THE sun beats down hot on the rolling hills and open lake of the farm. Ponies graze in a nearby field, native birds call overhead and bees buzz around colourful flower gardens.
In the middle of this scene sits a long table laid with plates full of freshly baked bread, honey-roasted carrots and, dainty flower-garnished tarts.
At the hands of the 60 young people with disabilities that run the farm and their mentors, this lunch, from the olive oil to the honey, has been sourced from and produced on the immediate farmland of Sages Cottage Farm.
Wallara, the disability support organisation, that owns and maintains the farm worries that without some government support this haven may not be allowed to reach its full potential.
Wallara is a non-for-profit working to fight stigma and raise awareness of disability.
The organisation works mostly with people with intellectual disabilities, and focuses on fighting stigma by getting them involved in work.
Sages Cottage Farms is one of Wallara’s biggest projects: a 40-acre plot of land in Baxter, Victoria, run by the organization’s disabled clients with help and support from their coaches.
Clients may partake in any number of programs while running the farm, from beekeeping to agriculture to construction.
“They learn about everything on the farm,” said Wallara’s CEO, Phil Hayes-Brown.
“Tending to the animals, growing produce, cooking food in the cafe, looking after the lake: they get to run a social enterprise.”
All of these various programs, as well as making a lovely lunch, allow many of organisation’s clients something they may not otherwise have had, for reasons often related to accessibility and stigma: work experience and a job.
“We want people with disability to have that chance to experience work,” said Mr Hayes-Brown.
“We all know how important a job is and it’s no different for our clients and their families.”
For many, the work offered on Sages Cottage Farm can be incredibly empowering.
Sevda Özlem Kiranci, a client who has been working on the farm for a number of years now, says that the program has changed her life.
Over the years she has been able to develop skills from across the program, including coffee making and selling fresh produce, which she will be doing at the farm’s new market store beginning this month.
Developing these skills have allowed her a new appreciation for her own ability.
“I can do anything I want,” said Sevda.
For those clients who want to take these skills and confidence even further, the Sages Farm program also provides support and opportunities to pursue work off the farm.
In the last year, the Sages Farm program has transitioned eight clients into paid work, and next year they are looking to up that number to 10.
As part of this transitional program, Wallara recently won a contract, cleaning up local playgrounds, for their clients to complete work off the farm.
Jordan Warren, Sullivan Wrangles and Riley Gomm are three of the clients working on this contract and attended lunch as a brief stop between playgrounds.
Both Jordan and Sullivan expressed frustration at how long it had taken them to find employment and how glad they were now they had found it through Wallara and Sages.
For Jordan, the ability to work gives him a sense of purpose and an outlet.
“Have a job is a good thing because of the money but, also I just want to be outside, getting my hands dirty and stuff like that,” he said.
Wallara currently hires Jordan, Sullivan and Riley themselves and pay for their labour, but they hope soon local businesses and corporate supporters of Sages Farms will add some of its clients to their payrolls.
“We can create jobs ourselves, but now we’re calling on the businesses around the farm who’ve been supportive and helped us get somewhere,” said Mr. Hayes-Brown.
“The next step is for them to hire people.”
Many of these supportive companies and local business sit around the lunch table on the sunny afternoon, including representatives from the Saint Kilda Football Club and the Frankston RSL.
There there are hopes that clients could put to work their café and cooking skills in these venues.
By proving that their clients are, and in fact can be workplace ready, Wallara is working to dispel prejudice and stigma around disability.
“A lot of time when people think about people with disabilities, in general, they don’t see what the person is capable of,” said Mr. Hayes-Brown.
“A lot of assumptions are made.
“We want to change that around and show people what this community can do.
“It’s great to have a place where the public can come walk around, see them running a 40-acre farm, and maybe change the minds of people and how people think about this.”
To this end, the farm is planning to reopen to visits from members of the general public on January 4, 2022.
And by 2023, they plan to be open to visitors seven days a week, rather than just two or three, hosting services including over-night stays, tours and produce stores.
These plans though, hinge on Wallara’s ability to secure funding, particularly from the state and local government.
As it stands, Sages Farm continues to be a program funded entirely by Wallara and its supporters, who have together raised over $2 million.
But the farm still lacks many facilities necessary for hosting more clients and public visits, including much indoor space and even multiple bathroom facilities.
For these facilities, Wallara is looking to raise another $3 million.
At lunch, held as part of the celebrations for the upcoming Disability Awareness Day, Wallara called on the government to do more for the Sages Cottage Farm project.
“It’s disappointing to hear the government talk about wanting to get more people with disability to work, something we are doing and are successful at, and still not getting a cent,” said Mr. Hayes-Brown.
“We are after the government to support us with a better workspace so we can host more groups and have more of the community come here and offer more places to meet.”
“They should be [helping] us to do more.”
Wallara has been calling on the government for this support for many years now, with no success.
With an election year fast approaching they remain hopeful their efforts will pay off soon.
The farm’s clients too, remain hopeful this program that has given them so much will receive the support it needs.
When asked what he, if anything, would say to the government regarding funding, Sullivan put forward a simple plea:
“I’m just a guy that has a disability trying to find an actual job,” he said.
“All I am going to say is just help us out.”