AUSCCER PhD Candidate Ananth Gopal reflects on his time volunteering with social enterprise Green Connect and the possibilities for productive relations to grow.
Warrawong sits on the south side of Port Kembla, downwind of the steelworks sloping into Lake Illawarra. For decades from the 1930s it housed successive waves of migrant communities. Before that, colonial migrant farmers knew it as a place of rich, fertile soils fed by Mt Kembla’s alluvial material. For millennia prior, the Dharawal nation nurtured this Country.
Today, a Google search yields some underwhelming, albeit unscientific, findings: A 75 year old woman mugged last week, a gas fire which blew up a building and, the immolation of 16 puppies in a house fire. Its Wikipedia entry offers tepid consolation: ‘home to the third largest shopping centre in the Illawarra.’ With industrial decline in full-swing one could easily conclude Warrawong’s best years are behind it.
I’ve been spending time in Warrawong for nearly 18 months now. There’s a farm there at the back of Warrawong High School. One quite unlike any I know: Urban Grown, run by Green Connect. In the last three years Warrawong has begun to grow a different kind of notoriety, one that reimagines what industrial decline can look like. One that Human Geographers ought to take notice of.
Warrawong is home to one of Australia’s handful of Community Supported Agricultural enterprises (CSAs). Green Connect is a social enterprise dedicated to addressing three pressing socio-ecological issues: youth unemployment, waste and unsustainable food. It aims to address these related problems by providing two services: resource recovery, and, growing food. The second point is what I want to talk about in this blog post as CSAs offer a palatable alternative to the dichotomy of supermarket reliance or the ‘self reliance’ of community/home food gardens. CSAs, done intelligently, offer an alternate economic, social and environmental model for ensuring that the food we eat is Fair.
A CSA, like Green Connect’s Urban Grown scheme, is a locally based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. The C in CSA refers to a community of consumers who have pledged to support the grower(s), thereby sharing both the risk and reward of the harvest. CSA members, or subscribers, pay upfront for a set period for a share of the harvest. This way, the farmers at Urban Grown have a committed market and sufficient capital to begin farming. In addition to the standard CSA practice I’ve described, Green Connect actively hires young people facing unemployment and former refugees seeking their first jobs in Australia. In this way, the Green Connect CSA model not only mends some broken aspects of our food system, it also creates jobs for people excluded from stable, meaningful employment. It’s part of what’s being termed the ‘Fair Food’ movement. A departure from conventional, industrial agriculture that many feel is deeply unfair.
Normally when we buy food from a supermarket we participate in food system comprised of four main parts:
1. Consumer (most of us)
2. Corporate Agri-Business Retail & Procurement (Coles or Woolies etc.)
3. Producer (the farmers)
3. The biophysical environment (land, soil, water, microbes etc.)
Corporate agriculture tries to maximise efficiency and supply chain control. It carves out market share by making industrial food available year round in brightly lit stores, at low low prices. The consumer doesn’t have to know, see, or care about where our food comes from, who grew it or what effect it has on biophysical systems. In this model, consumers receive what we (apparently) want, cheap food next to a car-park. Farmers have to acquiesce to this model and modify their land/resource management practices toward standardisation and industrialisation. They begin interacting with the biophysical environment in an extractive way by applying super-phosphates and factory farming animals, a kind of food factory on steroids. The consumer is left clutching ‘cheap’ out of season produce grown by faceless people, often exploited themselves, on degraded land.
CSAs like Green Connect offer an alternate model. CSAs ask that consumers pay an upfront subscription at the beginning of a growing season to better distribute financial risk. The money guarantees farmers ability to pay fair wages and grow food in a social and environmentally responsible way. Consumer cash is a vote of faith, ‘I trust that you will grow food for me and my family, in return I will pay you in advance.’ Farmers at Green Connect have over the last four years cultivated a poly-cultural, biodiverse farm that grows food for 60 families, a few cafes and restaurants. The farm itself combines a number of Australian and international agro-ecological models from Permaculture, Keyline earthworks to learning from the traditional ecological knowledge systems refugee farmers employed there. This biocultural diversity means their produce, has a net positive impact on the soil and water quality of the area.
While hoeing vege beds with newly arrived Karenni refugees from Burma, I learned how cultural diversity makes a difference in how food is grown, understood and tasted. Shay Reh and Eh Moo, teach me implicitly how streamline my technique to work with the soil not against it. Being physically active, and improving his English while earning a living makes him happy. When agriculture is not only supported by the community but also supports emerging communities, food is grown and distributed with greater diversity and equity. The plants grown at Green Connect’s farm are a response to what can be grown in Warrawong’s fertile soils and sub-tropical climate. In addition to the usual suspects of Broccoli and Silverbeet, the vege box from Green Connect might also contain Cassava leaves, Lemongrass and even Pak Choi flowers. The growing techniques and the fact that they were even grown is directly because of Green Connect’s culturally diverse workforce. Of course, learning how to cook these plants poses a challenge and an opportunity for those of us who only eat what we know and know what we eat.
In October this year, UOW Human Geography Society (HuGS), held an event at the University to showcase and better understand Green Connect. Green Connect’s staff talked the audience through the big picture of their CSA. Though some of the finer points of vegetable bed rotation and nitrogen fixation spun some heads, what stood out was the pride that the farmers had in their product and process. We were able to learn from Emmanuel Bakenga that getting his first job in Australia was made possible by Green Connect’s refugee affirmative hiring policy. He now coordinates and supports staff across the organisation. Reward for Emmanuel and his colleagues doesn’t just come in the form of remuneration; it emerges in the form of respect. The fact that his community is increasingly being respected for their environmental knowledge and their rich food literacy builds community esteem. Jaime, a 19-year-old graduate of Warrawong High spoke briefly and compellingly. For him, meaningful work on the land brings him a sense of purpose.
Green Connect’s community supported agricultural model better distributes risk and reward throughout the community. It not only feeds consumers fresh local produce, ensures decent work for farmers, rehabilitates soil and water, it also allows us to think about spaces differently.
Behind the basketball courts of Warrawong are a series of terraced vegetable beds, a food forest system of fruit trees, annuals and perennials. It’s flanked by two creeks now brimming with renascent life. When food growing supports and is supported by the community, agriculture can regain its position at the hearth of human society. Join me on the farm for a day. See for yourself that my waxing lyrical about Warrawong isn’t some hippie academic’s wishful thinking. It’s a living case-in-point for a community transforming itself, from the soil up.