Issue 32: Wamba Wamba

Issue 32
January/February – 1997
Story Title: Wamba Wamba
Author: Steven Carruthers

In mid 1995 the Wamba Wamba Aboriginal Land Council put in place a bold hydroponic scheme in a bid to provide employment and educational opportunities for its people. Today, the Wamba Wamba Land Council has become a success story, and a role model for other Aboriginal Land Councils.

Located on the banks of the Murray River near Swan Hill, the Wamba Wamba Aboriginal Land Council occupy 40 acres of traditional land on the New South Wales side of the river border. Featuring large box and red gum flats, this is the “place of belonging” to more than 130 members of the Wamba Wamba tribe.

The Wamba Wamba hydroponic venture had its seeds in a 13 acre market garden, using conventional horticultural techniques to provide fresh, nutritious produce to the Aboriginal community, and for the Melbourne wholesale market. Funding for the market garden was provided by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which was designed to see if the Wamba Wamba people were interested in horticultural activities. According to on-site co-ordinator Kim Peat, the market garden was judged a success, and the next stage of the program commenced in mid 1995 with a submission to ATSIC to finance a commercial hydroponic facility.

“In the Swan Hill area there is a lot of fruit growing,” explained Kim. “We felt we needed to utilise our small area as much as possible, and growing in soil was not giving us the quantity or quality of product we needed.”

The market garden and hydroponic operation were based upon the community’s desire to become self-sufficient, and to provide employment and educational opportunities for the Wamba Wamba people. The scheme also included the development of a fully accredited rural traineeship program. The curriculum included chemical handling, farm irrigation, fork truck driving, fencing, concreting, small engine maintainence and first aid.

“We wrote the curriculum to what we felt was going to be of most value to us here at Wamba Wamba,” said Kim, “and at the same time Aboriginal people can take these skills elsewhere.”

Kim was appointed Co-ordinator for the Wamba Wamba people in 1993, at a time when the community was ‘on its knees waiting for the knockout punch.’

According to Robert Walker, Branch Manager for the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the Wamba Wamba people were so far down (with serious health and unemployment problems) that the only place they could go was up.

“They came to me for support,” said Robert. “You can buy accountants and you can buy consultants, but the important thing is that the people entered into a spirit to succeed, against a backdrop of generally low education standards and low employment levels.”

The vision to turn the Wamba Wamba Land Council around came from Aboriginal community leader and mother of three, Linda Fenton, who sees education as the cornerstone to the survival of her people. The Land Council meets monthly to review their progress and to address specific problems within the community.

The main problems that face the community are health issues including diabetes, hearing and eye problems, and to a lesser extent heart disease. To their credit, the immediate area around the Wamba Wamba Land Council is an alcohol-free zone.

As Chairperson of the Land Council, Linda has nurtured the development of a community sewing business, the market garden and commercial hydroponic facility. The sewing business has already proved a commercial success, with profits used to buy more material to manufacture more garments, which are sold in nearby Swan Hill.

At first the Aboriginal community was fearful of starting a hydroponic venture, but Linda believes that this and other projects at Wamba Wamba will become the foundation stones to building a better future for their kids.

“We’re all fearful of things we don’t understand”, explains Linda. “My main worry was the land and what the chemicals would do to the land, but as you know hydroponics is off the ground, and I’m settled about that.”

Aboriginal people do not consider themselves owners of the land; rather they consider themselves custodians or caretakers of the land. They are a people who have sacramental bonds between themselves, the land and nature, between the past and the present, and between the unseen and the seen. Herein is the very heart of Aboriginal culture.

These bonds were symbolically demonstrated at the recent Wamba Wamba flag-raising ceremony, when a traditional Aboriginal man ran with a ‘message stick’ from the highway to the main gate of the Wamba Wamba Land Council. Upon reaching the gate, he was greeted by a young Aboriginal man, but along the way the message stick that represented colonisation was lost. The young man searched in vain for the message stick, and in its stead he found the Aboriginal flag representing the people and the land, which he brought to the flag pole.

