When we visited Green Connect‘s farm, I left with one of those big dumb grins on my face. The kind where you can feel every part of your body smiling too, and where you feel a strong, reassuring proudness to be human. Of course, the farm itself was awesome. Different rows of perfectly ordered chaos reached up to the sun, all swaying yoga poses. Handmade signs lovingly marked different plots (the farm grows over 35 different types of veggies alone). But what’s truly remarkable is that this farm is now also a life-changing space for young people and refugees in Wollongong.
Green Connect’s CSA-style veggie boxes don’t just provide jobs in an area where unemployment has been a major issue. They also provide a pathway to a sense of possibility, higher purpose and connection to a new home. I remember one of the guys on the farm that day proudly telling me how his friends were working at McDonalds, but really, as a farmer he was the one feeding people. Good food, at that. He rattled off the names of various veggies and tomato vines, and you could tell – this wasn’t just any after school job.
Managing the farm clearly isn’t just a job to Callum Champagne, either. We asked Callum a bit about how he turned a neglected space into a flourishing new home for a community growing good, fair food.
Your Farm is obviously pretty different compared to most Australian farms! Can you tell us a bit about your model?
The farm is part of a larger social enterprise called Green Connect. Green Connect is set up to create jobs and employment pathways for young people and former refugees within the Illawarra, and we create these opportunities in sustainable industries. We work in waste recovery and diversion, ethical labour hire, and growing and selling fair food – which is my job as Green Connect Farm manager.
Physically, the site itself is quite unlike any farm in the country. It’s 12 acres of steep, formerly neglected scrubland. The piece of land belongs to the Dharawal nation of south east NSW – and forms part of a valley that was once covered by rainforest. Since European arrival, the valley has been deforested, and when heavy industry came to town sections of the valley began to be filled in with industrial rubble. Warrawong high school was then built on a filled out section – leaving two valleys that converge at the bottom of site to be overgrown with lantana and other weeds.
Three years ago Green Connect was given access to transform this remaining piece of land into a food producing oasis through permaculture design! First we terraced the land to effectively catch and store water and make the site easier to navigate. Then we planted out subtropical food forests on the high ground, and developed a market garden towards the bottom of the slopes where all the nutrients leach to. And we’ve brought in chickens and alpaca to manage the weeds, control pests and disease and provide nutrients.
On top of this our food is chemical free, local and seasonal. We employ former refugees and young people; run a paid internship program in partnership with Warrawong High school; host seasonal fair food community days; and have a dedicated crew of volunteers that help out.
As a farmer, what would be your top tip to those starting out with growing their own food? Whether it’s a container of basil or a pumpkin vine?
Get your soil right. Crank your soil and you will crank the veggies. You get your soil right and you 85% per cent of the way there.
There are plenty of courses and workshops around on permaculture, horticulture and soil building. Look at online resources, get to a community garden or farm to check it out – and start feeding the soil like the living ecosystem it is!
What are the best bits about your job?
It sounds like such a cliché but running a community base urban far social enterprise is my dream job – there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
To access a piece of land – work with a team of people to dream up a plan for the site – and then go ahead and do it is pretty cool.
I love the fact that I get physical feedback on my work: seeing a seedling grow into a tree, seeing a seed grow into a veggie. There’s not much more satisfying eating an eggplant (or any other veg), when you can remember exactly when, how and with who you carefully prepared the soil for this crop all of six months ago.
I love working with young people keen to learn about how food is produced; and with former refugees who in most cases are relearning farming skills that they’ve had for generations, but simply adapting it to a new context.
For many of our refugee staff English is a massive barrier to employment. So it’s also awesome to be able to provide a workplace where they can informally practice English whilst doing something they are really comfortable with – growing food. I’m also learning every day, listening to our staff describe how they grew food in their home country, and giving me tips for how to do things better on the farm.
And I really enjoy learning the ins and outs of business management – social enterprise makes my work rewarding by being fast paced – keeping me on my toes to make things as efficient as possible whilst hitting our social objectives.
What are the biggest challenges?
While it’s been a really long road, we’ve now got pretty damn good at growing food – what we have to work the hardest at is selling it!
The model that we use to sell food is through a community supported agriculture style weekly subscription box system (as well as subscription veg to restaurants and cafes). This system creates a direct relationship between the grower and the customer; reduces pre-retail food waste; and most importantly provides us with financial security to cover costs and pay our staff award wages.
But this model is not without its challenges. Growing food through best chemical free practices and paying award wages means that our food is a tiny bit more expensive than other retailers. Picking the box up can be inconvenience, and cooking and eating seasonally can be quite a learning curve.
It has been a fun process tackling these issues though! And I should mention that our customers are among the coolest and most supportive people in the world! They understand that food that is ‘cheap’ for customers is often very costly for farm workers and the environment – so purchasing an ethical product that avoids these environmental and social costs may be priced higher than your average veg.
We’ve established relationships with a number of local businesses and community organisations to act as ‘pick up hubs’ so people don’t have to come all the way to the farm. And we’ve included weekly recipes and food profiles in our boxes to help our customers with ideas to use their seasonal veg. We also have a shared lunch on our seasonal community days to demonstrate to our customers and the wider community the value of cooking seasonally and locally – and how easy it is to cook great food with local, seasonal produce!
Image credits: Top: Paul Jones from UOW, Rest: Zo Zhou