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Sowing positive futures: How a Christchurch urban farm leads vulnerable people into the workplace

While a number of urban farms have been developed throughout New Zealand, Cultivate is on a bigger scale than its contemporaries and has become more established.

It’s also no community garden. Rather than being just a green use of space in Christchurch’s rejuvenating CBD, Cultivate is also a social project designed to create pathways for vulnerable New Zealanders to enter the workforce.

The meeting of co-founders Bailey Peryman and Fiona Stewart on this project was serendipitous. While Bailey Peryman, the ecologist, had a tonne of skills in the produce department, he knew he wanted to make the urban farm idea more than just a food source. That’s where youth advocate Fiona Stewart came in.

Bailey Peryman and Fiona Stewart
The pair were individually recipients of the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation World of Difference grants for separate business ideas, and alumni were encouraged to collaborate on future projects.

One chat over coffee was all it took to realise their visions aligned, and by early 2015, they got the go-ahead from the Foundation for Cultivate.

“The focus with Vodafone is about engaging youth, and the youth development side of things that I was doing didn’t really take off,” Peryman says. “So it was great to meet Fi, because we’re a good match of skills.”

When choosing a location for Cultivate, the pair focused on finding a place that would be accessible for young people, so a central location was critical. Christchurch is in a unique position of having a lot of vacant spaces where buildings have been pulled down since the earthquake, and private owners are often willing to let people test out ventures on a transitional basis before the land is developed down the track.

The site chosen was vacant land on the corner of Peterborough St in central Christchurch – or the Peterborough Urban Farm, as it is now known. It hasn’t been easy converting urban land into a farm. When Cultivate moved in, the land was compacted rubble with about 10cm of top-soil, but they’ve managed to create another 40cm of soil to grow food in.

Having a safe place people can come and feel like they’ve connected to the land and the community is our aim. The biggest thing is seeing mental health improvements in the majority of the young people we’ve supported – that’s amazing.

For Peryman, being able to work with the land and growing produce is the drive for most ventures in his life.

“It’s just who I am, it’s my purpose and passion. My interests in life are all related to growing food and doing that with people as a social thing. I wanted to look at how to address some of the critical issues of our time – such as climate change and the disconnection between people and nature – and this is my vehicle to do my bit.”

Peryman explains the difference between urban agriculture and community gardens is simple, as the former are essentially small market gardens.

In the years since the first seed was planted, the farm has grown to a point where it delivers produce to 22 restaurants and cafes in the city, as well as selling its products at its farm gate and weekend market stall. Closing the loop on the world’s most fundamental economy, food scraps from the restaurants are also collected on Cultivate’s bike-and-wagon and returned to the farm to be made into compost, which later fertilises more produce.

While there are a lot of services and clinical approaches to mental health in New Zealand, the big idea behind Cultivate is to support young people with the therapeutic effects of gardening and growing food.

“We wanted to know if you could combine the social purpose of helping people with a productive purpose of making ends meet,” Peryman says. “We are not always going to have grant funding, so we want to make sure Cultivate is a successful commercial venture. It was built on high ideals and we’ve never budged on those.”

Stewart’s background set her up perfectly for her work at Cultivate. After studying education and psychology at university, she travelled and worked with young people first as a ski and snowboard instructor, and then as a rafting and outdoor guide. On returning to New Zealand, she worked at an organisation supporting young people in the youth justice system before receiving her Vodafone New Zealand grant to start a residential farm training programme.

The programme was rewarding and produced excellent results, but Stewart knew she needed a more sustainable venture to really focus on making a difference in the lives of young people.

“Working in youth justice, I learned a lot about what young people want and how they believed existing opportunities in the community would help them reduce or stop offending,” Stewart says. “They often said a job would stop them offending, but that it was impossible to get that first opportunity.”

Cultivate works with young people who have complex needs with the Urban Farm Hand internship programme. As well as 10 permanent staff and countless volunteers, Cultivate generally has between four to six paid interns with the programme at any given time. So far, 25 young people have been supported through the internship.

The programme focuses heavily on giving young people the skills to be successful in any workplace. Alongside counselling, Cultivate has one-on-one weekly sessions with each intern to learn their strengths and what barriers they need to overcome.

Referals generally come from WINZ, and the young people are often on the job seekers or on the sickness benefit. At Cultivate, they are paid for 30 hours a week during the programme, which lasts between three to six months.

“We support them into employment opportunities, but we also support them once they’ve left us, so they retain the job or if it’s not ideal then they know how to exit that workplace in a positive way.”

The benefits of the programme are obvious. Some of the young people previously worked as sex workers but are now no longer working on the streets and have re-engaged in education. Others see general health and wellbeing improvements, while some have a clearer path forged for them and a sense of purpose; while some workers have stopped using drugs to boost their employment prospects.

“Having a safe place people can come and feel like they’ve connected to the land and the community is our aim,” Stewart says. “The biggest thing is seeing mental health improvements in the majority of the young people we’ve supported – that’s amazing.”

While the focus is now on how to scale Cultivate, creating more farms and produce is just one part of the agenda. The team also want to be able to support more and more vulnerable young people to find their place in society – and both Peryman and Stewart agree the best way for the public to support the cause is to buy their produce.

“That’s key for us,” Peryman says. “You’ll be served by young people who pour their love into the work and we really want to stand on our own two feet and do more of what we do.”

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