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African Farming Program thriving business

Rachel Christian with Anita Saysay (left) and Fatu Fahnbulleh
Rachel Christian with Anita Saysay (left) and Fatu Fahnbulleh. Photo: Virginia Knight

By Virginia Knight, Catholic Outlook, June 2010

Driving out to St Marys on a glorious autumn afternoon, I reflect on the beauty and diversity of our country and its people, and what it means to be Australian.

It is about an indomitable spirit and the ability to seize any opportunity, and it has been embraced by those who have come to our country in search of a new beginning.

This spirit is present at Mamre Homestead, where a group of African refugees are turning the acreage surrounding the homestead into thriving mini farms.

Rachel Christian, Project Officer of the Refugee Employment Program, is a mentor to the African farmers, helping them to establish their own businesses.

Mamre Project

The program was established last year as part of the Mamre Project, which seeks to provide employment opportunities and education for disadvantaged persons in the local community.

With a combination of funding from the Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations, the Department of Immigration & Citizenship, and its own schemes, the Mamre Farm Project aims to give refugees the chance to learn basic skills in horticulture and hospitality on site through SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farming. The farms are operated by refugee trainees and a ‘green’ corp.

This is a hands-on approach, which sees the farmers lease one-quarter acre plots to plant, grow and harvest herbs and organic vegetables for sale at the local Hawkesbury Harvest markets in Penrith and Richmond every month.

Produce is sold at Penrith on the first Saturday of the month, Richmond (second Saturday) and Parramatta (third and fourth Saturdays).

A new shed and cool room were opened at last month’s Harvest Festival at Mamre. An onsite market now sells direct to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 10am-2pm.

An alliance has been established with Food Connect, a not-for-profit Queensland-based enterprise that connects growers with buyers.

Mamre supplies produce for ‘vegie boxes’ with Food Connect providing the boxes.

Skills base

While learning new skills, in many instances the farmers are practising agricultural skills they have brought with them from their own countries.

A lot of the farmers come from an African background where people grow their own food. Once in Australia, living in a unit or house with only a small yard, there is not the opportunity to continue in this way of life.

Rachel said the aim of the project was to give the farmers a sense of independence and allow them to be self reliant in a way that was more familiar to them than many of the systems in Australia. “Coming here gives them back the opportunity to grow their own food and a sense of country.”

She sees it as an opportunity for them to participate in both cultures.

It is envisaged that each farm will be established as an individual business, not only generating an income for the family who works the plot, but encouraging them to participate in a healthy diet.

Ongoing harvest

Currently, there are three plots operating at different stages of development. As a consequence the harvest is ongoing with planting interspersed by produce heading off to market.

Restricted by the availability of water, there are plans for up to six plots to be working on site and Rachel would like to see the program reach more families, perhaps with multiple families working the same plots.

“There is a sense of pride in what they have achieved. They have confidence and hope for the future.”

All the produce is grown under strictly organic principles with no pesticides or harmful chemicals used. One way the farmers combat pests is by interspersing flowers among the herbs and vegetables to confuse would-be predators.

Ultimately, Rachel would like to see the farmers establish their own market on site. While a lot of the produce finds its way into the kitchens of the Mamre Homestead Restaurant, any excess produce is also utilised and has led to a sideline business in preserves.

A bumper crop of tomatoes just prior to Christmas resulted in a range of sauces, chutneys, relishes and jams being taken to market for sale.

Training provided

I asked Rachel how interested individuals can apply for a plot at the Mamre Farm. The first step and best way to see if the notion of becoming a farmer suits is to enrol in courses conducted through the Mamre Project.

A six-week Certificate II in Horticultural Training is offered, with participants receiving a Statement of Attainment upon completion. Participants receive hands-on training, working on the Mamre Farm.

“There is a lot involved in setting up a farm, a lot of work and a lot of preparation,” Rachel said. “There are expenses and costs associated in running your own business. This is a good trial run, getting to know the place and the procedures before you decide if you want to farm.”

For more information contact:

Mamre Farm
Lot 1 Mamre Road, St Marys
Ph: 02 9670 5321



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