Recognising Australia’s first farmers this NAIDOC Week

To coincide with NAIDOC week, on Wednesday, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt committed to constitutional change and pledged to ‘bring forward a consensus option’ during the current term of Parliament.

“It is a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians,” he said in his National Press Club address.

“The development of a local, regional and national voice will be achieved.”

For Natalie Sommerville, a Torres Strait Islander woman, agronomist, South Australian cattle farmer and 2019 participant of the Diversity in Agriculture in Leadership Program, said that this year’s NAIDOC Week theme of voice, treaty, truth was important for all Australians to understand and for the government to recognise.

“A lot of people are scared when talking about treaty and native title, especially in the agriculture sector, because there’s a fear that their land might be taken away which isn’t necessarily the case,” Natalie said.

“We have to talk more about what treaty actually means, getting our voices heard and telling the truth about the experiences of the past, particularly the contributions of indigenous people in getting agriculture to where it is today.”

Natalie Sommerville.

Indigenous people have played a pivotal role in developing Australian agriculture to where it is today, but unfortunately most were not paid accordingly. Today one per cent of Australia’s agricultural workforce identifies as Indigenous (or 3,278 people as of 2016), most of whom work as labourers and managers.

“My dad was one of those people what worked on the railways and got paid barely anything and a lot of my family and elders were divers for the pearl industry working under similar circumstances,” Ms Sommerville said.

According to Ms Sommerville, most workplaces today, not just in agriculture, are working towards closing the gap in employment statistics by raising awareness and understanding of cultural commitments and practises of indigenous Australians.

“There has been more of a focus in my area to upskill and build the capacity of Indigenous people to be employed in and become leaders in the agriculture industry, but there is certainly more to do.”

Celebrating indigenous agriculture

Ron Newchurch, an Aboriginal broad acre farmer and the General Manager of Matjarra, travels across South Australia assisting first Australians with their agricultural pursuits.

Mr Newchurch helps farmers to grow herbs such as coriander, chives, parsley and spring onions and guarantees the sale of their produce by selling the herbs directly to mainstream supermarkets.

“We want to see more Indigenous people become self-sustainable, economically independent and we want to see a decrease in unemployment,” Mr Newchurch said.

“The farming mentorship has changed these people’s lives, as farming can be quite a good income.”

Ron Newchurch with Matjarra’s Director of Sales and Distribution Manager Juliet Tripodi. Photo: Supplied.

“The people I work with have gained independence and confidence in themselves because they can now support their families and are seeing their produce being sold in supermarkets around the country.”

The main aspect of indigenous farming, according to Mr Newchurch, is to work th eland in a way that keeps it as close to its native state as possible.

“That’s what we call caring for country,” he said.

Australia also farms an array of native bush foods including finger limes, lemon myrtle leaves, wattleseed, Kakadu plum and bush tomatoes.

In these industries, Indigenous Australians are involved at every stage of the supply chain of bush foods – from wild harvest and cultivation, through to processing and cultural tourism that shares bush food knowledge.

To lift the value of agriculture to reach $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030 the National Farmers’ Federation’s President Fiona Simson said the sector needed to work with Indigenous leaders to grow opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in agriculture, including within industry leadership.

“There is still so much we can learn about Indigenous crops and farming practises,” Ms Simson said.

“As the industry explores this further, it opens up even greater opportunities for Indigenous Australians in the farm sector which is exactly what we want to see.”

Andrea Martinello

Andrea Martinello

Andrea is the Community & Engagement Officer at the National Farmers' Federation.

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