Farm It Forward: the power of local

11th February 2022 | Alison Turner

A not-for-profit social enterprise in NSW’s Blue Mountains is turning unused peri-urban residential backyards into productive gardens, producing an abundance of organic, regeneratively grown food. But the benefits of this operation extend far beyond food production. Farm It Forward connects residents who have land to spare with aspiring young growers. As a result, the community has access to affordable, locally grown produce through an online shop, young people are gaining skills that can lead to employment, and local residents at risk of social isolation have become part of a thriving social network.

Manu Prigioni (second from right) runs Farm it Forward with Mat, Hannah and Jimmy
Manu Prigioni (second from right) runs Farm it Forward with Mat, Hannah and Jimmy.

Land of opportunity

Manu Prigioni was inspired to create Farm It Forward while working at her local food co-op. While there was plenty of demand for locally grown produce, it was hard to find.

“We were sourcing food from Sydney and Queensland,” she says. “So we started a backyard growers system, where people could swap homegrown produce for store credit.”

Prigioni’s job was to visit these gardens to check that people were growing organically. She visited a lot of backyards in the local area during this time, and noticed that while some people had plenty of land, they were only able to produce enough food for themselves.

“Which is great,” she says. “But in order to really create food security in the area, it wasn’t sufficient. And often, the people who had enough land had mobility issues due to being elderly, or were busy with young children. So they were unable to grow a lot of food.

“And that’s where the idea of Farm It Forward came from. To bring together young people in the area who don’t have access to land because it’s way too expensive, and older people or young families with land to spare. The young people have somewhere to grow food regeneratively. And older people and young families who are at risk of social isolation are included in society, as opposed to just sitting there on their big blocks by themselves.”

Young mother Rosie Lee's block of land was the first Farm It Forward plot
Young mother Rosie Lee’s block of land was the first Farm It Forward plot.

Forward thinking

Farm It Forward began in 2019, pre-COVID. This is back when issues such as social isolation and food security were little more than stirrings in the back of most people’s minds.

“When we first started, we were pitching the idea to grant bodies,” Prigioni says. “We talked about the importance of food security. Back then, people had no concept of food security. They didn’t understand the importance of localising our food production and of looking after people’s mental health through social connection and interacting with nature. So we were unsuccessful in a lot of grant applications; people just didn’t get it.”

People sure get it now. Since the first lockdowns, thousands of Aussies rediscovered the joys of growing their own food. Empty supermarket shelves and being isolated at home also highlighted the importance of food security and of being part of a community.

And Farm It Forward has flourished. There are now seven market garden plots in operation, including one at Headspace in Katoomba, where the enterprise runs social outreach programs for school kids. Prigioni says that Farm It Forward’s social outreach work is just as important as the food production, which this year averaged at about a tonne of produce.

“You could call it ecotherapy,” she says. “As part of our social outreach programs, we hold weekly sessions for people to come and learn skills and gain confidence in growing food.”

Manu Prigioni with Sylvia May at Farm It Forward HQ
Prigioni with Sylvia May at Farm It Forward HQ.

A win-win situation

The landowners have also benefited greatly from participating. They receive a weekly box of free vegies as “rent” and enjoy regular visits from Farm It Forward staff and volunteers.

Sylvia May was one of the first landowners to get in touch with Prigioni to offer her land for food production. As an elderly resident, she was unable to make the most of her two-hectare property, but she didn’t want to leave. The Farm It Forward team converted an old tennis court on her property into a vegetable garden. And when rental prices began to skyrocket as people left the city to avoid COVID, she offered her home, too.

“Rental prices have gone through the roof,” Prigioni says. “People can’t afford to live here anymore. Sylvia heard about this, and asked us if we’d like to live with her.

“So we live with her now. It’s our main headquarters. We have a tennis court-sized vegie garden. We have poultry, and our main packing station. It’s an incredible win-win situation.”

Farm it Forward
From little things, big things grow: it’s hoped other regions will set up similar initiatives.

An idea worth sharing

Despite its overwhelming success, Prigioni says that Farm It Forward doesn’t intend to expand its local operations much further. But it does have other plans.

“We’ll probably take on one or two more plots,” she says. “But ultimately, our aim is to run workshops to show others how to set up this initiative in their own area.”

“Farming it forward” into other areas will allow even more people to learn about the importance of local food systems, and of knowing the provenance of their food. That’s not to mention the many benefits that come from getting back to nature and growing your own food. Prigioni says it’s almost eerie how Farm It Forward began just before COVID hit.

“In a way, it’s wonderful,” she says. “Because now it makes perfect, logical sense to people. You just have to look at how many people got into their garden as a result of COVID. And the fact they discovered that growing their own food made them feel more connected. There’s this new, collective understanding of the importance of food security, of being connected to the land and to your community. There are so many positive ripple effects.”

To find out more about Farm It Forward, head to the website.