A third maize harvest at the Sunraysia Burundian Garden

May 6, 2019 - 11:36am

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by Olivia Dun, Natascha Klocker and Lesley Head

In March this year, a third annual maize harvest BBQ was held at the Sunraysia Burundian Garden, a one-acre plot of donated land in Mildura, Victoria. The third annual harvest attracted over 70 Mildura locals, including the Mayor and newly elected Victorian Independent MP (Ali Cupper), to taste some barbecued African maize that had been farmed by members of Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian community. The Sunraysia Burundian Garden originally kicked off as a pilot demonstration component under a former ARC Discovery Project ‘Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments and environmentalism’ and we are pleased to see it is continuing to run under its own steam.

May 2019 marks three years since we presented our research findings from interviews with members of Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian Community at the May 2016 workshop ‘Diverse people, diverse crops: Exploring agricultural possibilities in the Sunraysia’, which we co-convened in partnership with Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC) and (the then) Mildura Development Corporation. Our research with Burundian migrants in Mildura, conducted in 2015, revealed some had relocated to Mildura after spending time living in larger Australian cities, motivated by more affordable rent and a strong desire to farm. Our research revealed that despite being experienced farmers, none of the Burundian migrants were farm owners in the Sunraysia region, primarily because they could not afford to rent or purchase farmland. Through the interview process, they expressed an overwhelmingly strong desire to farm in Australia. They wanted to grow food for subsistence/food security (and eventually for sale), to gain access to culturally important foods, to improve their physical and mental health, reduce isolation and inactivity, and to build connections and create a sense of belonging. They saw an opportunity to put their farming skills and experience to use in the Sunraysia landscape, but lacked access to land. They were landless farmers. During the research interviews, Joel Sindayigaya, the President of Mildura’s Twitezimbere Burundian Community Association, asked us, "is there any way possible to bring a request forward about how people [in our Burundian community] might be able to receive help to have something to do, like farming…?" After we provided this context during the May 2016 workshop, Joel articulated this same request to the workshop participants asking for help to access around four acres of farmland.

Unbeknown to us, amongst the workshop participants were members of a local food movement in Mildura which had formed in early 2016 around common concerns about the lack of locally-grown fresh produce in Mildura. To address their concerns they had been identifying underutilised land in their region to ‘match’ it with people who wanted to grow food for local consumption, but who did not have access to land. Unfortunately they hadn’t, until the workshop, been able to find people with both the time and skills to farm. Immediately following the workshop, a meeting was convened between the research team and local food movement members, who confirmed that they were happy to provide the Burundian community with free access to one acre of farmland adjacent to their business. This moment kick-started the Sunraysia Burundian Garden, the inaugural pilot demonstration of the Food Next Door model, an initiative (then unnamed) that matches landless farmers with unused land. The first maize seeds were sown in September 2016 and the first harvest BBQ was held in February 2017. An ABC Landline episode in April 2017 captured this pilot project.

 The pilot project prompted the expansion of Mildura’s local food movement with the core group of local food movement members forming a not-for-profit cooperative, Food Next Door Co-op, in 2018. Now that the pilot phase has ended, the Burundian community continues to grow food on the pilot site and plans to commence trialling peanuts and African beans on another 4-acre plot in Mildura donated by a private land owner. They are also keen to farm on an even larger plot at the proposed Food Next Door Co-op community demonstration farm which has recently been promised $600,000 in funding under the Victorian Government’s Regional Partnerships model. While the pilot and follow-on activities are still a fragile experiment with an uncertain future, they have served to highlight the increasing presence and role of migrants and cultural diversity in Australian rural towns, and the ways in which farming can effectively create a sense of belonging for such migrants.

 The full story about the Sunraysia Burundian Garden has been captured as a book chapter ‘Bringing Together Landless Farmers and Unused Farmland: The Sunraysia Burundian Garden and Food Next Door Initiative’ we co-authored with Deborah Bogenhuber, Joselyne Kadahari, John Niyera and Joel Sindayigaya in the book Reclaiming the Urban Commons: The past, present and future of food growing in Australian towns and cities co-edited by Nick Rose and Andrea Gaynor. The book was launched at a well-attended event on 25 October 2018 at the William-Angliss Institute in Melbourne. It’s been exciting to tell this rural city food story alongside the many urban-based examples in the book.

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