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Green Connect: Nourishing The Community

Swales managing water onsite. Photos by Sheryl Wiffen
Sweet snow pea flowers
Cal – farm manager
Green Connect volunteer management team
Empowering community
Green Connect worker

On a steep and uneven hillside adjacent to Warrawong High School, south of Wollongong in NSW, a social enterprise called Green Connect is running a farm called Urban Grown. Green Connect combines permaculture ethics and design principles, with employment opportunities for resettled refugees and at-risk youth, to create an amazing model for urban sustainability; the farm produces as many social outcomes as chemical-free lettuces.

Green Connect and Urban Grown, originally two separate projects of the Port Kembla Community Project, merged in February 2014 when the funding for Urban Grown ceased. Green Connect staff committed to taking on the farm on a volunteer basis to see it through to financial sustainability.

Green Connect aims to: grow and distribute chemical-free food in the local area; reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill; and turn organic waste into a productive resource. It also: creates green, socially useful jobs, especially for resettled refugees and young people; helps empower people to care for each other and the planet; and achieves social and environmental aims through trade.

The Wollongong area has a long history of farming and, with the temperate climate and fertile soils, it is an ideal place to grow food, set against the background of a magnificent Sydney sandstone escarpment and edged by ocean. Tempering this is the history of heavy industry and associated toxic emissions that have resulted in the presence of heavy metals in the soil.

The Green Connect activities are one way to address the after-effects of the industrial boom: healing and rebuilding the soil through composting; and providing an employment alternative to grow chemical-free produce. The goal is to ‘show that there’s a different way to do things that is jobs rich and recognises that people depend on a healthy environment’, says Jess Moore, one of the Green Connect team: ‘Wollongong has a long industrial history, but the industries have shed massive numbers of jobs because of things like mechanisation and world markets. Many people, including those who moved to Wollongong to work in recent decades, who are often highly skilled, no longer have a job available to them. So we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country; and the rate is double for young people’.

Wollongong is also the largest regional refugee resettlement community in NSW. ‘For refugees Australia wide, sixty-nine per cent are unemployed five years after resettlement’, says Moore*. Last year Green Connect employed ninety-nine resettled adult refugees and twelve young people, and in the process kept eighty-five per cent of the waste they managed out of landfill, and doubled the size of the farm. They also covered eightyfour per cent of their expenses through sale of products and services, and sixteen per cent through grants and donations.

The Site And Activities

The Urban Grown farm is located on eight acres of NSW Department of Education and Communities land that has been leased by the Port Kembla Community Project, at no cost, for ten years. The partnership with Warrawong High School has been pivotal, and permaculture is having a demonstrable influence on the school which is writing its strategic plan based on permaculture ethics. School officials came to inspect the farm’s composting toilet recently, not to make sure that it was up to building code standard, but to see how it worked so that they could consider installing composting toilets in the school for students to use.

Permaculture is not an alien concept in Warrawong: the high school, and nearby Warrawong and Cringila primary schools, each have Elemental Permaculture’s Living Classroom programs. Students grow up learning about permaculture from primary school through to high school, and the farm provides the next step, which is employment. The farm employs students after school, and has just taken on a graduating student as a farmhand. The school previously used resources to manage the land, but it is now a working space generating food and employment.

Green Connect recently launched a vegie box scheme, in a community-supported agriculture model, which provides locally grown, chemical-free produce. ‘The community commits to food being grown for them for a thirteen-week period; they can meet the farmer, and know what is seasonally available for our local area’, says Jacqui Besgrove, another of the Green Connect team. They have received positive feedback from customers, who are excited about not only the freshness, quality, and diversity of the food in the boxes, but also about supporting an initiative that creates employment through growing chemicalfree food. Besgrove says this is very appealing for people: ‘you’re not just buying a vegie box, you’re investing in change’.

The site has permaculture design challenges that the team has had to overcome. Located on a steep slope, it is far from an ideal flat market garden. The design needed to incorporate two creeklines, endangered bush species and the proximity of large concrete areas in the adjacent school.

