By JULIUS DENNIS
The landscape surrounding Uncle’s Farm defines arid. Buffel grows in dense puffs. Dust follows cars in billowing clouds. To the untrained eye, it seems an awfully strange place for growing food.
It sits a couple of kilometres outside the remote community of Ali Curung, 377 klicks north of Alice Springs, off the Stuart Highway.
But Grace Skehan, who works there, says: “The soil here is some of the most fertile in the country, it’s just very dry. It’s really great for growing things, as long as you’ve got enough water.”
“Don’t worry about water,” says Derek Walker, who also works on the farm, a nature classroom for local Aboriginal kids.
While the surface may be dry, bores puncture the surface.
So far the farm is experimenting with growing garlic with a small scale trial and has plans to do the same with 300 grafted low humidity mango trees.
However, the most interesting part about all of this is that Ms Skehan is not a farmer, she’s a teacher, and a majority of the farmers here are her students.
Uncle’s Farm isn’t the official name, the full title of the facility which is owned by Centrefarm, is the Lhurna Therrk Training Farm.
Farmers Del and Neil Norris run the day to day operations and hope the farm will eventually lead to a productive farm run by and for local people.
The plan involves three cohorts: Cohort One, made up of year seven, eight and nine students who have a vegetable garden and greenhouse at the school; Cohort Two, consisting of year ten, eleven and twelve students who do their work and learning at the farm; and Cohort Three, which is attempting to engage unemployed people in Ali Curung.
Mr Walker, who is a workplace trainer at the farm, says: “We need our kids to start working, to look after the community.”
He is keen to break the cycle of kids leaving the area to go to boarding school and give them the opportunity for an education here on the farm.
At the last census Ali Curung had an 28.9% unemployment rate. The statistic is dated now, but a look around town says anecdotally that not much has changed in that department.
Local CDP workers say they have trouble filling roles, especially after the Covid supplement affected 2020: “There’s very long term unemployment here in Ali Curung, and there’s an unemployed … I’ll call it a culture.
“It’s something that’s very difficult to break, and sometimes it’s been generational,” says Del Norris.
Down the road a little further is the Desert Springs farm, run on land leased from Centrefarm. That farm is essentially run without any local Aboriginal workers.
Mrs Norris thinks that the lack of locals working at Desert Springs for the farm’s owner Paul Mclaughlin is due to the current unemployment culture. She feels this will change with the training being done at the Lhurna Therrk Training Farm in conjunction with the Alekarenge School.
“Paul is a commercial watermelon farmer, so obviously his focus is very much different to ours.”
At Uncle’s Farm they are doing their best to bridge that divide.
“Anything to do with agri food is what we’re looking at, you know, any pathway towards farming in that respect, is what Cohorts One and Two really are being trained for.”
While they are having limited luck with Cohort Three they are doing much better with Cohort Two.
Ms Skehan says that she has five to ten daily students at the farm. Their days are not that dissimilar to a normal school day in terms of hours spent — they arrive around 9am in the morning and leave at 3pm Monday through Thursday. They spend the morning hours learning to work the land, and the afternoon on literacy and numeracy curriculum.
On Fridays, the students do work experience in local work places, many of them acting as teacher’s aids at the Alekarenge School.
Through this method, the students will hopefully graduate school with the extra accreditation of certificate’s one and two in agrifood operations. The students will also have the opportunity to take part in hospitality and driving courses later this year.
It is the first opportunity in a decade for local students to study past year ten in Ali Curung.
The success of the program can be measured by the fact students want to stay in Ali Curung to participate, says Ms Skehan.
“We’ve got a few students who have come back from boarding school who don’t want to go back to boarding school elsewhere.
“So it’s a really good opportunity for them to do years ten eleven and twelve in the community.”
Year twelve student Charlton Martin says that without the opportunity that farm offers him not only in schooling but for future employment, he would have “go find a job” elsewhere. Now, he plans to work for the Norris’s next year once he graduates.
Mr Walker says: “Local people with local jobs in the community working for themselves and providing everything” is the end goal.
In the meantime, he is happy to see young people coming back from boarding schools and town (Alice Springs).
“There’s nothing to do in town, this is what you do in your home.”
Mrs Norris, who along with her husband takes lead on the morning classes, could not be more impressed by the students on the farm.
“They are absolutely amazing young people and I feel so privileged to be working with them. I think they are just … they’re interested, they’re engaged.
“You know, some of the students or trainees that we have in Cohort Two have actually not been at school for more than a year.
“If the future of Ali Curung is in the hands of these young people, and it is, then there is a bright future for Ali Curung.”
For that future to have the farm at the heart of it, it will have to become a commercial success as well as a social one. Mrs Norris thinks that this can happen, especially in light of the success that the farm has had with the garlic trials.
Last year’s trial was just one quarter of a hectare. The same will be done this year, but mostly because of a shortage of seed caused by a late frost in Victoria where most of the garlic in Australia is grown.
“Next year we’re hoping for at least 5 hectares,” says Mrs Norris.
That’s small fries compared to what could be done here. The farm is 130 hectares in size. At the moment around 80% of garlic consumed in Australia is imported from overseas. There’s a big space in the market for locally produced bulbs.
“It’ll be great when Australia can produce more garlic and that’s what we’re hoping to be able to achieve here with this trial. In time, if we can get 50 hectares under garlic that would be a big boost to the Australian garlic harvest.”
Currently, other than the garlic and soon mangos, the farm is producing a range of products at a low level with the aim of selling them in the community.
There is a crop of pumpkins not far away and a coup of chickens producing eggs to be sold at seven dollars a dozen. Plans are being made to pickle the zingy, fig like bush sultanas that grow at random around the area for sale.
The Moringa tree is known colloquially as the tree of life; every part of it can be used and consumed.
One grows on the farm next to the vegetable patch that the students are learning to work. Under the canopy, Charlton Martin and fellow student Nicholas Ray diligently water seedlings sprouted from the same tree, as Mr Walker watches on: “We water them everyday like this.”
Mr Walker says that the plan to eventually hand off the farm to be completely run by the community is a “long way” off, but the seeds have been planted.