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Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —Welcome. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Cooney —Centrefarm is an Aboriginal owned not-for-profit organisation. We are governed by a board of directors and owned by a membership of Indigenous people. The main function of Centrefarm is as a front-end developer of horticulture type projects, but realistically we look at ourselves as developers of economies in Aboriginal communities. We develop those economies on behalf of the Aboriginal landowners, so we are basically their principal agents in developing projects. We have quite a small staff but we do quite substantial projects. The sorts of people we have on our staff are project managers and project developers, and we have an engineer, an economist and a CPA. Our main functions are to identify economic opportunities for Aboriginal people on their land and to take those projects through to the stage where they are actually developed. Through our efforts over the last five years Centrefarm has basically doubled the horticulture industry in Central Australia. If you go stand on the highway long enough today you will see two road trains of watermelons going through town that have come off Centrefarm development projects. They have been going at a rate of two road trains a day for the last month and that will continue for the next month. That is about 20 per cent of our current projects and over the next couple of years we will see that increase fivefold.

The reason I am here today is that we have been approached several times to do some community development type projects. I initially considered that they were outside the scope of what Centrefarm was actually set up to do, but because of the number of approaches we had on this we decided that we needed to look at it with a fresh set of eyes. Fifteen Aboriginal communities have come to us and said: we want to do community farms or community garden type developments. Given the number of people who are coming to us, we had to give it some consideration. The short story is that we developed a strategy which we call Growing-to-Grow. Growing-to-Grow is basically a project set up to develop community farms. Our role in that is to be the facilitator between the community development and commercial aspects of the project.

There is quite a bit of information on Growing-to-Grow in these notes, which I will submit to you at the end of my evidence, but the real heart of my submission to the committee is that a key part of the Growing-to-Grow project was an alliance that we were building with a group called Outback Stores. That alliance is an essential part of the Growing-to-Grow project in that we are looking at Aboriginal communities actually developing community farms and gardens in their communities based on the resources that are available to them. Centrefarm’s role in that is to provide a series of interconnecting services around the areas that have caused these projects to fail in the past. There are some pretty well recorded reasons for those failures in the past. At the end of dealing with those issues there needs to be a distribution network, and we look at Outback Stores as being a key part of that distribution network.

CHAIR —What are the reasons these have failed in the past?

Mr Cooney —They failed mainly for three reasons. The first reason is succession. Usually what has happened in community farms in most communities you will visit in Central Australia and probably all over Australia—and certainly all the Aboriginal communities I have been in at some stage have had a community garden or community farm—there is almost always an individual behind that community farm. That individual gets old, changes direction in life and, for whatever reason, leaves the community and there is no succession in place for that community to continue the farm on. So the skill set that set it up in the first place has gone.

The next reason is that there is no real community skill sets around farming. Anyone who has been involved in farming—and I am a career farmer—will tell you that it is a high order discipline. It requires high technical skills, and most communities are not exposed to those skills in any way, shape or form. It takes 15 to 20 years to make an effective farmer. It takes a couple of generations to make a really good one. Aboriginal communities are just not exposed to that sort of thing.

The third thing is issues around governance. There are basic things like reporting on the money, what happens to that money and all those sorts of things—the business structure. One of the things that Centrefarm has done is actually to set up a unique business structure to make these things work. We are looking at putting the skill sets required for a community farm to be able to function effectively into one business unit.

CHAIR —Do you mean a model set of rules or do you mean a model business plan?

Mr Cooney —It is not really a business plan; it is a business structure. The business is structured in such a way that there are firewalls that set aside the risk factors for whatever that business, particularly a farming business, is. There are several risk factors in farming that are not often clearly identified and that cause farming businesses to fail worldwide, not just in Aboriginal communities.

CHAIR —With regard to the three issues that you identified, which were succession, governance and training—

Mr Cooney —Technical skills.

CHAIR —Yes, technical skills. You mentioned a bit about the governance side of things, that you have the business structure in place. How do you address the skills and succession issues?

Mr Cooney —With regard to the skills issue, in this specific project we would have an agronomist who would manage the 15 farming set-ups. Their role would be to go out and specifically address the technical issues, whatever they may be for that particular farm. Those skills would be based in a central position, so it becomes a job, not a vocation, for a single person on a community. Those technical skills could be hired. Centrefarm would have an agronomist on staff. We have an agronomist on staff now, but we are highly likely to put a new one on staff for this project, and that person would provide the technical skills. As a part of this project, we have been in discussions with Desert Knowledge CRC about some of the technology they have available for remote sensing, remote monitoring—all those sorts of things. That person would manage that whole part of it. So, if there is a problem on one farm, it would immediately be identified and something would be done about it.

