Last man standing at Chinese market gardens, August 16, 2014, Michael Koziol  (courtesy Sydney Morning Herald)

Robert 1A dying breed: Robert Teng tends his Chinese market gardens. Photo: Nic Walker
Death is catching up with the market gardeners of La Perouse.

For the past 100 years migrant Chinese families have farmed these lush green fields for parsley, shallot, mint and bok choy – a seven-hectare oasis amid the shipyards, runways and fumes of the city’s industrial belt.

But looming large on the adjacent hilltop is a neighbour intent on putting all that to an end. Like many of Sydney’s cemeteries, the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park is fast running out of space for bodies and tombstones. Since 2008 it has wanted to seize 60 per cent of the garden in order to expand.

Robert 2Robert Teng in his shed. Photo: Nic Walker
Only one family remains of the three that used to farm the garden’s three plots. One couple retired, while the Ha family, who had farmed the grounds for 80 years, left about nine months ago facing drainage issues and uncertainty over the site’s future.

Robert Teng is the last man standing.

For 38 years he and his family have toiled to produce radishes, English spinach, Chinese broccoli and other vegetables for local and far-flung buyers. Most mornings he will tend the plot, before driving to grocers, restaurants and the Flemington markets to make deliveries. Customers are loyal because they know his produce is clean, fresh and local.

“My continental parsley [has] a good smell. I sell plenty,” Mr Teng says. “The soil is very good … good water.”

His workday, spent under Sydney’s unforgiving sun, is long and repetitive. The soil is a deep sandy loam and can only be farmed by hand or with light machinery. Mr Teng’s wife, sons and daughter, mother-in-law and cousins all farm the site, gently plucking parsley from endless rows and depositing the bunches into small wooden baskets, which they wheel back to the shed for washing.

The workload has increased since Mr Teng started tending the Ha family’s plot as well. The cemetery’s trust was granted an exploratory licence to assess the third, unfarmed plot, but has been accused of neglecting its maintenance duties and allowing noxious weeds to grow.

Mr Teng is prepared to farm the entire seven hectares but needs security of tenure. He has to renew his lease each year and is worried about the cemetery’s plans. “I would like a long lease,” he says.

Locals say a high water table makes the garden unsuitable for burials. The cemetery’s 2012 bid to encroach upon the plot was rejected by Randwick Council, which has zoned the area for agricultural use.

But Greens councillor Murray Matson fears the government could intervene and ask for the Crown land to be rezoned. He said the market garden was a “local icon” and an important sustainable food source.

“It’s part of the community – it’s always been there for them. If you go to La Perouse and ask anyone if they want to keep it, they’ll say yes.”

Randwick Council has now called on the state government to strip the trust of control over the third lot and return it to agricultural production.

The Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, which operates the cemetery, declined to answer questions and referred Fairfax Media to the Department of Primary Industries. A departmental spokesperson said the government was investigating ways to balance these competing interests and no new planning proposal was on the table.

“The government acknowledges the heritage significance of the site and the strong community support for local market gardens. The government also recognises the challenges associated with the shortage of burial space in metropolitan Sydney,” the spokesperson said.

Most market gardens have been relegated to the city fringe and the regions. Fred Haskins, a local representative on the NSW Farmers Association, fears that could be Mr Teng’s fate as well.

“If they take the second farm off him, within a couple of years he’ll be unviable and the whole thing will close down,” he said.

 

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