Close to Perth’s central business district, something is growing by the Midland railway line. For over 20 years, Perth City Farm (a not-for-profit community garden, educational centre and urban oasis) has been welcoming members of the community through its gates.
The team that started Perth City Farm was made up of Rosanne Scott, Chris Ferreira, Clayton Chipper and Neal Bodel, with support coming from not-for-profit, non-political society Men of the Trees. Men of the Trees aimed to improve WA’s environmental quality, get local youth involved in environmental efforts and promote health and wellbeing through permaculture. ‘We wanted to inspire people to do environmental work,’ Chris explains.
These values have flowed through to Perth City Farm, in addition to others the farm would go on to develop. Using the acronym PEACE, Perth City Farm aims to promote permaculture and the environment, education, arts, community and personal development, and enterprise.
But before any of these could come into fruition, a site for the urban farm needed to be secured. With support from the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, a location was found in the mid 90s. But the spot was hardly ideal for growing food. The half hectare of land it sat on had recently been used as a battery recycling facility, a scrap metal yard, an engineering workshop by Mobil, an engineering foundry and a bus depot. As a result the land was highly polluted and toxic. To visualise a garden growing took a lot of imagination, with only a vacant lot, courtyard and rundown warehouses to look at. What the site did have going for it though was that it could be rented cheaply. Through the efforts of the team as well as close to 30 volunteers, the scene started transitioning from an industrial site into a blooming and prosperous community garden.
A vegie patch was planted by the entrance and a warehouse was repurposed into a classroom. But as the site’s soil was dangerously contaminated, it was a long process to bring it back to safety, let alone consider the organic certification process. ‘Initially 1.5 m of soil had to be removed from the entire site manually,’ explains Perth City Farm employee Phoebe Dean. ‘You couldn’t even touch the ground, that’s how toxic the material was!
After its removal and consequent placement in a tip, tonnes of compost was created on the site with heaps of organic material. Vegie scraps, chook poo, horse manure and lawn clippings were used; anything we could get our hands on. As this built up, the worms and microorganisms did their tricks, helping to clean and activate the soil, and we gained organic certification by 2004.’
A Landcare and Environment Action Program was established, teaching unemployed youth a wide range of horticulture and permaculture skills. Although this program no longer runs, Work for the Dole programs are now undertaken at the farm, with unemployed community members able to gain skills, work experience and knowledge in permaculture and sustainability. Three Work for the Dole programs have been created, focusing on horticulture experience, furniture build and restoration, and administration training. Participant Jamie Hancock says that the program has inspired him to keep learning about gardening. ‘After doing this I’m thinking of getting a certificate in horticulture,’ he says.
Workshops are also regularly held on topics such as plant propagation, designing gardens, creating compost and recycling. The guided tours of the farm are also educational. ‘We have school, TAFE and uni groups that come on tours to learn about things like the farm, the history of the site, permaculture, organic gardening and herbal medicine,’ Phoebe says. ‘We have gardening clubs and retirement groups that also come along for tours and workshops that are more specialised, such as worm care and plant propagation. We’ve also played host to some recent paid courses in beekeeping.’
Phoebe started volunteering at Perth City Farm while she was studying Environmental Science and Sustainability at Murdoch University. She is now one of the farm’s seven staff members and one of her responsibilities is to look after the venue hire side of the business. ‘We often get people from all over Perth, and sometimes around the world, who have heard of our “wedding venue” by word of mouth but know nothing about it,’ she says. ‘When they book an appointment to view the venue, we love seeing their faces light up as we walk around. Most people cannot believe a place like this exists in the city centre.’ The first wedding at Perth City Farm was when Roseanne married Thom Scott, also a long-serving team member, on New Year’s Eve 18 years ago.
Perth City Farm also runs popular twilight markets. ‘The markets focus on promoting food vendors that sell organic, biodynamic and local produce,’ says Phoebe. ‘The night brings in people from all walks of life to enjoy local entertainment and enjoy the ambience of Perth City Farm. It is so spectacular here amongst the garden.’ There are also farmer’s markets held on Saturdays, which were the first of their kind in WA. Eggs from the farm’s chickens are sold at the markets and are used at the City Farm Cafe as well.
There is a nursery and a shop on site, two chook pens, two commercial kitchens, an office space, a community room which is used for activities such as yoga and meditation, and a specific art room used for exhibitions and launch events (previously the home of Cirquest Circus School). Several smallscale businesses also run out of the converted buildings on site.
Clockwise from top left: Sculpture in the middle of the vegie beds with high rise in background; Seedlings for sale; Vegie beds at the farm; Jamie Hancock working on the compost as part of the Work for the Dole program. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Perth City Farm has hosted many events over the years, including art exhibitions, concerts, festivals and parties. These events are fundamental to the farm’s goal of encouraging social connection and community participation, making the space accessible and welcoming to everyone. ‘It is an open space,’ says Thom. ‘People can come in and pick vegies if they need them.’
Jason lives nearby at St Bartholomew’s House, a refuge for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. He enjoys his visits to the farm, describing them as a form of meditation. ‘I come over here to get into my higher power,’ he says. ‘I love the mulberries and the kookaburra. This kookaburra is always here – I come and say hello to him.’
It’s because of this community connection that locals flock to Perth City Farm. They will also fight to protect it. 18 years ago Perth City Farm almost became a distant memory. There were plans to demolish it so that a high-rise building and car parks could move in instead. The ‘Save City Farm Action Group’ attempted to stave off this development through a campaign that received media attention and support from the community.
As a result, a two-year lease extension was given. When that was up, the State Government announced a 40-year peppercorn lease arrangement (a term which refers to a small payment) for Perth City Farm. While they occasionally receive grants for specific projects or events, such as their community recycling hub build, they don’t receive government funding.
The number of paid staff is small, with volunteers being a vital part of the running of the farm, and there’s always need for more. ‘We have incredible volunteers who believe in the work; some who have been here for over 10 years,’ says Phoebe. ‘They are the reason we have a running farm, as we’re completely unfunded by government or local council, so everything we do here is a result of our ‘earn-our-way’ mantra. We don’t have a promotional budget for our organic farmers market and we have nothing like the marketing budget other wedding venues may have. Our income is a direct result of our incredibly hard-working staff and volunteers.
‘In a CBD that is constantly growing, high-rises multiplying and urban environment spreading, Perth City Farm offers a bit of peace and tranquillity within the hustle and bustle of city life,’ she adds.
For more information on Perth City Farm visit www.perthcityfarm.org.au