green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (2024)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (1)

Smack bang between Warrawong High and Primary School exists 11 acres of what would appear to many as unusable scrubland. But as you follow the signage down to the paddock gate via Cowper Street, and begin to traipse through sections of billowy grass, what opens up is an enormous, lush living paradise… what vegie patch dreams are made of! Designed by a team led by farm manager Callum Champagne, and tended to by 12 part-time employees who are mainly former refugees, as well as a rotating roster of young people, the Green Connect Farm is focused on creating fair jobs, growing good food and caring for the planet.

Words: Dani Sherring Images Creative Events Photography

The farm, however, is part of a bigger social enterprise – at its core, Green Connect is a not-for-profit that uses business models to create social and environmental change, by opening up employment pathways for former refugees and young people to do environmental work in sustainable industries.

Green Connect began in 2011, under another of the Illawarra’s successful not-for-profits, SCARF, which supports refugees in the region. Wollongong has a big refugee population, and across Australia only 31 per cent of refugees have a job five years after resettlement. In Port Kembla and Warrawong, youth unemployment also sits at 22 to 36 per cent.

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (2)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (3)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (4)

“SCARF launched Green Connect at the Illawarra Folk Festival,” says Green Connect general manager, Kylie Flament. “They were working with so many former refugees who were struggling to get jobs, so they set up a team to manage the waste at the festival, and then the employment program grew from there. Green Connect’s goals were set: to create meaningful jobs for groups experiencing high unemployment.”

In the meantime, as this project gathered speed, Green Connect incorporated Urban Grown – an urban farm working with young people that was about to close down as its funding came to an end. Over the past five years, Green Connect has worked to turn it into the thriving urban eco-system it is today. It was a project that fit perfectly with the group’s ideology, and opened opportunities to provide training and employ non-English speaking former refugees, many of whom were already skilled in growing food, farming and tending to the land.

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (6)

One of the unique features of the site is that nowhere on the farm can you see the entire thing. The three hillsides are built on completely different soils, which means different plants do well in each section. And to tame such a wild piece of land, before a pitchfork even turned the first grain of dirt, farm manager Cal precisely planned and designed the entire space as a unit, using permaculture practices.

“There’s 2000 different definitions for permaculture,” laughs Cal. “But as I see it, it’s a design methodology used to put a system together that’s sustainable, functional and efficient. Traditionally, permaculture mimics ecological design – the multi-layered nature of an eco-system and using those layers to build something workable. In the farm’s case, we’ve taken a piece of land that’s not considered as an agriculturally functional site – it’s close to urban development, has flooding issues, is extremely steep – and developed it to grow chemical-free crops. We have an internal rotation of crops and there’s synergy between what we’re planting, what the customer wants and what the soil’s doing.”

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (7)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (8)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (9)

This ‘non-traditional site’, which started off as one little market garden, has now grown to six market gardens, which sprout enough organic produce to fill around 130 vegie boxes each week that are then sold to the public via Green Connect’s website.

“We engage directly with the local community,” says Kylie. “Which is great because by doing so we can also educate. We’re learning all the time and we love to pass this onto our customers. For example, we’ve learnt through some of our former refugee employees that sweet potato leaves are delicious and totally usable, so when we include those in a vegie box, we include that info too, in turn preventing food waste.”

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (10)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (11)

The farm also sells free-range pork directly to customers and local restaurants from their pigs, as well as eggs from the chickens who roam and honey from on-site hives that are supplied by a beekeeper in Austinmer. Sheep also live on the farm, with the intention to sell free-range lamb in the future.

“We’re learning a lot as we go with the animals,” says Kylie. “Whenever you farm animals you have to have Local Land Services make sure you’re doing the right thing, and we’re heartened by the fact that when they came here to visit our pigs, they said they’re the healthiest and happiest they’ve ever seen. We realise that for some, seeing the pigs that are then eaten might be confronting, but our whole ethos centres around knowing where your food comes from and making ethical decisions based on that.”

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (12)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (13)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (14)

Green Connect has lots of moving parts, all of which work together towards their commitment to create employment for the disadvantaged or disengaged while lessening environmental impact. Earlier this year, the organisation kicked off its work experience program, which includes real work skills, training and experience for 15 to 24-year-olds on the farm.

“We interviewed lots of young people in our region and so many said they wanted to make a difference,” says Kylie. “So we created a program where they can try new things, meet new people, make mistakes, learn and come away with practical skills and experience. The program also provides paid jobs that are meaningful, coupled with support from trained staff. Jobs that are safe and stable, because sometimes life is not.”

Word-of-mouth is what sees most young people involved in the program approach Green Connect to find out how they can get their hands dirty, or schools offer intervention programs where students go to the farm one day a week as part of their education.

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (15)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (16)

“The confidence students gain after spending a day on the farm is amazing – young people who started the day with their heads down, not making eye contact, end their shift in the garden asking when they can come back. Cal will be telling them, ‘Look at what you achieved today!’ and they all go home with a smile on their face,” says Kylie.

On top of the education programs run on the farm and open days where the community can come and explore the permaculture paradise for themselves, tasting tamarillos (tree tomatoes) straight from the plant, Green Connect is also committed to zero-waste and helping businesses and events go zero-waste. They advocated and worked with Wollongong City Council as they transitioned to single-use plastic-free, and they manage waste at big festivals like Viva la Gong, Fairgrounds, Lost Paradise and Yours & Owls. Their weekly produce boxes are packaged in waxed cardboard boxes, with all remnants of the boxes being composted and turned back into soil to grow more green goodness and they also offer waste audits to schools and businesses.

This means a team will be sent to a school, for example, to go through all the bins and figure out problem areas. “Sometimes schools will have a coffee cup or a popper problem, so we provide ways to reduce this form of waste by setting up systems,” says Kylie. “We help people find better options, sort the bins and make sure 100 per cent of what can be composted or recycled is. In schools, we train Year 5 students as waste warriors and then offer to come back yearly to track progress.”

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (17)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (18)

green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (19)

For Green Connect, education and awareness are key. And this homegrown community group has made strides in not only shifting people’s mentality around what we eat and where our food comes from, but also in providing a fair go for those who are otherwise often forgotten. In their eight years of operation, Green Connect has achieved much, provided practical solutions to local issues, and built a beautiful base where the seeds of a sustainable future are being sown.

“We want to keep building on our three pillars and creating jobs that are good for the planet and good for the community – more jobs, less waste,” says Kylie. “We’re constantly re-evaluating how we can make the farm a place that the community can really engage in – we want hold events and workshops and teach people to grow in their own backyard. We just want to continue to create a wonderful space that calls people back again and again.”

For more information and to order your weekly vegie box online, head to www.green-connect.com.au

>
We’re learning all the time and we love to pass this onto our customers. For example, we’ve learnt through some of our former refugee employees that sweet potato leaves are delicious and totally usable, so when we include those in a vegie box, we include that info too, in turn preventing food waste
green connect - Coal Coast Magazine (2024)

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Cheryll Lueilwitz

Last Updated:

Views: 6464

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Cheryll Lueilwitz

Birthday: 1997-12-23

Address: 4653 O'Kon Hill, Lake Juanstad, AR 65469

Phone: +494124489301

Job: Marketing Representative

Hobby: Reading, Ice skating, Foraging, BASE jumping, Hiking, Skateboarding, Kayaking

Introduction: My name is Cheryll Lueilwitz, I am a sparkling, clean, super, lucky, joyous, outstanding, lucky person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.