CHAIR —What about succession?

Mr Cooney —That is the succession. If you have a community with an individual in that community who is the brains behind the farming operation and that person leaves, there is nobody to take it over. If you have an organisation which delivers those services to that community, you have dealt with the key problem of the succession.

CHAIR —I want to understand more clearly about Centrefarm and your structure. You are a not-for-profit organisation?

Mr Cooney —Yes.

CHAIR —Are you owned by the CLC?

Mr Cooney —No, we are owned by an Aboriginal membership. It is complex for a very short explanation, but when we develop a project the individual Aboriginal groups that we develop the project for have the opportunity to become members and the membership owns the company. We were developed out of CLC. It was a CLC policy for economic development in action but we do not have formal ties to CLC.

CHAIR —How many staff do you have?

Mr Cooney —Six plus about three consultants that we regularly use.

CHAIR —It sounds like the six plus the three are all experts.

Mr Cooney —They are experts in various fields of endeavour, and we have an expanding strategy for various things that we need to cover. We have somebody who is a professional in community development, for instance.

CHAIR —You mentioned watermelons as a crop that you are growing. Are we talking about local foods? Are we talking about bush tomatoes, for example, or are we talking about traditional foods?

Mr Cooney —At the moment it is really large-scale horticulture, so it is projects worth several multiples of millions of dollars. But, because we have had constant approaches for small-scale, community based farms, we had to look at it. We looked at what could be made to work and this G2G model is the model we have come up.

CHAIR —Are there community farms up and running at the moment?

Mr Cooney —Yes, but on a really small scale and they struggle with those very issues. They struggle with the governance issues. They struggle with the succession. The one that I most familiar with, which is one of the 15 that is to be a part of the G2G project, has a champion, a key person, in there. If that person were run over by a bus, that whole thing would be gone in a few days.

CHAIR —But what sorts of things are they growing?

Mr Cooney —They are growing tomatoes.

CHAIR —Bush tomatoes?

Mr Cooney —No, just normal tomatoes.

CHAIR —Is that all they are growing?

Mr Cooney —That is all they are growing. There are other communities which have vegetable farms and all those sorts of things that we are not directly involved in. What we are growing at the moment on the projects—I should not say ‘we are growing’ because Centrefarm does the front-end development stuff. What we do is hand the project over to a professional farmer and they become a business operator on that project in much the same way as a shopping centre has businesses established within a precinct.

CHAIR —Then there is a relationship with Outback Stores which guarantees the purchasing of the crop.

Mr Cooney —That is the intended relationship. It is not a formal relationship at this stage, because this is a very new project for us. We only got confirmation last week that we have money to do the initial work.

CHAIR —Where was the money from?

Mr Cooney —We got money from the Aboriginal Benefits Reserve for it. Do you understand the Aboriginal Benefits Reserve?


Mr Cooney —The Aboriginal Benefits Reserve is money that is earned from mining royalties on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. It is a Northern-Territory-specific body. What happens is that the mining royalties are paid to the Australian government. The Australian government in turn gives dollar for dollar to the Aboriginal Benefits Reserve. That money is used in three ways. One way it is used is for the maintenance of the land councils. There are four land councils in the Northern Territory. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act established those statutory bodies to perform the functions of that act. Forty per cent of the money goes into that. Thirty per cent of the money is paid directly to the people affected by mining, and they, in turn, choose what they want to do with that money. Quite a large amount of it in Central Australia is actually invested, but some people choose to take the money in cash and use it for their own living expenses. And the other 30 per cent is used for economic development.

Centrefarm get about 30 per cent of our operating money from the fund and we also get money for specific projects from the fund. I am not sure of the actual numbers, but it is quite a large fund of money that funds all sorts of economic projects on Aboriginal land all over the Northern Territory.

Mrs VALE —Thanks very much, Allan, for coming in and sharing this with us because it really is important for how we can encourage fresh fruit and produce locally. It seems to be an important aspect. You say you do large-scale farming—is that right?

Mr Cooney —Yes.

Mrs VALE —Where do you do your large-scale farming?

Mr Cooney —The large-scale farming is done at the moment at Ali Curung. We have got about six projects on which we are at the stage of doing the front-end development. But the only farming that is actually being carried on at the moment is at Ali Curung, and that is an enormous field of watermelons. If you stand in the middle of it and look outwards, the watermelons go over the horizon in every direction.

Mrs VALE —So you have watermelons under cultivation at that place?

Mr Cooney —Yes.

