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Woolworths desire to source locally grown fruit and vegetables and the determination of the Kalano community to develop a sustainable farming business have yielded new Indigenous employment opportunities and better quality fresh food for Top End consumers.

In the space of just two years, the Kalano farm has been transformed from an ambitious dream into a thriving operation now supplying five to six tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables a week to Woolworths 10 stores from Darwin south to Katherine.

“Woolworths has been absolutely fabulous for us, Kalano Community Association Chief Executive Rick Fletcher said. “We’ve had a really good relationship and I think our relationship is set to prosper for both companies.

The Kalano Community Association is a wholly owned Aboriginal organisation located outside Katherine. The organisation began in 1975 and since then has operated its farm off and on, before committing two years ago to re‑enter agricultural industry.

The extreme seasonal conditions of the Top End restrict production to the dry season months from April to August. Currently only 10 hectares of the 40ha property is under crop, allowing plenty of scope for the community to achieve its goal of doubling its current production.

The operation has now achieved Woolworths Quality Assurance (WQA) accreditation and is supplying tomatoes, sweet corn and capsicum.

“Thanks to Woolworths support we can see a sustainable business being developed here. We’re very hopeful that we can compete in this market space, Rick said.

“We’re conscious that bigger suppliers could knock us off on price but the care we take gives Woolworths the quality that they need.

“Woolworths has supported us price wise and assisted us as we grow, but we want to get to a point where we can hold our own.

Woolworths’ Northern Territory manager Patti Flannery said the company was first approached by the Kalano Community Association three years ago, and met with community elder and Association President Lisa Mumbin as part of the process of building the relationship between the two organisations.

“It was important for Lisa to know that we were committed to this venture and that we would support its development, Patti said.

“They also wanted to know that the venture would be viable and that it could stand on its own two feet.

Patti said the venture has been a success in meeting Woolworths’ quality requirements as well as exceeding customers’ expectations for flavour.

“If it’s grown locally we like to get it into our local stores wherever possible and at that stage we did not have a local tomato supplier, Patti said.

“The flavour and quality has been great, and much better than what we get from down south during the wet season. Our customers here in Darwin really love buying local fruit and vegetables.

Rick said the direct feedback from local customers and tourists in Katherine had been encouraging.

“We started out very conservatively and we’re still learning the business and our place in the market, he said.

“But we’re able to pick our fruit and deliver it to market in a short space of time (24 hours from picking to delivery into the Darwin distribution centre), which makes a big difference to quality.

“And the project has been well received by the community in Katherine which has helped us in finding workers and in delivering our fruit and vegetables to market on time.

Kalano employs between 15 and 24 workers on the farm at any one time, including six full-time staff.

While the dry season is the busy period for the farm, staff shift to maintenance work in the community’s living areas during the wet.

“We’d eventually like to be able to support 24 people in full-time work all year round, Rick said.

Training delivers new Indigenous career paths

With the exception of farm manager Rob Gordon, the Kalano Community Association farm is staffed entirely by local Indigenous people, who have relished the opportunity to broaden their skills and improve their economic security.

Community member Casey McElhone has moved from a volunteer picker to managing the farm’s packing shed team, and this year has moved into an administrative role.

During that time Casey and Rob have undertaken Freshcare, HACCP and Woolworths’ quality assurance training programs.

Casey and a number of other team members have also undertaken a Certificate II in Horticulture through Top End Training, as well as chemical training through TrainSafe NT.

“Our guys were fresh and brand new to farming last year but this year we’ve improved so much we can leave our staff work on their own at planting, picking and packing, Casey said.

“And this season the quality of our fruit and vegetables has picked up as well – size is better, colour is better and quality is better.

Casey was recently awarded a Woolworths’ agricultural business scholarship to further her studies.

“I think the community would benefit greatly from this – it would be great to bring that knowledge home so we all get a better understanding of the bigger picture for our business, she said.

“I just want to see our business succeed as an Indigenous farm.

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