“We’ve come from the ashes as it were, and now we’re building a future,” explained Linda. We’re working towards self sufficiency, and when we go our children will carry the message stick that keeps our identity.

For me personally, that’s a big issue. Knowing who I am, and where I’ve come from, and passing that onto our children. If we know who we are, then we know where we are going,” she added.

The Multispan
The Wamba Wamba hydroponic facility consists of a multispan structure, measuring 18 x 24 metres (432sqm), with roll up sides and roof vents. The floor is completely covered with white plastic to raise the light level beneath the plant canopy.

The single-skin multispan was built to Wamba Wamba specifications by Bendigo greenhouse manufacturer Redpath-Ideal. Its main feature is roofing T-bars to add strength to the structure. The multispan has four roof-vents measuring 4.8 x 1 metre, which wind up 30cm to provide ventilation. Purpose-designed gulleys between the multispans collect rainwater, which is used in conjunction with town water to make up the nutrient solution.

Heating is provided by three thermastatically controlled LPG gas exchangers, which also provide CO2 to the plants. During the day, there is a 4-50°C increase on outside temperature. During the Summer, the network of heating ducts can be used to provide cooling and air movement. In the meantime, cooling is provided by a thermostatically controlled, overhead misting system which is programmed to mist for 5 seconds in every 5 minutes.

The System
The spiritual affiliation between Aboriginal people and land is common with all Aboriginal tribes throughout Australia. The ‘Dreaming’ is an English word used to describe the Aboriginal view of how life on earth began. Jemuraji is the Wamba Wamba word for Dreaming. During the creation, it is believed the great spirit creatures created man and handed down the law and the land. They created rivers, lakes, and certain natural phenomena, such as features of the landscape that are believed to hold the living spirits of their ancestors and are regarded as important sacred sites.

Aboriginal people are very strong in the defense of their law and the care of the land. They believe it is necessary to keep the land intact if they are to hold their culture together. So, the responsible disposal of nutrient chemicals was a very important consideration for the Wamba Wamba people. With this in mind, the Land Council opted for a recirculating NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) system. Nonetheless, some members of the community still remain uncomfortable with growing soilless culture plants, where the roots are not connected to the ground.

Overall there are 16 tables in the multispan, each measuring 12 metres in length, with a fall of 40:1. Each table supports two SureGrow channels measuring 155 x 70mm with 350mm centres. They have found that the slight curvature in the channel is ideal for establishing plants, and its removable lid facilitates easy cleaning between crops.

The in-ground nutrient tank adjoining the multispan holds 2000 litres of solution which is constantly aerated. A Dosetronic controller provides pH automation.

The Wamba Wamba facility also includes two separate tunnel houses, each measuring 6.5 x 20 metres. Once commissioned, these hothouses will use Growool slabs to grow roses for the local market.

The Nutrient Solution
The Wamba Wamba facility uses a general purpose, two-part liquid nutrient. Although more expensive, it was decided a liquid nutrient would be easier to manage for people who haven’t had a lot to do with soilless culture techniques. According to the manufacturer, Ireland Hydroponics, the liquid nutrient is a multi-crop mix with higher than usual trace elements.

“Specific formulations for multicropping can get complicated to administer, and we decided to develop a broad-spectrum liquid nutrient to meet the needs of this facility,” explained proprietor Stephen Ireland.

He added that most commercial formulations are based on leaf and water analysis, whereas this mix has a lot of everything available at one time.

“We still don’t fully understand what symbiotic relationships may occur in the root zone,” said Stephen. “While some trace elements may not be absorbed by the roots, I believe they need to be around the roots for some processes to happen,” he concluded.

The nutrient liquid is mixed with a 50/50 mix of townwater and rainwater, which brings the base water conductivity down from around 0.42mS/cm to 0.16mS/cm.

The Trial Crops
At the time of writing, the Wamba Wamba people were harvesting their first crop of green and yellow zucchinis, yellow button squash and continental cucumbers. These plants were specifically chosen, not only to test the system, but so the Aboriginal community could watch the rapid growth of these plant varieties on a day-to-day basis.

