Mildura brings together refugee farmers and unused farmland

A story orginally from about Food Next Door Co-Op.

Originally published on 15 December 2022 –

Many refugees and migrants come from agricultural backgrounds, but access to water and land to farm in Australia can be challenging.  

That’s where Mildura’s Food Next Door Co-op comes in, matching under-utilised farmland with landless farmers wishing to grow culturally appropriate food. 

Food Next Door Co-op 

In 2019-20, when the Murray-Darling Basin was in the grips of drought, freshwater ecologist and slow food advocate, Deb Bogenhuber, got together with her community to find ways to allow the landless farmers a place to grow healthy and culturally appropriate food using ecological and sustainable methods.  

Food Next Door Co-op Executive Officer, Jane MacAllister said around 25% of farmland in the Mildura region is unused or underused.  

“Our initiative’s goal is to relieve the suffering or distress experienced by newly arrived migrants and refugee groups, particularly those without access to land and living in rural and regional areas,” Ms MacAllister said.  

“People have been removed from the life they knew. We’re working hard to solve this issue by supporting these groups to re-engage in small-scale farming and grow food, including their traditional foods. At the same time, it boosts their opportunities to become a part of the community. 

“Australia’s land and the way we farm is different to what they are used to. So, we train the farmers in managing our soil, Australian seasons, water allocations and farming techniques, and try to improve the soil without the use of chemicals. 

“By engaging people from diverse backgrounds to grow and share the food they love, they can introduce and supply new ingredients to local Mildura households. The farmer and the community can be self-sufficient, growing clean, fresh produce on small farms, helping to secure the local food cycle.” 

The MDBA’s Mildura Regional Manager Dr Andrew Kremor said it’s important, as part of our welcoming people from all walks of life into our river communities, that they have opportunities to understand the wider significance of their part of the Murray-Darling Basin. 

“The Food Next Door Co-op and the Mildura community has certainly achieved this,” Dr Kremor said. “Assisting refugee and migrant farmers to grow culturally appropriate food using sustainable methods is fantastic for our river system’s health.” 

“Water is the lifeblood of our regional communities. The MDBA wants everyone to understand we all rely on a healthy river system for drinking water, food production, tourism, and cultural practices. Thanks to organisations like the Food Next Door Co-op, this message is also reaching new residents,” Dr Andrew Kremor.

Water scarcity and market complexities can often mean buying water to grow crops was financially out of reach. To assist, the Food Next Door Co-op started another initiative – the Mildura Community Water Bank (MCWB). 

Two people in a field, repairing and connecting small drip irrigation pipes together
Farmer mentor, Peter Webb showing Joselyne how to connect irrigation piping at the community farm in Nichols Point, near Mildura, Vic. 

Mildura Community Water Bank 

“Through donated water and money, the MCWB has developed a portfolio of water rights to assist locally active sustainable farming for food consumption and a healthy river system,” Ms MacAllister said.  

“The MCWB is the only community water bank of its kind in the country. Water holders can donate temporary or permanent water allocations. They are added to the allocation bank account, and small-scale farmers can then apply for the allocations at a fair price.​” 

Ms MacAllister said MCWB gratefully receives some regular water allocation donations at the start of the financial year from local landholders. Money donated can also be used to purchase allocations, which are then added to the allocation bank account. 

Two people crouched against the wall of a steel building, with hands on a water valve to turn on the water supply to an irrigation network.
Joselyne and Bosco turning on the irrigation, with water from the Mildura Community Water Bank.

“We have had some wonderful initiatives from the community to raise money for MCWB to purchase a megalitre of permanent water, worth around $8,000,” Ms MacAllister said. 

“And a local farmer saw the ongoing benefits of small-scale regenerative farming to the community, identified a spare megalitre of their permanent water allocations and transferred the ownership to MCWB. This has set us up to succeed in the long-term – we are eternally grateful to that farmer.

Ms MacAllister said 12 megalitres of water was needed last year, so they have launched a campaign to attract more water allocations, especially permanent water.

Once again engaged in farming in their new community, the migrant and refugee farmers are encouraged to support each other through a support network. This way they can get together, visit each other’s farms and exchange ideas. Most importantly, they become part of their adopted community and share the food they love to eat and grow.

Person standing in a field, smiling, harvesting garlic.
Food Next Door Co-op Farm Co-ordinator, Joselyne Ntahomvukiye harvesting garlic at the community demonstration farm near Mildura.