwal community, it’s pretty evident that festivals and regional communities are able to partner together, benefiting one another.
Benney has been involved with the festival since day one and said the birth of Strawberry Fields ‘kinda just happened’.
“A small festival we used to go to at the beginning of summer got cancelled so we decided to have a camp out with our friends and then the plans became more elaborate,” she said.
“Being young and idealistic, our plans got bigger and bigger and that first year we had about 1000 people come out and it went from there.
“This will be the eighth year it will be held in Tocumwal and from a pure location perspective it’s hard to beat the Murray River – it’s pretty special, it’s pretty enchanting.”
Benney said for the first few years, most of the Tocumwal community were unaware that a camping festival was taking place, buried in the wildlands.
“We kind of flew under the radar, but as it grew we became more engaged (with the community), we were spending more time there and local people started coming to the festival,” she said.
“You could say our relationship has marinated over the last seven years – we feel like it’s a second home.”
As Strawberry Fields grew in size and popularity, Benney said the festival worked more with the community and started funding local causes and groups.
“A couple of years ago we started a community grants program,” she said.
“It started out small but now we’ve finished our last round of funding – this year we had $35,000 available and gave grants to 10 different groups.”
“We’ve been able to fund a lot of people but we also work with a lot of local businesses to make the festival happen.
“Festivals have a huge opportunity to positively impact rural communities – it’s not just about commerce, it’s also about community.”
“We don’t just think about it in terms of the local grocery store, bottle-o or servo doing better business.
Festivals have a huge opportunity to positively impact rural communities – it’s not just about commerce it’s also about community
“We should and we can look to fund not-for-profit and look to see how we can do more youth engagement, whether it’s half price tickets for locals or the opportunity to run a free market stall at the festival.
“From our perspective, no matter what kind of person you are living in a rural community, you should be able to see some benefit – it shouldn’t just be this noisy thing that causes traffic that’s down the road from you.”
Tocumwal Foreshore and Community Development Committee president and district councillor Ross Bodey said events like Strawberry Fields boost exposure in the market place, inject cash into the town and increase tourism.
“This is quite a bonus especially in a year where the growing impact of the drought is looming as a definite damper on our business community,” Bodey said.
“There is only positive feedback from our community – with the odd exception of a few grizzlers.”
Bodey said there would be much more cooperation between the festival and the community, with the Tocumwal Chamber of Commerce running one of the food outlets at the event.
“Strawberry Fields will also be providing some entertainment in Tocumwal prior to the event,” he said.
There is only positive feedback from our community – with the odd exception of a few grizzlers
“Last year Strawberry Fields invited locals to an onsite BBQ prior to opening and about 300 of our locals attended and were all impressed with the facilities of support for patrons.
“This move succeeded in having 300 more ambassadors on the side of Strawberry Fields – it really was a coup!”
Bodey explained the festival site is always left spotless after the three day event and Strawberry Fields maintains a level of environmental responsibility year after year.
But with the recent boom of camping festivals, Strawberry Fields organiser Tara Benney said ‘leaving no trace’ is only the bare minimum.
“Expecting ‘leave no trace’ isn’t going to cut it anymore – we need to aim for bringing less and consuming less,” she said.
“There’s a difference between clean and green.”
To truly understand Strawberry Fields, one must P-A-R-T-I-C-I-P-A-T-E.
“Be a participant not just a spectator,” Benney said.
“We push creativity, we encourage people to be creative, not only to consume creativity.
“What can you bring to the table that’s fun?”
Bodey said there was a fascination with many of the ‘alternative’ people that come into the town for Strawberry Fields.
Benney said the festival’s mission is for people to be the super human version of themselves, not only at the festival but in their everyday lives.
“A lot of people come to the festival when they are young and they see others participating in a unique and authentic way that seems fun and they realise this is a way of being they want to partake in.
“We don’t care about who you are when you get there, we are more interested in who you are when you leave.”