The winner of Pip’s 2018 award for Best Permie Project is Green Connect. We’re excited to share what makes Green Connect stand out as an example of permaculture at its dynamic best.
Green Connect is a social enterprise doing good things for people and the planet. It grows and sells ‘fair food’ which is good for those who eat it, grow it and the planet. Last year Green Connect employed 114 former refugees and young people to do this, growing and distributing 13,754 kilos of fair food and keeping 1,990 tonnes of waste out of landfill. Recently Green Connect reached an all-time high of feeding 104 families fresh permaculturally grown seasonal food through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable box scheme. Waste management and labour-hire businesses are also a part of Green Connect.
Green Connect is located in Port Kembla, south of Wollongong in the Illawarra region, 70 km south of Sydney. The Illawarra grew out of mining and heavy industry through the 20th century, and like so many places in Australia, large-scale manufacturing has been shedding jobs. Green Connect started under SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families) as a project aimed at building employment skills and experience among former refugees in the area.
In 2013, Elemental Permaculture ran its first PDC at Warrawong High School. A group of committed permies (Cal Champagne, Jess Moore, Chris Williams, Jacqui Besgrove, Rebecca Mayhew and Sheryl Wiffen) had the bright idea of merging Green Connect’s waste management service with Urban Grown, a fledgling farm enterprise at the back of Warrawong High. This merger resulted in the Green Connect that is running today.
Green Connect’s market garden sits on approximately five hectares, flanked by houses and bisected by two creeks flowing from Mt Kembla. While the farm feeds 100 families today, not too long ago it was a flood-prone lantana and blackberry infested margin. Couches, cars and rubbish accumulated through its years of neglect. Much of the topsoil was washed out, leaving a formidable clay substrate; hardly ideal market garden conditions. With Cal at the helm of farm design and Jess overseeing the enterprise, this urban wasteland began to transform into a terraced subtropical food bowl.
Hundreds of community members show up every quarter to supplement the daily work of Cal, Su Meh and the other volunteers and staff (Green Connect employs 12 permanent staff members, all but one of whom are young people and former refugees). Together they have planted over 200 fruit trees and 2500 native shrubs and grasses.
A standout feature of the Green Connect farm is the way it works with its natural and cultural context. Su Meh, the farm’s sub-manager, shared that her skills in agriculture are a product of her upbringing in Burma and her 21 years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. ‘At Green Connect we grow food without putting chemicals in,’ she says. ‘We grow food that you can just pick and eat, no need to wash.’ Su Meh and the other Karenni speaking staff have played a prominent role in the introduction of pigs and chickens, making the farm a polyculture.
The young people who work on the site are current and former students of Warrawong High. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and might have become part of youth unemployment statistics. Jaime is one of the young people who now work at Green Connect. ‘If it weren’t for this job, I would have just been floating around not knowing what to do with myself,’ says Jaime. Green Connect has a communitarian approach towards permaculture. It’s extending the idea of self-determination toward collective determination. Green Connect embeds itself within its urban, industrial community.
Produce is sold through a CSA model where eaters commit to 13 weeks of seasonal vegetables and pay for it up-front. Subscribers pick up (or are delivered) a box of veg each week. Knowing how many mouths to feed helps Cal, Su Meh, Jaime and other farmers organise the rotation of beds, calibrate how many people will be needed for harvest and plan for the future of the farm beyond short-term survival. Green Connect also helps develop food literacy by including unusual vegies in the food boxes that are ideally suited to the Wollongong bioregion—daikon radish, kohlrabi and taple leh (Burmese spinach).
Many farmers are largely confined to conventional economic models that place the financial risk on their shoulders. Cal says the CSA subscriber model ‘gives us some breathing room to try things out and grow interesting crops, all the while ensuring that our farm staff are paid an award wage.’ Labour relations aren’t something that gets talked about a lot, even in permaculture circles. There tends to be a focus on design, techniques, outcomes and philosophy. For Green Connect, the pragmatics of how people are treated and paid is central. ‘What’s inherent in our work is the way we empower people in a working context,’ explains Cal. ‘We’re not a service provider, we don’t hand people things. We don’t just hire people from refugee backgrounds to get cheap labour. We pay award wages and we share responsibilities which means we can have dignified relationships between workers.’
