Deb Bogenhuber is motivated by a deep connection to country and an interest in changing local food economies. As an ecologist and slow food proponent, Deb is fascinated by systems and the interaction of natural elements including land, water and soil.
Through her work as Executive Officer of Mildura-based Food Next Door Co-op, Deb has become involved in the organisation’s Sunraysia Burundian Garden. This initiative connects migrant and refugee farmers to under-utilised land and, as a result, is having an impact on community wellbeing.
A key goal of the Co-op is to facilitate chemical-free growing by small-scale regenerative farmers, and to pass produce through to local buyers through a food box scheme.
At the outset, parcels of land around Mildura were identified for potential growing, but it was a struggle to find farmers. A fortuitous meeting with university academics delivered the perfect match. They were in town to study how people of ethnically diverse backgrounds value nature and practise agriculture in the Australian context.
The research team knew members of Mildura’s Burundian community who held a strong desire to farm, as they had done in their East African homeland.
The subsequent pilot project with local partners delivered a vacant plot on which almost 20 farmers grew maize crop using traditional techniques, tapping into scientific expertise, and informing agricultural understanding.
Deb explains that it’s been a fulfilling project, building relationships and sharing knowledge. “We’ve discovered that collaborative farming can build community in multiple and unexpected ways. There has been a range of outcomes, including a sense of place and belonging.”
Deb is not a farmer but recognises that working with farmers has helped her to connect directly with food growing, and to contribute to the system in her own way. “The conversations and experience also remind us how farmers need support from the broader community so that they can focus on growing our food,” she says.
The successful model is expanding productive acreage and connecting with diverse migrant communities across Sunraysia. There’s also a pilot underway in south coast New South Wales after local landholders heard about the initiative.