A Place to Grow

Tilak, from South Bhutan, was a child when his family and others from his Nepali-speaking ethnic group were forced to flee the country. After years of persecution by the Bhutanese government, who wanted to create a pure Bhutan, soldiers came into their villages and forced them from their homes.

He spent twenty years living with his family in a small bamboo hut in a refugee camp in Nepal. Eventually, in 2005, a handful of western governments began accepting refugees, and whilst Australia had the most onerous selection criteria, after four years of applying they were accepted. They ended up in Albury-Wodonga in Victoria, a designated re-settlement location for Bhutanese refugees, now the second largest ethnic group in the region.

Tilak, like the other refugees, learnt English at the local TAFE, and with a friend also did a Diploma in Organic Farm Management at the National Environment Centre. They set about looking for a small piece of land where they could farm and share the pleasure of growing things with their parents, and give them a sense of place. In 2013 they sought help from Parklands Albury-Wodonga, who after two years were finally able to find them 3 hectares by the Murray River.

They created small 5x5m garden beds for each Bhutanese family and helped them to start growing their own food. Farming in Australia was different to Bhutan, and they had to learn how to work with the different soil and climate. In Bhutan mainly cash crops were grown, whereas they now needed to learn to grow food for themselves.

They used shovels, doing everything by hand. The next day they arrived to find cows grazing on their new gardens, so they built a fence. Another time they had cockatoos destroy all the vegetables, so they learnt to cover some with netting. One year they had a flood come and wash everything away, so they got out the shovels and started over.

They began selling their excess produce at the local farmers market, but soon saturated the market, as they were growing large quantities of the same types of vegetables. It turned out there were only so many pumpkins that customers could buy. So they started donating food to the local Neighbourhood House.

The farm grew more successful, more refugees were re-settled in the area, and there were more families wanting a garden bed — and not just Bhutanese. They grew to 60 Bhutanese beds, 30 Congolese beds, and 50 ‘multicultural’ beds for families from other cultures.

They learnt to diversify their crops, and began successfully selling at the farmer’s market again. They also became savvy with social media; when a particular crop is almost ripe they’ll take a photo, post it on Facebook, and take orders for it in advance. They also have plans to set up a farm gate stall from which to sell their produce.

Tilak is now working as one of the ‘Garden Rangers’ on behalf of the Bhutanese Community. He coordinates the farm, supports the families, deals with problems and organises activities such as multicultural food sharing events. He also keeps track of what types of vegetables customers want, and gives guidance to the families on what to plant.

Today he’s been asked to give a tour.

I arrive on my bike to find an empty field. Am I in the right place? A Nepalese man and woman appear on their way home from working in the garden. They point the way down a small track through a cow-proof gate, and I walk my bike across the field towards the activity on the far side by the distant tree-line. There I find a series of garden beds with people working in their plots and chatting together in another language.

Soon Tilak appears, and with a dozen other visitors like me he gathers us together and begins talking about the farm.

As we walk along he points out hot chillies, daikon radish, broccoli, green beans, garlic, pumpkins, tomatoes, as well as species that the refugee families used to eat back home, such as snake beans, okra, asian greens, gourds and taro. Moving from the multicultural section to the Congolese section, the types of vegetables change to African varieties like cassava. There’s a different feel again as we pass into the Bhutanese section.

In the middle of it all is an area covered in carpets where people can rest and socialise. There’s a bamboo hut there which Tilak says is a replica of their hut in the refugee camp — ‘to help them remember’.

Tilak says that one bed can produce most of a family’s vegetables for the year, with sharing of different types between families. He says it’s all grown organically, using compost instead of fertiliser. There’s only one big compost heap for the entire garden, but many families also bring their compost from home, as well as things like grass clippings for mulch. I also notice a couple of people collecting cow manure in the neighbouring paddock.

There’s still more demand for garden beds, and so they’re planning to build more soon. Once the families are chosen, the beds are allocated by drawing names from a hat. Apparently everyone wants one near to a water tap. A solar-driven pump raises the water up into an elevated tank so that it can be gravity-fed to several taps around the garden.

Tilak tells us that one of the objectives of the farm is to strengthen the physical and mental health and wellbeing of their community. Being persecuted and forced to flee their homes, living in limbo for many years, and forever exiled from their country — I can hardly imagine the trauma and mental health impacts of this. He says that many older refugees can’t get a job because of their age and their poor English, and they end up isolated. The farm gives them work to do, a sense of purpose and a community to be part of.

What I like about this place is that it’s literally been scraped out of a paddock. What might previously have had the odd cow wandering around on it, now is a hub of activity, providing a sense of place and purpose to those who have been utterly displaced. They’ve created a garden producing healthy and wholesome organic vegetables, and a community that’s bringing cultures together.

Eventually the tour comes to an end, we all take a group photo with Tilak, and I make my way back to my bike. In some ways this bicycle journey is a search for my place in the world after my own life disruption. They’ll be allocating out some more garden beds soon, and despite my lack of green thumb I find myself imagining what vegetables I might grow were I to have a bed here.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?