Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Glasshouses at Worn Gundidj (Image: Worn Gundidj)
Business Profile

Nursery business offers more than plants

By Karen Smith

I don’t believe it is possible to overestimate the benefits of horticulture to the wider community. It is an inclusive endeavour suited to all ages and skill levels. A conversation I had recently with Chris Shepard and Peter Lyles from Worn Gundidj nursery in Warrnambool reinforced my conviction there is more to a nursery than plants.

Worn Gundidj is a social enterprise aimed at promoting indigenous owned and operated businesses, and helping individuals realise their own potential. The original nursery, Ngalawoort, began operation about thirty years ago using funding from a community development employment program, and from there other activities developed under the banner of Worn Gundidj enterprise and operated for about twenty five years. About four years ago Chris Shepard decided to reinvent the nursery. Adopting the name Worn Gundidj unified the branding of the elements of the indigenous enterprise that included bush foods and tours operating out of Tower Hill. The nursery provides a pathway for indigenous youth to a rewarding vocation.

The nursery supplies about 100,000 plants per year of native species indigenous to the Warrnambool and south western Victoria region to developers, councils, hospitals, Parks Victoria and schools, as well as to households landscaping their own properties on newly established estates. The nursery is heavily involved in the Tower Hill restoration program providing plants and expertise for the revegetation of the area. Restoration and revegetation of degraded areas is one reason the nursery is busy. Landscapes once ignored, particularly wetlands, are now being revitalised.

Schools and kindergartens surrounding Warrnambool now have an interest in native flora and many, according to Peter, are keen to establish native gardens. Generating interest in that level of the community could result in more community contact and perhaps volunteers for other programs that form part of Worn Gundidj Aboriginal Co-operative Ltd.

Worn Gundidj nursery (Image: Nic Eichner)
Worn Gundidj nursery (Image: Nic Eichner)

The original community development employment program provided social and economic opportunities for young indigenous Australians, and facilitated transitions into training and work. Volunteering in the nursery and within Worn Gundidj has filled gaps left by mainstream employment schemes. This leads to the participant accessing our wrap around services whilst getting work ready in a culturally safe environment. 

Young people may volunteer for one reason or another, and contact with others at the nursery soon unearths any underlying issues.  Nursery management can work behind the scenes, involve other services or provide support for housing or justice issues confronting these people.

One offshoot support service that has been successful according to Chris is their music program for young indigenous performers. Chris was full of praise for Heidi Gass, an ARIA Award nominated music teacher responsible for the success of the program. Music connected young people who might be disengaged generally and gave them an insight into that industry. Unfortunately, their music program is momentarily on hold due to lack of funding, but Chris is hopeful they may find a sponsor to help the program continue.

Asked whether the Worn Gundidj business model could work for other indigenous communities, Chris was sure other communities could achieve similar success. Not that the Worn Gundidj enterprise didn’t have its ups and down. Despite a string of successes placing indigenous youth in employment and operating a succesful nursery, and despite platitudes by people in high places, they have lost state funding for their employment and education schemes in the last state budget and have had to reduce staff employed in these businesses. Their nursery staff, including Chris and Peter, consists of three full time horticulturists, working  30 hours, one part time staff member doing 15 hours per week, two casuals and three volunteers producing about 100,000 plants each year.

Bush foods was a natural offshoot of the nursery business and is generating interest in its own right. Worn Gundidj enterprise supplies local grocery businesses and restaurants with bush foods such as Davidson Plum, Anise Myrtle and Gumbi Gumbi (Pittosporum angustifolium). They also operate an online store for bush foods. A collaboration with Timboon ice cream has developed flavours such as Peppermint Gum, Strawberry Gum, and Wattle Seed, as well as Davidson Plum sorbet.

Despite the lack of support from the Victorian Government the nursery is bursting at the seams, and Chris and Peter are hoping to increase the footprint of the business. Peter sees scope for increasing the tube stock plant output, and he sees scope for supplying more mature plants for landscapers and the local market. There is also the opportunity of supplying the bigger cities such as Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong as they are receiving lots of enquiries from these areas, particularly for wetlands, roadside and industrial plantings. Growing locally will offset the cost of transport for larger plants that otherwise might have to come from Melbourne.

Peter Lyles told me he is hoping to transition to a more relaxed lifestyle and is looking forward to some form of retirement. He has been involved in horticulture for about forty-five years, and about four years with Worn Gundidj. Chris and the board have to now look for a replacement for Peter to guide the business into the next phase.

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