Sunday 3 December is International Day of People with Disability - a day to increase public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disability, and celebrate the achievements and contributions of people with disability.
The theme for 2023 is ‘United in action to rescue and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for, with and by persons with disabilities’.
To celebrate this theme, we visited The Veggie Empire, a which includes farming duo Scott and Josh, who live with intellectual disabilities and have been involved with our disability support services for a number of years.
The Veggie Empire operates at Beales Road Farm in Greensborough, where two co-operatives have been established: Caring Farms Co-Op and SuppHorticulture.
Caring Farms Co-Op collectively manages the urban farm and are a non-profit social enterprise whose mission is to provide an inclusive and supportive place of work for people otherwise marginalised from the horticultural industry.
SuppHorticulture provides specialist support to Josh and Scott in line with their shared goal to work in horticulture and create their own business. These supports are funded by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in each of their plans.
Around 15 years ago, Josh and Scott found passion in horticulture during a disability day program at Edendale Community Farm. Once the program finished, Josh and Scott wanted to continue nurturing their newfound love of horticulture. Over time, Scott and Josh started specialising in propagating plants and began volunteering at Edendale. Through volunteering, they met Hayden, who leases Beales Road Farm and shares his land with the team. This enabled them to establish the farm and nursery in their own way, outside the traditional disability service model.
The team follows a guide-beside model of working, where the SuppHorticulturalist will work alongside The Veggie Empire team, allowing Josh and Scott to learn skills in a non-direct way. Everything is steeped in literacy, numeracy, and independence, building on Josh and Scott’s skills.
Over time, they’ve established themselves in a market among organic gardens and farms in Victoria, with seven regular customers ordering their seedlings. The team have also made a name for themselves, selling their produce to local cafes and restaurants.
“I love seeing customers because when I hand the veggies to the customers, I get to drive there and put them down on the ground, and I get to talk to the customers and get to say what the next products are,” said Josh.
Alongside horticulture, Scott embarked on a journey out of several years in group housing and into independent living, which MCM Disability Support Coordinators and the SuppHorticulture team collaborated to facilitate. Scott had a transition period which allowed all involved to establish how much support was needed in the new environment. A significant turning point occurred when Scott confidently gestured for Rachel to go to her own house after an evening of basketball and dinner, “never had a sleepover again after that,” laughed Rachel. “With Scotty, it’s been about having a holistic arrangement with the same people in different parts of his life [home and work], which has been incredible,” said Rachel.
Dusty and Rachel discussed sustainability and its deep roots in everything they do outside of the farming aspect, specifically in terms of its setup to create opportunities for Josh and Scott to reach their goals. Rachel iterated that their aim is not to become a large enterprise but to generate enough revenue from a high-quality product to employ Scott and Josh one day each week at the Horticultural Award rate, not a disability-subsidised rate. “It has been about making valid roles for people, being true to the values and never wavering from that. You know, not questioning, ‘Would they [Scott and Josh] be better off at a day service because they’d have friends there?’ Nah, they’re mates. They play music together, and we find fun social activities outside work. And you know, this is work, and if you want to get paid to do work, you’ve got to do the work.”
Rachel expressed that the team aims to broadcast their model to help people with NDIS funding pursue their vocational goals outside the disability services. “We don’t want to be farmers with a disability; we want to be farmers, you know? And that has always been the goal.” They want to set an example for others, providing guidance on how to start and build on a community-based initiative. Rachel highlighted, “It’s great to have the freedom of choosing the jobs you do – it really is about everyone having agency.”
Josh was asked what he would tell his younger self if he could go back 15 years to when his horticulture journey began. Josh responded, "Speak up, speak out and don't be afraid to make mistakes." He also offered advice to other NDIS participants, encouraging them to work in nature as it's “good for your hands, it’s good for your mind.”