Green Connect invested a lot of energy into earthworks on the site early in 2014, which paid off when the area experienced heavier than average rainfall which caused water to flood through the site. Swaled no-dig garden beds, built to complement the contours of the land, slowed the flow of water through the site and helped to ensure that the rain didn’t send the gardens sliding down the hillside. Plants such as bana grass are grown to provide a windbreak, and also to provide mulch materials for no-dig beds rather than buying bales of hay or straw.

Rethinking ‘Waste’

Green Connect already uses ‘waste’ materials from local businesses, such as chipped mulch from tree loppers and coffee grounds from cafes, on the farm. The team has plans to launch a composting scheme, to process organic waste from businesses and events, and use it to create compost. ‘There’s a lovely closed loop – growing chemical-free food, delivering that to a customer, picking up their organic waste, taking that back to the farm to make compost, using that compost to grow food to deliver to customers – and that just keeps going’, says Besgrove. Further, she notes that ‘In Wollongong, waste pick-up and composting for food costs a lot more than putting waste in landfill. Organisations want to do the right thing and keep that waste out of landfill, but can’t afford it at the moment. We operate on a not-for-profit basis, to offer a service at less than the cost of putting that waste into landfill, so that people can afford it’. The scheme could expand to include local farmers processing the waste on their own sites, reducing the need for them to buy expensive chemical fertilisers.

Green Connect workers. Photo by Sheryl Wiffen

Responding To Community Needs

Green Connect defines ’social enterprise’ to mean that: social and environmental outcomes are of foremost importance, and can be sustained through trade; and the culture of the organisation is ethically sound. The team feels that working with people who share ethical values is very important. They didn’t know each other well initially, but had all completed a PDC and knew that their values were aligned when they decided to take on the farm. When decisions need to be made, an ethical framework informs their decisions. The team also recognises that Green Connect needs to be financially viable to be sustainable. ‘We are a not a charity’, says Moore, ‘we are not just giving things to people, but are building community capacity to make all of our lives better’. Sheryl Wiffen, another member of the team, states that ‘it’s a different level of responsibility, where the people at all levels have buy-in to the organisation, rather than being removed from the impacts’.

Being open and responsive to the real needs of the community has been important to the success of Green Connect. ‘When you’re working with community’, says Wiffen, ‘you need to ask the community members what they want, rather than deciding for them what you think they need’. Green Connect surveyed its refugee employees last year, and found that a third of them were farmers who wanted to use their farming skills, and this motivated them to take on the farm project. Being involved with the farm will give them a chance to use their farming skills, and also a space to can grow culturally appropriate food, which many refugees find hard to source after resettlement.

‘We had always planned to have volunteers involved, and it’s grown organically from community need’, says Besgrove: ‘The farm manager works with a team of volunteers three days a week to do jobs such as watering crops, building paths and retaining walls, or working on the chicken house.’ Volunteer days at the farm also allow participants to learn from the refugee community about techniques that they have used successfully in their home countries. These might not have been called ‘permaculture’, but they use the same principles: reading the land; designing the space to maximise its potential; using multi-functional materials rather than buying expensive fertilisers and equipment. Wiffen states that: ‘The refugee community has a wealth of skills and knowledge that we don’t know how to tap into without developing a relationship with them, and through building such relationships we have been able to unlock some of that knowledge’.

The team also hosted a TAFE NSW Certificate II in Horticulture on site for thirteen refugee participants last year, alongside a Mission Australia Skills for Education and Employment course; providing both a horticulture qualification and valuable literacy skills.

What Next?

The next steps for Green Connect include: further development of the site; enhancing links with the school; providing more education and employment pathways; and developing a training space on site. The bounty of this urban paradise is sure to increase throughout the coming year, caring for the people and the earth, and providing a fair share for all.

* based on media reporting of an Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship report in 2011

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