This farming experiment is helping refugees put down roots in Australia

Five entrepreneurial families from Myanmar have joined forces to lease a farm on the NSW mid-north coast and run their own organic business.

Two farmers smile at the camera as the turn soil by hand.

Houng Ma (left) is excited to be back on the land. He was a successful farmer in Myanmar, before he was forced to flee last year. Source: Lucy Murray

Metre by metre, grassy soil is turned over to prepare garden beds, and weeds are pulled by hand and taken away in a wheelbarrow.

It's a slow process, but farmer Thang Kin Shetta says it's the only way to ensure the weeds don't sprout again.

He's part of a group of five Burmese refugee families who've joined forces to lease a farm and start an organic business, at Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

Farmer Thang Kin Shetta looks towards the camera.
Thang Kin Shetta told SBS News watching plants sprout makes him happy. Source: Lucy Murray

"That's what we dream of in this country and it is starting," he told SBS News.

"We just want our own farm and we can plant some vegetables, then we can get our own incomes, our own business."

Many of the refugees were self-sustainable and had skills in agriculture in Myanmar before they were forced to flee.

A box of ginger is in the foreground and the farmers are working in the background.
The co-operative plan to fill one paddock with organic ginger, as it fetches a high price, if grown just right. Source: Lucy Murray

Now with the help of support organisation Settlement Services International, they're rebuilding what they lost.

It is providing business training through its IGNITE program.

"A lot of people arrive here, they have been entrepreneurs back home, they have expertise, they have skills, but they don't necessarily know how to start a business in an Australian context," said program manager Rebecca Mordaunt.

"We make sure they have a really great product and service, that it is marketed really well, that they have really good financial understanding and they are compliant and meet all the regulations in Australia."

IGNITE small business program manager Rebecca Mordaunt looks towards camera.
IGNITE small business program manager Rebecca Mordaunt. Source: Lucy Murray

The co-operative plans to fill one paddock with organic ginger, as it fetches a high price.

In another field, they'll plant exotic herbs and vegetables that they know will be in high demand from the migrant community.

Coffs Harbour is a refugee resettlement town, and plants such as rosella, snake bean leaves, okra and varieties of mint, while they taste like home, can be hard to find in mainstream supermarkets.

The co-operative already has a buyer lined up.

"If I can buy it locally, I will buy it locally, that is what customers want, they want fresh produce," said Felipe Barrera, owner of Coffs Harbour grocer Fresco's Marketplace.

"I have seen the demand for a wider range of products grow.

"Nine years ago when we started, we wouldn't have carried things like okra, kang kong, or bitter melon. There is a range of Asian-grown vegetables that we didn't have a demand to start with and now, we are starting to sell a lot of it.

"A lot of the communities will come into Fresco's Marketplace because we are the only ones that stock it."

But, there are a few months of hard work ahead before the group can turn a profit, as the first seeds have only just been planted.

"This is hard work, as you can see, but we feel like it is worth it," said Houng Ma, who was a successful farmer in Myanmar before he fled last year. 

"I will try my best and I think I will achieve."

3 min read
Published 21 November 2021 at 6:50am
By Lucy Murray
Source: SBS News