10 October 2020

SAGE internship program producing new crop of successful farmers

| Alex Rea
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Joshua Gowers and Shani Keane at Stepping Stone Farm stall at SAGE Farmers Market in Moruya.

Interns Joshua Gowers and Shani Keane at the Stepping Stone Farm stall at SAGE Farmers Market in Moruya. Photo: Alex Rea.

Two interns have started their 12 month education at Stepping Stone Farm in the latest program from SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture and Gardening Eurobodalla).

SAGE’s Stepping Stone Farm project is an incubator program on a working farm west of Moruya that aims to train aspiring growers to become successful commercial market gardeners.

Interns Joshua Gowers and Shani Keane, both from Sydney, started last week on the five acre property.

In just 18 weeks, with the help of many volunteers, the leased property is up and running with fencing, a water tank and working sheds.

Shani Keane leaning on broadfork at Stepping Stone Farm.

Intern Shani Keane on the broadfork at Stepping Stone Farm. Photo: Alex Rea.

The farm’s polytunnel is brimming with microgreens and seedlings which can already be purchased at SAGE Farmers Market at Riverside Park in Moruya each Tuesday.

SAGE recently recruited Joyce Wilkie, a farmer and educator with more than 35 years’ experience to lead the hands-on intern training program.

Joyce Wilkie at Stepping Stone Farm.

Joyce Wilkie with the newly planted onion seedlings at Stepping Stone Farm. Photo: Alex Rea.

Many people will know Joyce from Allsun Farm at Gundaroo, which produces fruit, vegetables, eggs and pork for families and restaurants in Canberra. It is also the home of online garden tool company Gundaroo Tiller.

Joyce has taught organic farming at Canberra Institute of Technology, market gardening short courses through Milkwood Permaculture and trained a number of successful market gardeners through an intern program at Allsun Farm. Her children and friends have generously stepped up to look after the tool business and farm, enabling her to work full-time on the Stepping Stone Farm venture.

Shani Keane, Mark Barraclough and Joyce Wilke at Stepping Stone Farm.

Shani Keane, Mark Barraclough and Joyce Wilke with the garden design at Stepping Stone Farm. Photo: Alex Rea.

SAGE president Mark Barraclough says recent events have given the group even greater reason to see the Stepping Stone Farm project come to fruition for the community.

“The bushfires highlighted how quickly the supply and distribution of food coming from outside our region can be disrupted by power outages, highway closures and other issues,” he says.

“Luckily, the Moruya SAGE Farmers Market and e-market, and a few local stores and direct outlets that sell local produce were able to stay open throughout the fires and supply customers without disruption. This meant our market garden farmers could continue to pick and sell their produce and keep their livelihoods and staff.”

However, Mark says COVID-19 presents new issues for the community.

“Once again, our small, local food system has supported people wanting to avoid supermarkets and crowds and buy healthy, affordable, fresh produce locally, either at the farmers market or e-market, from smaller outlets, or direct from farmers,” he says. “Buying direct means your food might only be touched by the farmer or a few people, which is quite different from how food is processed in a large corporate food system.”

Joyce says: “The intern project is unique. It will create local jobs, secure the food supply and meet growing demand for local produce.

“We believe sustainable farming enterprises help the community through increased resilience, new jobs, economic growth and developing farmers who preserve ecological values for the health of the whole region.

Seedlings and microgreens in polytunnel at Stepping Stone Farm.

Seedlings and microgreens in the polytunnel at Stepping Stone Farm. Photo: Alex Rea.

“Existing farmland is used more productively, and regions are better positioned as a place of good life and great food, which are strong drivers for tourism.”

SAGE is a not-for-profit, community based organisation run by volunteers who manage the award-winning SAGE Farmers Market and e-market in Moruya, support charities with food, run a popular program of education and events, and now manage the Stepping Stone Farm intern project.

The 2020 inaugural internships are offered free with no fees or wages, are full-time (35 hours a week) with some flexibility to allow students to work part-time in paid employment if necessary.

SAGE has recently launched a new fundraising initiative for Stepping Stone Farm, using a crowdfunding platform to secure additional funds to grow the project.

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