Who is growing the food you eat?


It is more than likely that the food you eat in Australia comes from immigrant farmers

A three-year joint collaborative project that began in 2012 between the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Charles Sturt University (CSU) and funded by the Rural Industries Research Here Development Corporation is examining the role of new immigrants in agricultural productivity.

As part of the field work data collection, I have had the opportunity to travel and engage with immigrant farmers owning and working on farms in Cairns, Woolgoolga, Griffith, Nhill, Naarecoorte and Mount Gambier. The participants were Afghani (Hazara), Hmong Burmese, Estonian, Sikh Indian, Pakistani, Pacific Islander (Solomon, Fiji), refugee groups from Africa (Liberians, Southern Sudan), and Korean working holiday makers. I found that each of these community members have contributed in the growing of oranges, grapes, banana plantations, chillis and blueberries.

Two years into the project and some very positive stories have emerged from the field engagement—for instance, all of the participants continue to value the opportunity of living and working in Australia. The researchers have recognised the immense contributions immigrant farmers are making to Australian agricultural productivity and to communities in regional Australia. Clearly, the populist notion that immigrants and refugees are a burden to Australian society and the Australian tax payer is wide of the mark, according to the preliminary findings emerging from the Australian agricultural productivity study.

Despite the prevalence of parochial sentiments in regional Australia, a majority of White Australian farmers currently employ considerable numbers of immigrants, refugees and temporary immigrant workers. These farmers also consider themselves ‘lucky’ to have found reliable and committed workers, according to the study’s initial findings.

An Adelaide group of researchers drew on the 2006 census data indicating that 18 of the 32 humanitarian nationalities who arrived in Australia during 2001 and 2006 had a higher percentage of owner/managers than the Australia-born average of 15.9 per cent.

The percentage of owner/managers was higher for the longer established groups, such as Lebanese and Hungarians, and lower for newly-arrived groups, such as the Sudanese and Sri Lankans. However, Somalian humanitarian entrants, a more recent group of arrivals, were an exception to this with some 25.5 per cent of the Somalian population in the workforce being owner/managers. This suggests that some ethnic groups encourage entrepreneurship and are enablers of the necessary networks. Humanitarian entrants started out as employees, mainly as many did not possess the capital, 20 per cent of the employed eventually gravitated to owning their own business. Notably, five of the eight billionaires in Australia in the year 2000 were of humanitarian settler background.

In fact, we know that diverse populations and newly arrived immigrants find it challenging to gain employment in mainstream society, as a result of which it is more common for immigrants to enter into developing their own enterprise.

Families of immigrant farmers experience cultural and social isolation in regional Australia, including language barriers. For example, some Sikh families in the blueberry growing belt in Woolgoolga, Coffs Harbour, rely mainly on their Gurudwara for social connections. Whilst the farm owners are second and third generation Australian Sikhs the farm workers are first generation Sikh migrants from India and English remains a major barrier.

The research team is aiming to release the final report by November 2015.

I continue to seek stories from immigrants who are farm workers and farm owners. If you have a story to share about immigrants in regional and remote Australia working on farms or owning farms. I’d love to hear from you.


The writer continues to work on the project whilst being based in the capacity of a lecturer in Social Work at the Australian Catholic University. She can be contacted at devaki.monani@acu.edu.au.

The project is led by Professor Jock Collins (UTS), co-director of Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Centre at UTS and Associate Professor Branka Krivopavic-Skoko (CSU)

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