From transplanting to the first harvest was 5 weeks, with growth up to 30cms occurring on a daily basis. The rapid growth has helped consolidate the community’s enthusiasm for soilless culture techniques. The community expects to replant the system with a Winter crop in late January/early February 1997. In the meantime, the first crop has been used to test the system, and to teach the community cultural and management techniques, with the produce finding a ready market among local restaurants.

Initially, the conductivity was set at 1.8mS/cm, but with temperatures sometimes reaching 40°C outside the greenhouse, there was little water and nutrient movement. With the conductivity lowered to 1.5mS/cm, there is now large water usage and nutrient uptake. The conductivity drops to 1.2mS/cm over a one-day cycle, at which time it is adjusted upwards.

While the nutrient regime seems ideal for the zucchinis and button squash, it is at the expense of the cucumber plants which are not of marketable quality. The high temperatures may account for excessive crooking in the fruit. The commission of a circulatory cooling system during the hot Summer months should overcome this problem. Another cause of crooking is insect infestations, but the yellow sticky traps strategically positioned throughout the multispan show no evidence of any infestation.

Seedlings are grown on site using Growool propagation blocks, and a 400 watt Metal Halide lamp on a light rail. Eventually, the community hopes to expand its seedling nursery to supply other local growers.

Management Structure
With no prior hands-on experience in hydroponics, the services of Swan Hill consultant Michael O’Halloran were engaged to oversee the hydroponic facility, and to pass on his horticultural skills to the Aboriginal people. However, much of the success of the community’s first harvest belongs to Daryl Atkinson, who supervises the hydroponic facility on a day-to-day basis. Daryl was one of the first in the community to take advantage of the rural traineeship program, and he says that hydroponics “beats weeding”.

“I would like to see it (hydroponic techniques) go right to the top,” he said.

Much of Daryl’s enthusiasm has flowed onto other members of the community.

The Future
With the success of their first harvest, the Wamba Wamba Aboriginal Land Council has received an expression of interest to propagate salt resistant Australian native trees, using hydroponic techniques. With a tourism study now underway, it is hoped that this venture will interface with tourism initiatives, to transplant the trees in salt affected areas in the region.

The Wamba Wamba community has also received an expression of interest from the nearby Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Land Council, to perhaps train members of their community in soilless culture techniques.

According to Branch Manager Robert Walker, the continued success of the Wamba Wamba hydroponic venture will ultimately depend upon its commercial success.

“The project needs to achieve profitability to maintain some form of employment level, and that may be governed by market competition,” says Robert.

“The profitability wouldn’t in my view, need to be large, but that in itself would be good for the local Aboriginal people, because it will alleviate a lot of the social problems that go with unemployment. Notwithstanding, the success of this venture is especially pleasing to me because I’ve seen the Wamba Wamba Land Council come from nowhere to where it is now,” he concluded.

According to on-site co-ordinator Jim Peat, the Wamba Wamba Aboriginal Land Council is one of the best in the state.

“What you see here is a group of people who 4 years ago were on their knees waiting for the knockout punch. They literally got off the floor and turned this into what you see today.”

According to horticulture consultant Michael O’Halloran, the Wamba Wamba people wanted something to do with the earth and the plants.

“That’s nature to all Aboriginal people,” Michael said. “They wanted that to happen, and they made it happen.”

In any society, women play a significant role in the social network. This is no less true of the Wamba Wamba community. According to Linda, women have been the backbone of Aboriginal society since time began, while in traditional times men spent their time hunting. However, the low number of men in the Wamba Wamba community gives cause for thought.

“Some of these men have lost their way,” explains Linda. “I feel sad for the men, but what can we do to help them? They hide their feelings and they won’t talk; but women, we’re always yakking, and we talk it out.

“We need more men to come into the community, to have their meetings so that they might gradually find their way, and that’s coming,” continued Linda. “But we as women can’t sit around doing nothing, because we’ve got our kids to think of. The women have got work to do,” she ended.