When visiting the Autumn Farm property it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a 1992 SBS screening of a foreign film, set in the heart of a family-run farm, breathing in the warmth of the grass and feeling the rays of the sun on your skin. Just turning in to their driveway and walking down to the house can feel like you’ve walked on to a film set. The romantic setting and visceral vibe from the place is nuanced by the paced buzzing, set by the daily ‘grind’ of the Autumn Farm family.
Autumn Farm is, in fact, not a cinematic dreamscape but the small rural property of Genevieve Derwent, Annie Werner and their delightful offspring Olive and Oscar. The farm is also a picturesque tribute to all things permaculture, organic, ethically sourced and homemade.
The decision to move from inner-western Sydney to the Bega Valley came after first considering Wollongong as a possibility, where commuting to work was still an option for Genevieve. But that didn’t satisfy their itchy feet enough and, because of their past relationships with the far south coast, the decision became obvious.
Genevieve’s dad soon pointed out a property to the ladies and the tree change ensued. After renting for six months, while the land was prepared and materials were sourced, Annie and Genevieve hosted a working bee/workshop that allowed participants hands-on experience at building a straw bale house, while affording the owners a labour intensive but inexpensive way to build their dream loft studio (a-live-in-for-now-but-build-abigger- one-later house).
The notion behind building a straw bale house, aside from Annie declaring, ‘’cause it’s the best, chuck out the rest!’ is that straw is considered a waste material, its thermal properties are extraordinary, it’s ‘kinda cheap’, and is quick to erect.
With a dwelling to bunker in, and boundless ideas for their farm, Annie and Genevieve have hunkered down and got their hands dirty. Literally. Among the swales dedicated to organic produce, and the termite mound pizza oven, Autumn Farm has incorporated their free-range philosophy to include meat chickens.
The inspiration to adapt the farm to accommodate chickens on their small block aligned with an awareness that chickens seemed manageable, especially if there is a manageable number of them. The decision was also largely influenced by Annie and Genevieve having read Pastured poultry profit$ by Joel Salatin (1996), where the idea of moving farming away from an industrial setting appealed to the new farmers. The fact that owning and running a small-scale farm can be profitable, while regenerating the land, helped firm up their resolution. They are quick to add, however, that while the profits (at this stage anyway) are ‘tiny’ the money is truly inconsequential when it comes to their new-found quality of life. This seems to be the pot of proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow. Farming is not simply a blip on the radar for these tireless workers; it seems an inevitability that was just waiting for the right time.
Genevieve’s dad was an oyster farmer while she was growing up, and so the ‘life’ is not a foreign concept to her. She always wanted to be a chef or a filmmaker, which she did quite successfully for some time, but while immersed in the film industry she was never aware of role models who were successful women and had kids or a relationship, or both. It was difficult for her to imagine a balance, especially after their daughter was born.
Since moving south and operating Autumn Farm, Genevieve misses the buzz of providing sensory experiences for people through film, but she has found that she now does this through raising good quality, farm-fresh chickens, and then passing them on to the customer. The warm and fuzzy rewards feel the same. Being an excellent cook to a very appreciative family and guests adds to that buzz.
Annie’s path to farmer-hood is just as solid, if not just a bit adorable. Scrapbooks, where as a kid she collected dead spiders and childhood whimsies, are a testament to the route she has taken; entries that outline her nine to twelve year old wishes of wanting to be a farmer could not be any more on the mark.
Annie says that she was, ‘fully inspired by my Oma and Opa’, grandparents that were self-sufficient and self-subsistent. Watching her Oma and Opa and being included in the ‘rhythm of being outside’ growing food for your family and the community was, to a young Annie, what it meant to be a farmer.
Taking on their meat chicken enterprise seemed to be a way to live that life, but also to interact with and provide for the community while making a small profit from and for the land. The decision to run a free-range chicken farm was a no-brainer. They wanted their chickens to be truly free-range and pasturefed, unlike ‘free-range’ chickens that can legally be kept in sheds with no access to pasture. The ethos of the farm is not hard to grasp – ethically and environmentally conscious food for the people.
Those people play a significant role in the way that Genevieve and Annie view their ethics and, therefore, their food. They have both integrated themselves at a grassroots level when it comes to the production of quality grown and raised food in the Bega district. Genevieve is the market coordinator for South East Producers, and Annie is the recently appointed chairperson of the Bega Valley small species abattoir. This ‘hand processing’ facility exists now as the last small species abattoir in NSW, and is still operational only because Annie and a couple of other local growers stood up and took on the running of it. The role of chairperson is a logical position for Annie to take, particularly when her response to being asked whether she is surprised by it at all is, ‘Not really, because if I want to grow the meat I want to be a part of the whole process’. By being present for the whole process there is certain amount of connection to their food – the where and how and why and who and what is never a mystery.
The fluid nature of the connection to food is a philosophy that Annie and Genevieve are instilling in their children. While Olive and Oscar are certainly an integral part of the day-to-day chicken raising, their parents also have no hesitation in including them in the awareness of where the chickens are going when they leave the property. They create no illusions about the meaningful death of the chickens because they want to raise mindful and aware human beings. Having recently been present for the halal preparation of a chicken broadened the family’s perspective on that issue.
So, while Autumn Farm is actually a fully operational business, Genevieve and Annie are firm in the conviction that their dedication is about personal and ethical gratification where they are rewarded from the inside. At this stage they can’t measure the ‘worth’ of their work in money terms, but rather in their contribution to the community at large. It also allows them to, mostly, work at home, where they can spend time inducting the next generation into that rhythm of being outside that Annie knows is ‘a beautiful way of being’.
Chicken with preserved lemon, pancetta, rosemary and kipflers
Recipe by Genevieve Derwent
The chicken is based on a Maggie Beer recipe and it’s a perfect autumn meal, so easy, so local, so delicious!
1 pasture raised chicken cut into 8 pieces
6 — 9 quar ters of preserved lemon, flesh removed and very lightly rinsed
a chunk of pancetta, cut into thin pieces
3 — 4 sprigs rosemary
extra virgin olive oil
ground black pepper
1 kg kipfler potatoes, washed and par boiled, brushed with olive oil
bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Place the chicken pieces in a large baking tray with olive oil, lemon juice, preserved lemon, rosemary. Mix together to ensure even coverage. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook in a preheated 200 (degrees celsius) oven for around 25min.
While cooking, fry up the pancetta until it’s crispy.
Remove the chicken from the oven, add the par-cooked potatoes to the baking tray and return to the oven for another 20 minutes.
When the potatoes are crisp and browned and the chicken is just ready, remove from the oven. Add the pancetta and a generous sprinkle of parsley.
Serve with a salad and better yet, a glass of wine.