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Shepparton Orchards, Tomatoes, Jews and Muslims

[Publisher’s Note: It is a shame that the dispossession of the Yorta Yorta people in the Gouldburn Valley is not mentioned in this short history.]

Shepparton, Orchards, Tomatoes, Jews and Muslims
The Goulburn Valley, of which Shepparton is the main city, is often referred to as the ‘Food Bowl of Australia’. About 25% of the total value of Victoria’s agricultural production comes from this area. The food processing, manufacturing and transport industries in Greater Shepparton, along with fruit farms, support a regional population of about 160,000.

Just recently the major food processing industry, SPC-Ardmona, seemed threatened with closure, which could have resulted in the destruction of the orchards and market gardens for which the region has been famous since the end of the 1914 great drought.

The Abbott Government flatly refused to provide any assistance to the company, but the Victorian State Government has since agreed to help the owners, Coca Cola-Amatil, modernize the plant and equipment.

It is of interest to us that a family of orchardists from Ottoman Palestine, the Feiglin family, played a leading role in establishing the Shepparton Preserving Company which processed and marketed the produce from Goulburn Valley farms.

The Jewish News carried an article on the historic Jewish connection to SPC in its February 14 issue. Although there is no longer a Jewish community in the Goulburn Valley, the AJN pointed out that it is against Jewish law to uproot a productive fruit tree.

If SPC-Ardmona had closed, fruit trees throughout the Goulburn Valley would have been destroyed. It is also contrary to Islamic understanding to destroy food producing plants, even during warfare.

The Jews first went to the Goulburn Valley in the early 1900s, refugees from the anti-Jewish pogroms under the Czar of Russia. 1913 saw the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the valley.

This was the time of the Balkan Wars, when Muslims were being massacred in Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, a time when Albanians also began to seek a new life abroad. The number of Albanians seeking to emigrate, increased during World War I as Italy, Serbia, Greece and France all sought territory where Albanians had lived. As Albanians were considered “white” they were not excluded from Australia by the notorious White Australia Policy, but as southern Europeans, less desirable than ‘nordic’ Europeans, they were subject to explicit quotas from 1928.

Many Albanians worked at cane cutting in Queensland but then the Great Depression pinched. Anglo-Celtic workers were given preference for employment on the canefields, so many Albanians moved south to Shepparton where they worked as labourers and eventually established market gardens and orchards. They still live and work there, with a mosque which was established in 1960.

A migration agreement with Turkey was signed in 1967 providing for assisted passages to Australia for “selected workers and their dependents.” In the 1970 Turkish Muslims were moving into the Goulburn Valley, working on tomato and fruit farms and establishing farms of their own. They also established Islamic Societies and mosques. The Mooroopna Mosque serves Turkish Muslims in the region today.

The latest Muslim arrivals have been refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, two regions in which Australia had troops for some years. These people have fled from societies where life is too dangerous for them to stay.

The original Jewish refugees from the Czar, Albanians fleeing war and social anarchy, now Iraqis and Afghans fleeing war, all have found a safe haven in the Goulburn Valley, working in orchards and market gardens and in food processing factories.

This regional area, more than any other which comes to mind, illustrates the nature of Australian society over a century, a place where people who are prepared to make an effort, can establish a good, productive life.

As food shortages around the world grow more serious and as global warming wreaks havoc with the land, this ‘Food Bowl’ will increase in significance. We cannot afford to allow the Goulburn Valley to turn into wasteland because of extremist political ideology.

Al Wasat Bilal Cleland
February 2014

from Pamela Curr
Refugee Rights Advocate
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
Ph 0417517075

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