Mrs VALE —And you were talking about tomatoes. Where do the tomatoes grow?

Mr Cooney —That is at Ngurratjuta, which is down at Kings Canyon. These are not our projects. Again, we do the front-end stuff on the development. So we do the issues around the land title and the natural resource issues, the interface with government. We do all the funding applications if that is required. We bring the project operators in. We do not actually grow anything. The only crop that I grow is some weeds in my backyard!

Mrs VALE —You were saying that you have requests from smaller communities to go into the communities to help them establish a community garden—a market garden, if you like—and this is something that you are only just beginning. This is the new funding that you have only got last week?

Mr Cooney —Yes.

Mrs VALE —How many communities will you be going into to do this?

Mr Cooney —We have had approaches from 15 communities to do these projects. In the simplest terms, the way these projects will work is that the community will be the grower, Centrefarm will provide the resources, and there will be a market at the end of it. Our discussions with Outback Stores have been that they will ultimately be the bulk of our market. So the product that is grown in the communities will go from that community into the Outback Stores network. They will distribute that produce around the place. Farming is a high-skill business, as I have said before. We do not expect a community to grow all its food needs on one of these community farms.

Mrs VALE —No, of course not.

Mr Cooney —What we would expect the community to do is to choose maybe two or three crops, or something like that, and they would specialise in growing those. They would go into a network. They would get some sort of a credit arrangement within that network for selling a wholesale product and, in turn, they would get fresh produce that is produced by other Aboriginal communities and their own community coming back through the network—in the simplest terms.

Mrs VALE —So it is not so much like barter as, ‘We will grow a particular vegetable and you can grow a particular vegetable or fruit and perhaps we can’—

Mr Cooney —Unfortunately, in Australia, we cannot use a barter system.

Mrs VALE —No, I know.

Mr Cooney —We have tax laws that do not allow that.

Mrs VALE —I realise that.

Mr Cooney —It is pretty much that the community will sell somewhere in the system. We do not know yet. As I said, it is early days in the project. There will be a credit held by that community, and that community will get produce back from other areas.

Mrs VALE —And your organisation will provide the seeds and the seedlings and so on?

Mr Cooney —No, we will provide the technical expertise and the strategy that sits around that. Each community will be responsible for the actual farming operations. What we will provide is the technical expertise, the governance and the system that all those things sit in. We are just not geared up, nor is it our charter, to actually go out and grow things in communities.

The problem in all of these cases of economic development in remote communities is that there is a huge gap in what actually happens on the ground. So you have got community development happening over here and you have got a desire to do commercial, economic activities over here, but in the middle there is no transition from there to there. There is an expectation from the greater community that somehow that gap will spontaneously be jumped over by people that are stuck in this community development world. So what we are trying to do is actually sit in that gap and provide a bridge from community development to some sort of sustainable economic activity. I do not like using the word ‘sustainable’, for all the reasons that everybody else does not like using it here. What is sustainable? How big a footprint is required for sustainability? What we are saying is that some sort of economic activity can be got out of that community development stuff over there but the gap in all these things is the transition from one to the other. The skill sets required for community development and the skills sets required for business are two totally different things.

Mrs VALE —I understand that. I was just trying to work out how the logistics are really going to work. You were saying that, in a community, perhaps you will have a committee that is organising the farming and—

Mr Cooney —Yes. I can elaborate on that a bit. We probably will not use committees. We have what we call a business model, which is a structure that we use. It is the way we do business on the large-scale. We do the same sort of thing. There will basically be either a proprietary limited company or an Aboriginal corporation that functions under corporate law. The people who are directors of that will function as directors of that organisation, not as a committee.

Mrs VALE —So they will have the capacity to appoint managers and employ people?

Mr Cooney —Yes.

Mrs VALE —And it is envisaged that people from the community will be employed to actually work on that committee?

Mr Cooney —Absolutely. Ultimately the idea of this is to provide people with whole skill sets that are then transferable elsewhere.

Mrs VALE —So they could perhaps get a certificate in basic horticulture or something like that?

Mr Cooney —Certificates are great, but it is the skills sets that come with it that we are really trying to achieve for a lot of people in these communities. I come out of agriculture and, as I say to people, my exposure to government before coming to Alice Springs was when I got booked for speeding occasionally—and that was about it. I worked in private enterprise and my involvement with government was minimal. So it always amazes me to see how much government involves itself in people’s everyday lives.

Mrs VALE —I know that you are doing horticulture but do you see opportunities to develop a poultry farm, and have eggs and chickens, or a pig farm?

