THE FOOD GARDEN
I grew up in Dublin and moved to Australia when I was fifteen. Dad was from the city and Mum was a country girl, her family lived around farms north of Dublin. We used to get our veg from the Obilate Christian Brothers who had a farm over our back fence. Dad ran a general store that he took over form his dad.
I moved back to Ireland in my twenties for a couple of years on and off. I spent six months in Portland, Oregon after my van broke down driving up the west coast of America. I worked as a (not very good) house painter, roadie, and (an even worse) house builder. I also got stuck on an island in Honduras and spent a few months working on dive boats (didn't lose anyone).
I fell into Marketing after I pulled out of joining the Air Force at the last minute. I've also worked in project management and consulting. I had a design and print business, and spent most of my working time managing web development projects for tired corporate clients who were wishing for a change as much as I was.
Growing up in Ireland, it was meat and potatoes and as little veg you could get away with. Mum learned to make spaghetti bolognaise at some stage which mixed things up for awhile. My brother would eat stew for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My interest in food came late and was triggered by political events in the early 2000s and then when my first boy came along I really took notice of what we were eating. Finn and I would shop at the Vic Market on Saturday mornings and and chat to the grocers, bakers and small goods producers. I became interested in growing our own food as a means of protesting the ridiculousness of modern living, and as a social movement; I liked that you could initiate change and take responsibility for your own actions just by changing what you ate.
We moved here almost twelve years ago, just after my second son Ned was born. Our reasons were similar to most others - we had a young family, we were tired of city life and we were looking for a little more green space than Footscray could provide. I had sold my business and after three weeks back in the workforce I knew I was unemployable. Once you work for yourself it’s hard to go back. So I Googled organic food business and found a listing in Newstead. A couple months later we were up here. Janet Barker started the Food Garden in her home in Newstead. I loved the idea of the food box, of getting close to the folks that grow our food, and the idea of being able to connect to my community directly from my place of work - those were the initial reasons for taking over a small business in a small town. Eventually we moved the business to Castlemaine where the kids were going to school.
First impressions: Hot in summer, cold in winter, half inch top soil and no natural water supply. I loved it immediately. There wasn’t something you could point to but the general feeling was that there was a lot going on and that anything could be possible. Those first couple of years were a magical time of meeting new people and new places, it was just like travel.
We create and deliver organic fruit and veg boxes in and around Castlemaine, Ballarat and Bendigo. Customers order online and can also choose from a variety of bulk wholefoods. We focus on biodynamic produce, supporting local growers with relationships over many years and being that connection to the grower for folks who prefer to eat seasonal. Many of our growers have been working with us for ten years now, and some for nearly fifteen years - it's very satisfying to follow their journey over that time.
There have been many challenges along the way - young family, small business, 80 hour weeks, hot delivery days, relationship stress, early starts, late finishes - the usual small business stories. The last few years have been a little more challenging as a lot of personal stuff took us away from the business so we had to lean on the team to help out more.
The best things about this business are heading out to farms in summer and winter, having a chat with the growers, filling the van up with fresh smelling produce, the creative act of putting together a food box that not only looks great, but will feed a family for a week, choosing great people to work with and avoiding that Melbourne commute! The business has grown consistently. Some of our customers have been with us from day one and get a box every week - that's pretty amazing when you think about it. And even after fifteen years, we're picking up new customers who have only just heard about us. In the last few years, we’ve added the Conscious Caravan to the space, making hand- made, sugar-free, gluten-free vegan desserts that have been a great success in town, and now starting to attract interest further afield - we’ll probably do more with those in the new year.
We’re always looking for other ways to use the space - we have poetry once a month and the odd music gig, but it would be nice to get some more creative enterprises working in there. We’re speaking with some folks about building on that. We also want to add a few more drop off points, and then we will cap the number of deliveries and set up a waiting list to be able to manage growth a bit more effectively. Last year we were awarded a grant from AMP to develop software application with a local programmer to run the back end operations - this has saved us a huge amount of time, so we’ll be doing more work on developing this.
There really is no typical work day, but on Mondays we speak with growers and markets about what's in the paddocks, create and post the food boxes on the website and email subscribers. On Tuesdays the orders start to come in, so there is a lot of admin to deal with. The growers deliver on Wednesdays, which creates more admin work and on Thursdays we start at 4.30am to set up the packing shed. Boxes are packed till about 3pm and deliveries run all day. The produce store is also open and we serve coffee and vegan desserts. We continue deliveries on Fridays and the store is also open Fridays and Saturdays.
We have a two acre fenced off area at our place, with a budding orchard, about thirty beds, which are currently being rejuvenated. We have plenty of strawberries this year, the raspberry patch is looking great, and there are lots of Florian (Mt Franklin Organics) seedlings in the ground, so we're expecting a good flush of zucchini, pumpkin, tomato, beans, cucumber, kale, chard, fennel and kohlrabi. In winter we have a lot of rhubarb.
Things to do in the area: Swim at Vaughan springs, Dog Rock up at Mt Alexander, a nice cuppa at the Republic and I have a real soft spot for Newstead, (ssh.. don’t tell anyone about the pool).
If you're thinking of moving out here: Jump in feet first. If you have a five year plan to move out of the city, you never will. I have plenty of friends who've been planning to make the change for the ten years now. Make a one year plan and do it. You won’t regret it. It may be difficult sometimes, there will be plenty you didn’t expect, there will be rewards you hadn’t realised. Just be prepared to be challenged. I can’t explain it, but there is something about this place that doesnt allow you to expect your shit like the city does. You’ll be better for it - trust me, I’m a grocer.