Despite initial impressions to the contrary, this wasn’t a totally reckless decision to up and leave the big smoke and head for the hills, run away from responsibility, society, and Sydney traffic. So how did we know that this must be the place? And what other matters did we consider? And importantly, what have we discovered that we missed considering!
From the get go, we were all clear about our commitment to growing food. We weren’t clear exactly how this would look, but our partners Lyndon and Beth had an interest in cattle, and Therese and I would be growing vegetables, and we would do this organically. And whilst we were naïve in many matters, we knew we’d need assistance from the wider community to get going.
Lyndon had been speaking with the Demeter people at BioDynamics Australia in Victoria about our plans, which lead to Alex Podolinsky suggesting that we connect with David Marks and Heidi Fallding from Marrook Dairy Farm at Elands on the Mid North Coast. David and Heidi had left Sydney mid-life to set up their farm that was in the area we were looking, so they could be suitable mentors for us. We set up a time to visit so Lyndon and I could spend a weekend with David and Heidi at the farm.
They were very welcoming and full of advice, with David most notably devoting the better part of the weekend doing his upmost to deter us from our course of action! A few of his words of wisdom that stuck were that you’ll need the same amount of money in addition to what you spend on purchasing the property to develop it, and the oft heard ‘how do you make a small fortune out of farming? Start with a big one!’ As a former accountant, to say David’s sense of humour was dusty was an understatement. We parted filled with more matters to grapple with, but still clear that this was what we’d be doing in the near future.
David had made mention of another biodynamic farmer in the area who had his business for sale and that we might consider speaking to.
Tony and Josie Franckin’s farm raised free range organic eggs in a unique manner. Originally a dairy farm until the ravages of deregulation took their toll, Tony downsized his herd and moved to eggs, marrying the two by using the milk from the cows as a protein supplement to mix with the daily grain ration that the hens required. This process added to the pasture raised free ranging model that he used produced some of the best eggs ever. Therese and I spent a day with the Franckins, and along with Lyndon and Beth considered the viability of their business for what we were looking for. Unfortunately it didn’t meet our requirements – the homestead needed modifications to house two adult couples; it was in a beautiful location but too far from town for a daily commute; and none of us had any experience with milking and animal husbandry. On the upside, we had gained further knowledge, and as it turned out, commenced a valuable relationship that continues to this day.
Each of these farm visits and our ongoing enquiries were helping us build our vision for what our farm would look like, even if that meant knowing what we would not be doing. What else did we take into account?
One of the main reasons we were focusing on the Mid North Coast and Port Macquarie was the population in the region (approx. 70,000) and the associated infrastructure and activity that brings with it. We believed it would provide a ready market for what we’d be producing, and additionally, would supply services that we’d need. All four of us had long standing commitments in Sydney that would require what we then thought would be irregular trips and the airport was of a suitable size – all we needed was to convince Virgin to start servicing the area to give Qantas some competition, and prices would become reasonable. This occurred shortly after we relocated.
The other main transport piece that was important was the Pacific Highway. We’d been spending a bit of time on it exploring the region, and the travel time to Port was still a little over 4 and 1/2 hours, exceeding our 4 hour ‘limit’. However, we could see road works in place to improve sections around Bulahdelah and north of Taree, and it wasn’t too long before the highway was dual carriageway all the way to Port Macquarie and our 4 hour limit was met!
One service that absolutely needed to be in place was a reliable internet connection. Therese, who worked in the communications industry, and Beth would both be continuing their ‘Sydney’ jobs from the end of an internet connection, and we were all well aware of the importance the web would be to our business. A working ‘relationship’ was to develop with Telstra, our only choice of providers, and we’ve become very proficient in Yager antennas, the vagaries of the mobile broadband network, and the gap between the cities and rural and regional Australia. Prior to exchanging on the property, we did have a Telstra technician come out to the farm and confirm the strength of the mobile signal. Whilst he did this, we were later to find out that he tested the signal at the front gate and failed to drive up to the house and test it there. Let’s just say that the service that we now have is a marked improvement to what was here seven years ago.
Two other pieces of infrastructure that have proved vital to our enterprise that we didn’t consider but fate dealt us well with are our proximity to an abattoir and a poultry processing facility. And I imagine that most of you aren’t aware that these are two distinct entities. Having an abattoir close by (45kms to our north) means that our animals can be transported on the morning that they are to be processed minimizing the amount of time they spend in transport and being held in yards at the facility. We believe that limiting the amount of time the animals are in stressful environments aids the quality of the meat. Also, as it is a smaller family owned business, dealings with them are more personable.
Similarly, having a poultry processor within an hour of us is a real bonus. Without this it is unlikely that we would even consider raising our pastured chickens. Hayden and Beth McMillan at Burrawong Gaian are small producers who do a stunning job raising certified free range ducks and chickens at Stuarts Point, and thankfully also process birds from other growers.
Two other attributes that were glaringly obvious to any farming enterprise were the soil on the property and access to water. The estate agent was to play a role in both. When we came to do the last inspection prior to making our offer, I told the agent that I wanted to bring a spade along so I could check the soil. He said “No problem, but in the twenty years I’ve been doing this, you’re the first person to do that”. Once at the property, I proceeded to wander through the paddocks randomly digging into the soil. At each location every spade full of soil would contain a generous quantity of worms – perfect, so much life already in the soil, the real benefit of minimal or no chemical use for over fifteen years. This was a real bonus. The water situation was not quite as rosy.
Bordering a river meant the property had a ‘stock and domestic’ license which allowed us to draw as much water as we liked to water animals and for our home use, but we could not use it to irrigate a commercial crop. However the agent assured us that as this was former dairy country, there’d be a license that a neighbouring property would gladly sell to us at a reasonable price, as they’d have little further use for it. And of course, we believed him!
What sealed the deal on the 22 acres at 1466 Pappinbarra Road? How did I know that this must be the place? Despite all research about what we needed, what really sealed matters were two trees growing in the front yard.
When I’d been studying horticulture at college, I discovered the beauty of a wide range of plants, and took great interest Australian rainforest trees. Getting up close and personal to these beauties was eye opening, particularly the number that had quite distinct and bright flowers. One that became a real favourite was Stenocarpus sinuatus, the Queensland Firewheel tree – just look at that flower. I declared that the house that I’d live in would have one of these in the garden, and there they were – two of these in the front garden here! Clearly this must be the place.
This is the third post in a series about our journey to Near River, how our ethical pasture raised traditional field grown small holding enterprise has come to look like it does, and what we’ve learnt along the way.
Here are the previous posts, and yes, I’m an 80s music tragic.