Published 09 July 2017
Su Meh laces up her work boots and leads me past the shipping container, down the wood chip mulch path to a lookout over Green Connect urban farm. We pause and take in the scene. We’ve been talking about growing food and why her community is particularly skilled at farming:
“We are family that likes the farm. We are interested in how to grow it, how the vegetable grows up, how to plant, how we can help the fruits. Now we are doing the farmer [in Australia] too. I teach my children now. In Australia the young people know only to eat, only to eat. They are hungry and they only go to the shop. They buy, they eat, they don’t finish they throw it. They buy easy one, they throw easy one.”
Su Meh arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa less than 10 years ago. Before that she lived in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border for 24 years with 10,000 other displaced people. Su Meh was one of the first Karennis to arrive in Wollongong. In the ensuing decade 45 families have made their home in the Illawarra.
Over the last two years I’ve come to know 30 Karenni families and document their ingenuity and insistence on growing food in improbably environments. Like generations of migrants, Karenni families in Wollongong adapt their practices to grow traditional foods in Australia. In doing so, they contribute to subtly transforming how urban agriculture is practiced. Two local schools are exemplary of this community’s adaptive capacity: Warrawong High School and St Terese Primary School. A close inspection of their grounds reveals slopes brimming with cultivated life. It’s a testament of what grows when newly arrived peoples are given a fair go to demonstrate some of their expertise.
At St Terese School seven Karenni families grow traditional food plants using terraced bed farming systems. You can find their community farm on an alarmingly steep slope in West Wollongong. Mae Moh, one of the expert small-scale farmers on site, shows me their weekend’s work: A hillside of meticulously terraced vegetables beds. Here, families spend weekends trialling plant species, catching up on gossip and swapping prized seeds. The Karenni community brings a diversity of lived experiences and expertise in perceiving and interacting with productive environments. They’ve been high yield organic farmers for generations. In their hands, an otherwise neglected space, becomes a living laboratory for addressing food sovereignty and security.
At Warrawong High School a few suburbs over, a much larger experiment is taking place: Green Connect Farm. Su Meh continues my tour here and explains how 12 acres of marginal land now grows fresh fair food for over 50 families and a number of cafes and restaurants. Green Connect tackles the twin challenges of unsustainable food and unsustainable unemployment by growing chemical free food for sale through a CSA model. Su Meh shares with me how getting a job growing food in Australia and feeding the broader community has anchored her life. She loves teaching people where their food comes from and how it is grown. She is part of the next generation of Aussie farmers experimenting with bioculturally diverse urban farming. She wouldn’t have followed her passion and become a farmer were it not for Green Connect’s policy of actively hiring former refugees. New Australians like Su Meh deploy their skill and energy to cultivate holistic, culturally diverse responses to the challenge of growing fair food in an urbanising environment. They know what it takes to feed people in highly constrained physical contexts. This knowledge is part of the adaptation needed to reorient urban spaces to feed us.
Seeing possibility in people and places is a salient ingredient in the purposeful adaptation of our urban food systems. Access to fertile land in Australia’s urban and peri urban areas is rapidly disappearing. Housing demands and property speculation means that rich soil is being swallowed up. Wollongong, 70 kilometres south of Sydney, is no exception. Town planning and governments schemes often treat food lands as disposable, I’m reminded of Su Meh’s words, “they buy easy one they throw easy one.” If food can be grown, at scale, at the back of schools in trying topographical conditions, imagine what would happen to our urban landscape if we made ‘alternative food’ conventional? What would happen if landless farmers like Su Meh and Mae Moh were given more opportunities to develop ecologically sound social enterprises and feed neighbourhoods? It seems that cultural diversity is an untapped reservoir of ideas and energy in creating resilient urban communities.
*This is original research supported by an ARC Discovery Grant, ‘Sustainability and climate change adaptation: unlocking the potential of ethnic diversity’ at the University of Wollongong.
Ananth Gopal is an actor and geographer focused on food and environmental issues. He has taught cultural geography at the Universities of Melbourne and Wollongong. He is a doctoral student at the Australian Centre of Cultural Environmental Research (University of Wollongong). His doctoral research sits within an ARC Discovery (2014-2016) project titled, ‘Sustainability and climate change adaptation: unlocking the potential of ethnic diversity’. His work focuses on the household and local neighbourhood scale. Specifically, he is exploring the diverse food gardening and growing practices of three generations of ethnic minority migrants in the Illawarra, and is more broadly interested in the emergent ecological knowledge that germinates from innocuous places and practices.