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How can we recultivate Indigenous agriculture?

17 March 2021
Jared Harrison talks to SEI about his work with Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs, bringing traditional food practices back to country for a more sustainable future.

Liberty Lawson: Could you give us an overview of your background?

Jared Harrison: I have certainly not had the usual, or traditional pathway into academia so will try to tell a little about my journey thus far. Early in my career, I worked for a series of supply chain management businesses across Sydney and Melbourne before running my own company in this area, mainly supplying into the textiles and fashion industries. We were one of the first companies offering recycled polyester and sustainable bamboo products for both fashion and industrial textiles in Australia, but I always felt very conflicted about the environmental and social issues I observed within textile supply chains across Asia.

After operating the company for ten years I embarked on a Master of Commerce degree at the University of Sydney Business School, which allowed me to delve into topics like ‘energy and environmental sustainability’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’. Through my studies I encountered the Remote and Rural Enterprise (RARE) Program, which connects students with remote and Indigenous organisations and entrepreneurs who have identified promising business opportunities but are suffering quite severe resource constraints. Students undertake projects alongside the community or organisation, who take ownership of the students’ final work – usually a strategic plan to execute their idea or a feasibility study on the opportunity identified (students do this as part of accredited coursework within the Bachelor and Master of Commerce and Bachelor of Advanced Studies programs). I formed some very valuable relationships with the academics running the program back then and long story-short, I have been managing and directing the RARE program at the Business School for four years now. Over that time, I have developed a deep respect for Indigenous Australians and First Nations culture and am passionate about working with Indigenous communities on social and economic development opportunities that are linked to culture. I’m now very excited to be embarking on a PhD in the area.

Your current project is looking at the development of Indigenous social enterprises – could you tell us some more about this research?

I am very inspired by Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu where he very elegantly pulls apart the myth of ancient Indigenous Australia being a (purely) ‘hunter-gatherer’ society and he outlines the agricultural practices that First Nations Australians were engaged in. Bruce has now founded a social enterprise, Black Duck Foods (BDF) that operates with the cultural license of the Yuin people and is aimed at reviving these ancient practices through growing, processing and commercialising perennial grasses, native grains and tubers. BDF also wants to act as a ‘hub’ of knowledge for other Indigenous nations and communities who may wish to development their own agricultural enterprise, so they can learn from the experience of BDF as they experiment with reviving ancient agriculture in a modern context. My research is looking into the experience of BDF and these unique Indigenous agricultural social enterprises, how they perceive and create value for their communities, how this value can be transferred across ‘place’ amidst complex cultures and how tensions arising from entrepreneurial activity in these unique contexts are resolved.

What is the value in reviving traditional practices and focussing on native plants for agricultural use, and how can these practices best be implemented in order to engage and support Indigenous communities?

There are potential ‘win-wins’ for all Australians in this.

For First Nations people, a thriving Indigenous agricultural sector would create jobs that are connected to culture, similar to the Indigenous ‘rangers’ land management programs which are successfully operating in many parts of Australia. This activity would also create jobs on-country, meaning Indigenous people could maintain their connection to land and culture and not have to leave country and family to find meaningful employment. Reviving culture also means creating opportunities to transfer culture (and language) to the younger generation and importantly, in a way where there is a visible and viable economic future in remote locations.

Traditional agriculture also has an enormous contribution to make to the wider agricultural industry in Australia and to Australia’s ongoing food security. Agriculture in modern Australia has been defined by a drought ridden boom-to-bust cycle ever since European style agriculture was ‘imported’ to Australia nearly 250 years ago. Traditional agriculture on the other hand is about cultivating perennial grasses, native grains and native tubers which are more suited to Australia’s harsh environment, use less water and can have higher nutritional content.

How these practices can best be implemented to support Indigenous communities is essentially what I want to uncover with my research. There is much to learn and discover in this space, but we do know that economic opportunities that are connected to culture and country stand the best chance of success.

What are the most important lessons you have learned through working with different communities and cultures in Australia?

I have learned so much from working alongside Indigenous Australians; every new project we embark on in the RARE program creates important new learnings for us as researchers and teachers and there is no shortage of innovative thinkers and leaders in remote places. Their passion, generosity, community spirit and sense of humour are contagious!

Two very important lessons:

Any economic initiative has to driven by that community, right from the start, for it to really be a success. In other words, the “nothing about us without us” adage is just as important for business and entrepreneurial efforts as it is in other domains, such as policy. It may seem an obvious lesson, but in resource constrained remote environments it can be very easy to start ‘implementing’ rather than patiently waiting for community members to take time to do what they need to in their own way. The second would be the enormous value of Indigenous knowledge and ways of doing. The holistic way in which communities approach initiatives has been a refreshing reminder of how, in a western context, we often approach everything in isolation making it difficult to tackle large scale issues, or what we often call ‘wicked problems’. There is no one perfect way of course, but I think the two grand traditions of Indigenous and western knowledge can certainly complement each other in their approaches.

Jared Harrison is Associate Lecturer in Social Enterprise and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney Business School. His research looks at the development of Indigenous social enterprises, how these create value for their communities and the tensions that arise from entrepreneurial activity across multiple cultural contexts. He is particularly interested in the rise of Indigenous native grains production, how enterprise can best act to revive ancient culture for modern prosperity and the wider implications for Australian agriculture and food security.

Jared lectures in the Business School’s social entrepreneurship and innovation units of study in the Master of Commerce, the Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Advanced Studies programs. Jared also manages the Business School’s key Indigenous community engagement initiative, the Remote and Rural Enterprise (RARE) Program and is involved in various University initiatives related to teaching innovation, work integrated learning and Indigenous engagement strategies.

Header image: Wattle seeds, ground into flour, have been a staple of Indigenous diets for over 40,000 year via Shutterstock ID- 413706610.