When Subhan Ibrahim was asked by Fruit and Vegetable News magazine about the differences between farming in his native Iraq versus the Lockyer Valley, it all came down to machinery.  

“In Iraq most jobs are done by hand,” Mr Ibrahim said.

“Learning about the machines took a few months. It makes life easier.

“Here there are sheds, over in Iraq it’s all outside.”

Mr Ibrahim is now working in the packing shed for a large farm business in the Lockyer Valley. His employment was facilitated through a Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) funded pathway program in a collaboration between Growcom, the Queensland Agriculture Workforce Network (QAWN) and local not-for-profit organisation, The Mulberry Project, which builds pathways for migrants to careers in farming and food.

Mulberry Project founder, Louise Noble, said that COVID-19 border closures have created opportunities for local employment but also challenges for farms looking to source workers. The joint Growcom/QAWN/Mulberry Project initiative has assisted 65 migrants and former refugees into horticulture jobs over the past 12 months.

Growers can draw on a pool of local, talented workers. Many of the former refugees and migrants come from agricultural backgrounds and are keen to put their skills to use; in addition to motivated Australians looking to explore new career opportunities.

Ms Noble said she expects to place more people in farm jobs in the future, including those with entry level FarmReady training and some work experience through to those with higher level skills and qualifications. During 2019-20, Growcom and the Mulberry Project delivered a Certificate II Horticulture training and work experience program over seven months at the Toowoomba Showgrounds.

“We found that the work experience component [of the training program] was essential to contextualise the learning, to build those employability skills,” Ms Noble said.

“They call them soft skills, but they really are essential skills to succeeding in a work environment – understanding workplace expectations, workplace communication, working in a team.

“These aren’t things that you can knock over in a day.”

Teamwork, effective communication skills and an openness to seeing the world from your colleagues’ perspective are three major soft skills that participants highlighted as being important when working in horticulture.

For Australian mother of seven, Michelle Oliver, the Certificate II in Horticulture course she undertook through this joint initiative proved to be a life-enhancing experience.

“I loved it – learning about all the other cultures [of classmates] and plenty of opportunities to marry theory and practice,” Ms Oliver said.

“I worked in an office before and absolutely hated it.”

Ms Oliver now works on a vegetable farm in the Lockyer Valley and said she has gained faith in her own skills through her job – whether it’s driving a tractor, using different growing principles, planting, or working in the packing shed.

“As time goes on you are presented with more opportunities to keep learning,” Ms Oliver says.

Two of Ms Oliver’s children, Nate Oliver, 17, and Callum Whieldon, 18, also work with their Mum at the same farm. Building teamwork skills and communicating with people from different backgrounds has been a fantastic opportunity, according to the boys.

“Communication is key,” Mr Oliver said.

“Ag skills teach you commitment and responsibility.

“As an early school-leaver, this has filled a void for me and has given me the building blocks to move forward and start preparing for studies in mental health.”

A short history: The partnership’s beginnings  

The collaboration between Growcom and the Mulberry Project has grown since Karen George, Growcom Projects & Business Development Manager, attended a migrant services conference in 2017 where she learned just how many migrant communities in the Toowoomba region hailed from agricultural backgrounds.

Ms George and Ms Noble got to work, collaborating through QAWN-funded programs, to help meet the needs of fruit and vegetable growers in the region. The initial Ag Work program focused on farm tours and a day of training.

“The learning from that [early experience in 17/18] was that to have successful and sustainable long-term employment, one day of training and a farm tour was not going to lead to the most sustainable outcomes,” Ms Noble said.

“Karen and I, through Growcom, looked at other ways to better prepare people for work.”

The pair launched into the Skilling Queenslanders for Work program in 2019 which provided participants a Certificate II in Horticulture and vital work experience.

A total of 25 languages were spoken in the group of 15 students; a group that also included two Australian mothers upskilling to return to work.

“It added a different dimension to the group – the more diversity the better,” Ms Noble says.

The result – 11 from the cohort of 15 are now working on fruit and vegetable farms, with four deciding to pursue other opportunities.

This training was funded and supported by the Queensland Government through its Skilling Queenslanders for Work, Community Work Skills initiative.

About The Mulberry Project

The Mulberry Project is a fitting name for the non-profit organisation that began as a conversation under a heavily fruiting mulberry tree at Louise’s property in Nobby in 2016.

“You’re not growing anything,” said Congolese migrant, Schadrach Msabah. “Could we come and grow our vegetables here?”

A 500 square metre field was dug up and The Mulberry Project was born, bringing migrants together, to share and enjoy the foods from their native homes, with the purpose of building up skills and connections to work in horticulture.

From little things, big things grow!