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Rural workplace where disability makes no difference

DEDICATED WORKFORCE: Staff at Summerland House Farm gather around the custard apple packing table with CEO Brett Lacey (right).
DEDICATED WORKFORCE: Staff at Summerland House Farm gather around the custard apple packing table with CEO Brett Lacey (right).

WHEN Lionel Watts returned to the workforce, paralysed as a result of polio, he was shocked and disappointed to find he was ostracised by his able-bodied mates.

The dynamic man vowed to correct that attitude, and in the early 1960s founded an organisation with the aim of creating a workplace for people with disabilities.

Today the not-for-profit organisation House With No Steps (HWNS) employs 500 people with a disability and its Summerland House Farm near Alstonville in New South Wales has become a critical cog in local rural industry.

We are here for the social cause.

- Summerland House Farm executive general manager business Brett Lacey

The team is busy every day packing avocados, custard apples, sorting macadamia nuts and growing commercial quantities of truss tomatoes.

In addition, the Alstonville enterprise provides nursery items, value-added produce like roasted nuts and gift items, as well as a cafe serving locally-grown coffee.

Summerland House Farm executive general manager business Brett Lacey said the farm included an avocado orchard, which was carefully brought to fruition by the orchardist David Brine, who was instrumental in making the grove of trees a commercial reality.

The late Mr Brine was the one who advocated for integrated pest management and active management of phytophthora and canopy density.

"He found that balance between vegetative growth and fruit production," Brett said.

But these days, the services Summerland House Farm provides to local growers has surpassed what the farm produces.

The central fruit packing shed prepares trays of avocados, custard apples, peaches and nectarines and limes for market, and Brett said the farm was open to other options, like mangoes, lychees and finger limes.

The farm's orchard produces 15,000 trays of avocados a year but the packing shed, populated by 20 smiling employees with a disability pushes 200,000 boxes out the door every year.

During the brief stone fruit season, staff numbers increase to 30 because of the urgent turn-around times. To create the boxes required by the busy shed, carton supplier Amcor has partnered with HWNS to supply a folding machine, which churns out 300,000 cardboard trays each year.

Nearby, on site, is the half a million dollar macadamia processing factory, which handles up to 3000 tonnes of nuts in shell each year.

The local produce is dehusked and a photo scanner sorts the nuts at speed to determine which are suitable and which are not.

"It takes away the labour subjectivity made by humans and relies on an extensive database to pick the right ones," Brett said.

A new addition to the farm is its hydroponic greenhouse, which produces up to four tonnes of truss tomatoes a week in peak season.

Hothouse manager Tommy Oudomvilay, former owner of a very successful local Thai restaurant, said the management of flying pests was intense but rewarding during the crops' nine months of productivity.

Despite all the diversification it is not easy to make a profit.

And this operation near Alstonville relies on all of the HWNS businesses to make it work. Processed foods, for instance are packed at the Gold Coast packaging business.

But as Brett points out, profit is not the motive.

"We're here for the social cause," he said.

Topics:  disability horticulture house with no steps polio rural summerland house farm