Mr Cooney —I get somebody come into my office at least twice a month proposing some sort of project. The theme of these projects in the last year has been carbon biosequestration, renewable energy fuels and all those sorts of things. It has got to the stage where it is higher likely that our next large-scale project will be something along those lines. We are in negotiations with three different organisations that want to do those sorts of things right at this moment. From a community farms perspective, yes. Anything you can do on a farm we would consider that you would be able to do on a community farm if the community has the will to do it. Our role in this is to provide the community with enough information to give them the idea that this is something they want to do or do not want to do. If they do not want to do it we fill in some of the skills gaps. These things fall down a lot of the time. We have a CPA on staff to make sure the governance is done right rather than relying on somebody who does not have the whole skills set around how to deal with ASIC in managing a proprietary limited company and the reporting requirements of that. We provide that as a part of the service that we provide to each one of these communities.

Mrs VALE —By establishing a company to do this activity at a community level, you are trying to establish a corps of expertise?

Mr Cooney —We will probably use in this case Aboriginal corporations rather than proprietary limited companies. In the larger scale ones, we do use proprietary limited companies. We have a structure we have developed around a series of contracts that hold that structure together, and that has been the work of several years.

Mrs VALE —The ultimate aim is to develop a corps of expertise that remains within the community, whichever vehicle you use.

Mr Cooney —Absolutely—yes.

Mr TURNOUR —You said you have a background in agriculture. What is your background?

Mr Cooney —I owned and managed a family agriculture business in Queensland. We had five pastoral properties in south-west Queensland. I did that from 1983 until 2000. I sold the family business and distributed the assets amongst all the partners and that sort of thing. I took my part of it and did share trading for a couple of years. I found it an extremely boring way to live my life, so I worked as a director of marketing for an agricultural company. We developed some pretty innovative products that we distributed all over Australia and South America. I got to the stage of being on a jet more than I was home, so I decided I wanted to do something that benefited my community a little bit more. I always chose to live in remote Australia. I also wanted something where I would be home most nights. This opportunity came along and it fit both those criteria.

Mr TURNOUR —We talk about the issue of sustainability, but, if you are looking at setting up a company structure and that sort of thing, you are looking at something that can support a fair bit of an overhang in terms of legalities associated with that. You talked about commercial-run ventures. Is that correct?

Mr Cooney —Again, there is the dichotomy between community development and economic development. Community development is only sustainable by having a much larger sustainable community, like a national community. We are trying to take that community development stuff and give it some sort of value in the economic world. I do not think the community development stuff, which is the stuff that is going to go on on the ground, with training and all those sorts of things, will be fully economically supported on the business side. I heard you say you have a degree in agriculture. You will know that the sort of agricultural enterprise required to support the food production for a community of 500 people is probably the size of Mildura. It is on that scale. That is just not going to happen.

Mr TURNOUR —I agree. The point I was getting at, though, is the philosophy behind what you are about. You are not necessarily about creating market gardens that can support people getting a bit more food; you are really looking at what communities can do in the longer term to develop something of more a commercial nature. Watermelons as far as you can see is not just about watermelons for that community but selling watermelons into a commercial market.

Mr Cooney —We are talking about two different things. Our real focus is on large-scale horticulture. What Centrefarm is trying to do is create a large enough economy to support quite a sizeable community. The project that is going on at Ali Curung at the moment, for instance, will, when it is finished, have potentially about 120 to 150 full-time job equivalents. Those are not full-time jobs; they are full-time job equivalents, which means that over some periods of the year there will be 300 people working on those farms and at other times there might be 30 or 40 or something like that. For a community the size of Ali Curung, that is a substantial opportunity that has not been there before.

On the community farm level, which is the narrow focus of why we are here today, the gap at Ali Curung, for instance, is the fact that nobody there has any sort of discernible skills around agriculture or horticulture. In these communities we are trying to develop some skill sets and some understanding of what goes on in agriculture and horticulture. That is the community development stuff that is going on over here. The difficulty is transferring that stuff into the commercial world. People who have been involved in these community farms may say, ‘While the harvest is on, I’m going to go to the harvest and pick melons and make $500 a day for the next six weeks, and then I can go back to this sort of lifestyle.’ What is missing at the moment is any sort of bridge from that stuff there to that stuff there. That bridge is made up of exposure and the sort of work culture that is required on a modern farm: training, education and exposure to agriculture practice in other parts of the world. A whole suite of things makes up that bridge from one to the other. The things we are trying to put in place to make up that bridge include technical skills, governance—a whole suite of things.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for giving us your time today. We really appreciate it.

 [2.06 pm]