Myanmar refugees overcome wet weather, floods to start farming co-operative on NSW Coffs Coast
Thing Sai Manrhing enjoyed farming the lush, green hillsides of Myanmar before being forced to flee his home country.
He and his wife Zilhing Takluem arrived in Australia in 2013 and ever since, they have been longing to get back on the land.
Mr Manrhing secured work as a picker on a blueberry farm in Coffs Harbour, on the NSW Mid North Coast, but he’s always wanted to have his own farm.
“I enjoy farming … I wanted to start a business, my own business,” he said.
He also found foods like okra and rosella leaf, which are popular in Myanmar, were impossible to find or too expensive to buy from local shops.
Mr Manrhing’s dream of starting a farming business was shared by many of the region’s Myanmar community members, who came to Australia already equipped with agriculture skills.
Together, five refugee families approached not-for-profit group Settlement Services International (SSI) for help.
“They really highlighted three things: they wanted to work together, they wanted to farm and practise their cultural, traditional skills, and they really wanted to be self-sufficient and create something for their future generations,” SSI’s Rebecca Mordaunt said.
The group registered as a not-for-profit called the Myanmar Community Agriculture Co-operative.
Starting the farm
Joshua Allen used to run an organic vegetable farm on his 13-hectare property at Nana Glen, 20 minutes north-west of Coffs Harbour, but it had been lying dormant for a couple of years.
“It was probably 12 months ago that we were out there wondering what’s going to happen with the farm,” Mr Allen said.
“We were approached by [small business program] Ignite and SSI who said we’ve got a community looking for a farm.
“It was kind of a match made in heaven.”
Mr Allen gave the co-operative two and a half hectares, with each of the five families taking a half-hectare block and leaving some land for livestock.
After a five-month grace period to find their feet they now pay rent for the land.
Adjusting to a new landscape
The farmers have had unexpected challenges farming in Australia.
“Soil is very good in Burma, here we need to use fertiliser,” Mr Manrhing said.
Communicating, understanding rent and learning how to run a business in Australia have also been challenging.
“It’s very hard for me because I don’t really understand English,” Mr Manrhing said.
“I also don’t have experience here, so [I’m] learning many different things like what seed, how can I buy things and just everything [has been] very difficult for me.”
Van Sui Tiel and her husband Som are another family that make up the co-operative.
They lost the majority of their summer crop due to record rainfall and flooding.
“When we started this farm the rain was too much and before, we planted zucchini and they nearly died and we planted again and they died, everything died,” Ms Tiel said.
“We also planted beans … but a lot of rain destroyed [it] all and yeah, we couldn’t sell everything.”
Ms Tiel finds time to come out to the farm when she isn’t caring for her young kids.
“I have three kids. Two are in school and the other is in child care, so after I drop them off I come straight [to the farm],” she said.
The farm is also completely organic, so the farmers don’t use chemicals to control pests and weeds.
“I spent all day yesterday pulling out the weeds … some weeds I have never seen before … it is hard work,” Ms Tiel said.
Helping his parents
Thang Kin Shetta is the youngest member of the group and joined the co-operative to give his parents more opportunity.
“The biggest thing is language for them and they don’t speak very well but they know where to go … and where to buy so they know everything — it’s just language,” he said.
He balances full-time work at a glass factory in Coffs Harbour with helping out on the farm.
“[I go to the farm] mostly on weekends,” Mr Shetta said.
“It’s good to work the early afternoon shift [at the glass factory] because I’m free in the morning and when it’s sunny I have to go up to the farm, watering stuff and come back to work.
“It’s hard work but I love it.”
Selling their produce
The group has started selling some of its produce at local markets, but has plans to expand further.
“I know that they’re really keen to open up a bit of a shopfront here at the farm and invite the community in,” Ms Mordaunt said.
She has been helping the group from the beginning of their journey and said they had been incredibly resilient.
“It’s such a massive learning curve creating a business here in Australia,” she said.
“But then the challenges of learning about different soils and the different varieties of food that Australians purchase and then, of course, we’re dealing with a La Nina event, so there are challenges with the weather as well.
“I take my hat off to them, their commitment has been just amazing and really inspiring.”