Farm it forward
Discover a social enterprise restoring soils, creating local employment and growing connected, resilient communities.
It’s all hands on deck Friday mornings at Lyttleton Stores as volunteers, coordinators and Farm it Forward (FIF) growers sort freshly picked produce for delivery to local cafes, restaurants and landowners on whose properties the bountiful harvest is grown. Colourful carrots, burgundy beets, bouquets of fragrant basil and glossy eggplants as big as your head are testament to the success of this social enterprise conceived by the dedicated Lyttleton team.
“We began developing the idea during the winter of 2019 using a holistic decision-making process to design the enterprise,” explains Manu (Emmanuela) Prigioni, garden coordinator and Farm it Forward mentor. The concept was to connect landowners with young farmers who are mentored to learn how to grow food that can be distributed locally through Co-op’s, community food rescue programs, schools and businesses. The aim: to address local issues of food security, community resilience, youth training and unemployment, and social isolation. “Our end goal was to develop a sustainable working model that communities could adopt and implement in their own areas,” says Manu. But first they had to set up the plots. Sylvia May was the first FIF landowner to offer her property (garden 37 on the Edible Garden Trail) for cultivation. “In most cases we started out with really depleted lawn but at Sylvia’s place it was an old clay and sand tennis court,” Manu remembers. “We piled on the organic matter and held working bees where volunteers shovelled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of compost. Then we formed beds, installed drip irrigation and within about four weeks were growing food.” By October 2019 there were six FIF plots, five in the mid-mountain towns of Lawson and Hazelbrook, and one in Blackheath. At Hillier Windsor’s Blackheath patch (garden 9 on the Edible Garden Trail) the team grow produce for Katoomba-based food rescue organisation Earth Recovery Australia and the Blackheath Public School canteen. But it hasn’t been easy going. “We haven’t had as much excess produce as we’d like because of the myriad challenges we’ve faced over summer,” explains Manu. “From drought, heatwaves and bushfires to gale force winds, hail and storms. But we still managed to grow food.”
"The value of being with people and having your hands in the soil planting, harvesting and getting in touch with food is hugely beneficial.”
Volunteers have been integral to the success of the project she says. “It’s amazing how varied the ages and backgrounds of our volunteers are and how much they bring to each task and get out of the experience in terms of exchanging knowledge and the therapeutic element of gardening. The value of being with people and having your hands in the soil planting, harvesting and getting in touch with food is hugely beneficial.” Joining forces with Blacktown Youth College, Lawson branch, and Mountains Youth Services allowed FIF to share these benefits with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle in the mainstream school system. “A group of kids come weekly throughout the school term and help out on which ever market garden plot needs them,” says Manu. "One of the kids was enjoying it so much he even turned up when it was called off. You could just see the change in him when he started gardening. We were lucky enough to get a grant from NSW Department of Justice & Community Youth Opportunities so we could offer him a summer job and hopefully he’ll pursue a career in food growing.” This emphasis on teaching a new generation of growers inspired former volunteer James (Jimmy) Broughton to join the FIF mentoring program. “I love the hands-on approach to learning,” he says. “Manu is teaching me about ecological succession, soil health and composting. It’s a great opportunity and feels really good to be in the garden.” Jack Galluzzi has been involved in FIF from the start. Disillusioned by the use of chemical inputs and sprays in conventional farming, and society’s reliance on big supermarket chains, Jack wanted to nurture the land and grow food for local consumption. “As a Lawson local I felt like the best place to start having an impact on the state of the word was in my own backyard,” he says. “I feel passionate about making this a project that can be passed on and replicated in other communities. We’re also working on building a database of resources and developing an app to give people access to information so they can learn to propagate seeds, build the soil and harvest food.” Linking backyard growers on the Edible Garden Trail is great for community resilience, especially in times of drought, fire or flood says Jack. “Hopefully it motivates people to grow more food that we will see for sale in our shops.”
Chef Jeremy from Lawson’s Cortado café couldn’t agree more. He is excited about having access to hyper-local produce. “What Farm it Forward is doing is fantastic on so many levels,” he says. “As a chef, for over ten years, to get produce that has been harvested that morning certainly makes my job a lot easier; I just let the produce shine.”