Conversation has been a powerful tool for bringing about change in the life of Nicky Harris. A conversation with a neighbour was how she discovered permaculture. Conversations, workshops and TAFE courses have all been part of Nicky’s journey to learning an incredible range of skills. Conversation is where she finds joy when talking to customers who buy the nutritious and delectable treats she sells from her market van. For Nicky, conversation is both the journey and the destination.
Nicky and her partner, Chris Aitken, live in a mudbrick home on a 20-acre property in Brogo on the NSW Far South Coast, with a large vegetable garden and fruit trees. They sell handmade healthy ‘treats’, fermented and pickled vegetables such as kimchi and a range of flavoured and medicinal kombucha drinks, both bottled and on tap. Nicky and Chris bought and renovated a food van and use it as their commercial kitchen and to travel around the Bega Valley, selling their ethical products at farmers markets, events and festivals.
Ornamentals To Edibles
‘Before moving here six years ago we were running a web design business in Camden, Sydney, that was very much profit-focused. We had a big house with a small backyard filled with ornamental plants,’ says Nicky. ‘Our garden was beautiful, but we didn’t have any room to grow our own food.’
A conversation with a neighbour sparked an interest in Nicky that would snowball into a series of life changes. ‘We got talking and she told me she had a food forest. I said, Wow! what’s that? Then she gave a name to all the things I was interested in – growing food and living more sustainably – and that name was permaculture.’
More conversations led to Nicky and Chris deciding to leave their comfortable life in Camden and travel six hours south to the Bega Valley. After a series of reconnoitre camping trips they moved and became permanent residents in 2011. The ultimate tree-changers, Nicky and Chris immediately began to put their food production goals into action. ‘Straight away we started gardening. We had the bones of an orchard. We bought a cow and learned to milk it by watching YouTube.’
Produce No Waste
‘At the time there were no yellow recycling bins in the Brogo area, just the red rubbish bins. I emailed some local people to ask if there was anyone else who would like to help request that council bring them in. I received an email from a local permaculture teacher who suggested, in a gentle way, that we look at what we were purchasing. He said to think about reducing waste through our buying choices and maybe not buy that stuff in the first place – recycling can be the last thing you do. This was a major shift in our thinking.
‘Then we discovered the local bulk wholefood store and started buying food without packaging. We discovered the Weston A Price Foundation and Diet Doctor websites. We decided to try low-carbohydrate eating, so we could reduce all the packaging associated with buying the wheat and rice products that had been a staple in our food trolley. We had a major shift in the food we were eating and consequently what we were buying. This made our move towards living a self-sufficient lifestyle much easier. We can grow our own meat quite simply, but not so our own carbs. We had so many awakenings.’
It was at this point that Nicky and Chris participated in a permaculture design course (PDC). ‘Within a few months our whole lives changed. The PDC was a real consciousness shift. It’s more than just gardening, it’s a complete lifestyle. It’s something you can implement in every aspect of your life, including your business,’ says Nicky.
Clockwise from top left: Delicious ferments for sale; One of Nicky’s delectable treats; Nicky at her property, Faraway Farm; Nicky and Chris in the van. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
A Change In Strategy
‘We went from being gardeners to designing systems. After the PDC we focused more on edible and functional plants, not just plants that were pretty. We focused on the flow of water through our garden and how to keep water in our landscape. We actually undid some things that we had previously done in our garden. For example we had created a beautiful dry creek bed and brought some rocks in so when it rained it looked pretty flowing over the rocks.
‘After our PDC we removed the rocks and redesigned the flow of water so it was retained on our property and flowed through our gardens and not away from our gardens. It went through pathways and past swales and directly around the house, zone one, and the food forest. It was retained and used, so our soils retained more moisture.’
Nicky and Chris are active members of the local food growing association, SCPA South East Producers. After volunteering at many field days and events they joined the SCPA committee and attended meetings where discussions involved increasing local food security and cultivating community through food. One of the things that came out of these meetings was that more growers were needed.
Kimchi To Kombucha
‘So we started a market garden in 2015. We had been running a web design business since 2003, but we loved gardening and we wanted to get out from behind our computer screens and outdoors. We put in garden beds, we learned as much as we could about growing vegies through workshops. We started a stall at the Bega farmer’s market. We sold our produce and started to make and sell kombucha drinks.’
It was at this point that Nicky realised she wanted to learn how to cook. So she enrolled in and completed a two-year TAFE chef’s course. ‘After our major shifts in thinking and lifestyle, our motto became “it’s all about the food”. We were learning to eat healthy, learning to grow our own food and learning to cook, preserve and ferment our food.’
Thus their food business was born, as they began to create nutritious and ethical food products they loved and could share with others through local markets. Chris focused on fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and ginger carrots. Nicky’s focus is the kombucha and a range of ‘treats’ that are grain-free and, mostly, dairy free. As much as possible they buy local food to use in their products.
Business Is Booming
‘The kombucha business started to take off. We had to upscale; and upscale again. We now sell kombucha to over a dozen local cafes, hotels and other businesses. We sell at local markets and events. So the next step was to look at building a commercial kitchen,’ Nicki says.
‘At the time we were renting time in a commercial kitchen in town, but had to consider building something at our home. However, we live in a mudbrick house, and it didn’t seem feasible. So we decided to buy a food van. We found we could invest our money in something that was mobile, so we can make our products at home in the van and we can take it to markets and events. Plus, we can sell the van in the future if we need to.
‘One of my biggest joys is having people come up to me and and say “thankyou for allowing us to eat out” when normally they can’t. Among our customers are coeliacs, people who are dairy-intolerant and people who just appreciate good food. It would be easy to buy and make cheap, rubbishy, processed food. It’s a hell of a lot more work to create these good foods from scratch. And more expensive – most of my treats are made with nuts. But because I’ve had that shift in consciousness, I simply can’t sell people low-quality food. I don’t want to profit from making people sick.’
Permaculture Ethics In Business
‘Our business ethics very much align with our permaculture ethics. We always have the three permaculture ethics in the back of our minds; Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. We encourage minimal waste – we encourage people to recycle our glass bottles. Our ingredients are organic, so that for us is people care (reducing poisons in food) and earth care (reducing poisons in farming). We volunteer at our local producers association and buy as much local produce as possible (fair share). Plus, we love coming to markets. We love the connection with our community and the conversations we have.’
What The Future Holds
‘We are still focused on permaculture around our property and building our food resilience. Our property is our superannuation. We are still building it up and putting systems into place. I have just finished a Certificate III in Horticulture at Bega TAFE and now my focus is on creating healthy soil so we can grow healthy food.
‘I’m grateful I did the PDC first, as I am able to look at all my other learning with a permaculture mindset. It’s the first principle of permaculture – Observe and Interact. I’ve been a sponge – there is so much fantastic information out there. I do as many workshops as I can. I go to field days and I do lots of hands-on learning. I learn whenever I can from other people. Everyone has been on their own journey, so I watch what others do, I talk to them, I learn from them, and I listen.’