Just over 20 years ago the Midwest Employment and Economic Development Aboriginal Corporation (MEEDAC) was incorporated by the Mullewa community in the Mid-West northern wheat belt of Western Australia.
It stemmed from community elders’ concern there were no meaningful employment and training opportunities for their people. Projects were developed in Morowa, Yalgoo, Three Springs, and remote communities Kardaloo, Barrel Wells, Mt Wittenoom, Nabawa and Pia Wadjarri.
One of those projects was Innovation Park, which saw the development and running of a sustainable commercial 2000-hectare farm east of Geraldton.
The joint venture with mining company Karara has also had support from Sodexo, the federal government, and more recently, Coles.
Innovation Park general manager Milton Milloy told Food & Drink Business the initiative started with chickens, free range eggs and vegetable crops, but has developed since then, particularly with the installation of its shade house.
“The shade house is 10,000 square metres and climate controlled. The roof opens and shuts automatically depending on sunlight and the time of day. The walls also go up and down independently to let the breeze through,” Milloy explains.
The structure came from Canadian company and retractable roof house specialist Cravo. The company says its technology allows growers in hot climates to produce fruit and vegetables, especially during difficult growing seasons.
“The shade house made our project sustainable,” Milloy says, “If there is a cyclone or other potentially damaging weather system coming, the whole structure closes up. We might lose some crops, but we won’t lose the shade house.”
Next to the structure is a 500 square metre packing and storage shed, which also contains the pumps, fogging system, control station and computers that control the atmosphere in the shade house.
Milloy says: “It’s all automated, we can run it from anywhere in the world using our smart phones.”
The roof is made of Kevlar, not cloth, explaining its endurance qualities. Milloy says it can carry the weight of a 150-kilogram man working on it.
When the shade house was being built MEEDAC had 6 local people working on the construction, with five Indigenous workers. There are currently four to six people working the farm, using local people and a mix of experience.
Depending on the time of year, the park produces tomatoes, chillies, eggplant, capsicum, pumpkins, garlic and is planning to grow rockmelons and watermelon following a grant from Coles.
“In winter it can be almost 10 degrees warmer, then in summer it has a fogging system which provides a warm, humid climate perfect for growing. We also water to the ground, so it goes into the plant roots.”
Milloy is also in discussions with MEEDAC’s power company and solar companies to see how the shade house can incorporate solar power.
The corporation has recently linked with a local wholesaler and Coles, to potentially become a supplier to the supermarket chain.
“Coles has been a huge supporter,” Milloy says.
In May 2020, the farm received a $90,000 grant from the Coles Nurture Fund. The grant will enable MEEDAC to buy and install picking and packing equipment and infrastructure, a work platform and spray machine.
Coles national Indigenous affairs manager Cristilee Houghton told Food & Drink Business: “We know Australian farmers and food producers have new and innovative ideas to take their business to the next level.
“The funds will help MEEDAC grow their Mullewa Community Garden, which produces fresh produce for the local community and helps jobseekers develop basic skills and knowledge in horticulture.”
Milloy says: “We want to build a model that can go into remote regions and even regional areas to grow produce for local communities. If we get the model right, we can get local communities involved in that huge footprint right down to Esperance. It has huge potential.”