Dignity is at the heart of this social enterprise. ‘The Illawarra has one of the highest rates of unemployment and that makes life hard,’ says Jess, Green Connect’s former manager. ‘It’s particularly hard for some groups. For former refugees, only 31% have full-time jobs after five years of resettlement into Australia. For young people, the rate is around 22-36%.’ Green Connect is a household name for newly arrived refugees in the area. It’s seen as a place to gain skills, share knowledge, earn money and begin the transition into being Australian.
Ironically, many of its best staff are scooped up by local businesses looking for quality employees. After a recent Landline episode featuring Green Connect aired on the ABC, a local plumber hired one of Green Connect’s staff as a full-time apprentice plumber. Bron Williams admitted, ‘It’s an important part of what we do here; we provide employment pathways for people. We’re good at it, too good at it sometimes!’
Permaculture is motivated by care for the planet, care for people and fair share. Jess says that business can ‘be harnessed as a force for good’. Eh Moo, one of the farmers at Green Connect, said that working at Green Connect offers him happiness, knowledge and income. ‘I say happiness because working here helped me to meet new friends,’ says Eh Moo. ‘Without a job, I would stay at home and feel isolated and bad about myself. Also, I can earn some money, I can support my family. It also gives me knowledge of how to grow healthy vegetables and help the environment.’
From the north side of the farm, over Warrawong High, steam, smoke and fire billow on. On this side of the hill, you can feel what’s possible when careful land design and social conscience come together.
Permie Project Of The Year Award Nominees
Fair Harvest Permaculture is a demonstration farm, cafe, community venue and learning centre run by Jodie Lane and Dorothee Perez. It was established in 1995 by a group of activists and is situated on ex-dairy country, close to Margaret River. With extensive food gardens, poultry systems, timber, grazing and wild areas, the farm is a great example of a mature and multi-zoned permaculture property. Fair Harvest’s latest project is a small nature-based campground complete with composting loos, grey water systems, worm farms and interactive permaculture systems for guests. Fair Harvest’s aim is to offer people the experience living in a healthy and abundant permaculture system.
SKYFALL FARMS PASTURED EGGS
Skyfall Farms Pastured Eggs is a small farm in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. Their focus is slow, kind, sustainable and regenerative farming. Skyfall is powered by solar, fed by rainwater and make, reuse, recycle, reclaim or craft as much as they can. Their 400 hens live in the fields, happily eating pasture grasses, seeds, bugs and an Australian made, certified organic feed. Skyfall don’t use chemicals, confine their birds or treat them like production machines. Their eggs are not uniform in size, shape or colour. They range from deep chocolate brown, to white, to sky blue with every variant in between. Skyfall’s goal is to provide fresh, beautiful eggs from happy and healthy hens.
FOOD IS FREE INC.
Food Is Free Inc. is a grassroots, community-led not-for-profit group benefiting Ballarat citizens, with a focus on people experiencing disadvantage. Food Is Free Inc. has a core purpose of assisting and promoting food security and community cohesion and inclusion. With two sites, Food Is Free Laneway (founded in 2014 by Lou Ridsdale when she began a guerrilla garden/ food swap table beside her home in central Ballarat) and Food Is Free Green Site (launched in March 2018 on land granted to the group by Ballarat City Council), Food Is Free Inc. grow food en masse with marginalised at-risk community groups.
YARRA VALLEY ECOSS
Yarra Valley ECOSS is a not-for-profit membership association situated on a 7.4 hectare former poultry farm at Wesburn. ECOSS has adopted a community enterprise model to turn this property into an inspiring educational and recreational facility that will demonstrate sustainable living solutions to the community. They promote local food security by developing appropriate models for food production while building work skills and competencies, facilitating local employment and developing a vibrant, resilient and sustainable Yarra Valley community. ECOSS also run earth building projects, community gardening and creative projects for students. They work with many local not-for-profit environment groups and co-facilitate education programs with them.
Seedwell is a permaculture facility located on two urban sites in Melbourne, one being in St Kilda and the other in Brunswick. The Seedwell program came about through a collaboration between St Kilda’s Salvation Army Youth and Family Crisis Accommodation Centre and Marist180, and is run in conjunction with Jesuit Social Services. Seedwell works with young people in the urban settings of their sites to teach them permaculture skills and increase their awareness of sustainable living. To learn more about Seedwell, be sure to read Nick Rodway’s article about the program on page 74.