As urban centres expand and suburbs sprawl, farmers sometimes find their rural idyll hemmed in by the reach of the city. When they found they were losing their quiet country surrounds, Kate Beveridge and her partner Mark Brown of Purple Pear Farm faced the choice to sell up and move further out, or stay put and feed the community that had come to them.
Kate and her family first moved to their small acreage in 1995. Driven by a passion for growing food, Kate and Mark soon saw the potential of the land and its location. Nestled in the crook of the Hunter River, on the outskirts of Maitland in NSW, it seemed a perfect place to provide local food for the town.
Flourishing Market Garden
When they first arrived, the land was little more than dust and fireweed. The property had previously been a cattle farm, and the overgrazed paddocks were hard-baked, clay-heavy dirt. To restore the soil and improve the land, they turned to a combination of biodynamic farming techniques and permaculture.
“We choose to farm this way because growing is easier, more productive and more sustainable when you are treating the plants you grow with the natural sustenance they could expect in nature,” said Mark. “We live a permaculture life because the ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share fit so well into our own personal ethics. You can’t do anything wrong if you measure any decision against that.” Twenty years later, the property is a thriving biodynamic permaculture farm, featuring a food forest, mandala market garden, nut orchard, and a host of animals from chickens and ducks to pigs, cows and goats.
Although originally surrounded by neighbouring farms, over the last decade development has begun to creep closer. Surrounded on all sides by light industry, big box superstores, suburban sprawl and even an airport, Kate began to wonder if it was time to get out of the way and let it all meet in the middle. However, despite pressure from local council and developers, Kate and Mark chose not to sell up and move on. They decided to make the problem the solution, focusing on providing food and sustainability education to those who’ve come to their doorstep.
‘The people in all these houses and businesses, they’ve all got to eat,’ Kate said. ‘When food gets too expensive to transport in, we’re going to be right here, feeding the local people and teaching the skills for simple, sustainable living.’
So Kate and Mark decided to integrate rather than segregate, and embedded themselves directly in their local community. They sought innovative ways to open up the farm to others to share space, skills and friendship. This included simple gestures like inviting the residents of the aged care facility across the road for a farm tour and morning tea, and hosting a knitting circle. But they also thought more broadly about the ways they could invite the community to participate on the farm.
Clockwise from above: ‘Chook host’ participant, Arlo Talary, feeds his chickens; Lisette Salkavich plants her spring seedlings in her allotment garden at Purple Pear Farm; Intern Sonja Heijn demonstrates goat milking for the Mums and Bubs tour. Photos by Meg Smith
Community Supported Agriculture
Inspired by Linda Woodrow’s mandala garden design, Purple Pear Farm’s market garden feeds up to 30 households through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. CSA is a form of food production that empowers food growers and consumers to produce and consume fresh, local and seasonal food. Customers pay a seasonal subscription and receive a share of the farm’s food production in a weekly box. Although they originally sold their food through farmers markets and an organic produce store, Kate and Mark found that the CSA model allowed them to build an ongoing connection with their customers. Customers could then provide feedback which helped shape the direction of the market garden.
‘Subscribers become part of the farm community and have input on what we grow,’ said Kate. ‘They share the risks of farming with us, but they also share the bounty. They get to build a relationship with the farm, see how a farm operates, and realign with the seasonality of locally grown food.’
Community-Led Food Production
Kate and Mark have opened a section of the farm as community allotments. These small plots can be leased by nearby residents as extra garden space. They also provide opportunities for other members of the local community to come together. The Hunter Biodynamic Group, for example, meets there to grow key ingredients for their biodynamic preparations. The allotments also create a place for young people with disabilities to come together, learn life and work skills, and socialise.
Kate’s daughter, Sarah Smith, works with young people with disabilities on the farm through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The participants gain a sense of purpose and belonging from their visits to the farm. Sarah spoke about one participant, Dom, who was initially quite reserved. ‘He has gained so much confidence from meeting new people and being a part of a team,’ she said. Through helping with the farm’s CSA, ‘he has learnt the importance of teamwork and accountability. His jobs and responsibility have showed him that he is valued and that his work contributes to the farm and the wider community.’
In addition to her support work, Sarah also manages the farm’s ‘Chook Hosting’ arrangement. Here, nearby locals without the space to keep their own chickens in suburban backyards can ‘board’ them on the farm. For a small fee, the chickens are provided with secure shelter, room to roam and organic feed. The owners keep all the eggs. In return, the chickens power the ‘chook tractors’ on the community allotments, keeping the weeds down and turning and fertilising the soil.
As a participant myself, I love bringing my son to collect our eggs. He gets to see where his food comes from, gets a chance to know the people who grow it for him; that it doesn’t just come from the supermarket. And we get free-range organic eggs from our happy chooks!
Inspiring The Next Generation
Kate views educating and inspiring children as one of the most important things that Purple Pear Farm does. They regularly host children’s birthday parties and hold ‘Mums and Bubs’ farm tours. Unlike the adult farm tours, which focus on informing about the working aspects of the farm, the children’s tours focus on exciting and educating children about where their food comes from. There is an emphasis on engaging with farm life, and the children and their carers are able to wander through the garden, pat and hold the animals, collect eggs and milk the goats.
‘We want the children to be able to make more informed decisions about where they get their food as they get older,’ said Kate. ‘We like them to see farm animals being raised ethically, where the animals are allowed to explore their intrinsic characteristics. Like Joel Salatin says, we like to allow our pigs to express their pigginess.’ Kate believes that when children have a chance to learn where their food comes from, it inspires a love and respect for the natural world.
Permaculture And Sustainability Education
Mark would like to see the people who visit Purple Pear Farm take skills and inspiration with them when they leave. ‘It’s not enough to just supply food,’ said Mark. ‘We want to give our community the skills to build resilience, to provide for themselves. People who have attended our workshops are now preserving their own food, making their own cheese and yoghurt, growing their own food and propagating their own plants.’
Past participants of the workshops and the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) at Purple Pear are contributing to their own communities. One past participant now runs a CSA of his own, from the community allotments on the farm. Another developed a commercial composting business after attending a composting workshop. Yet another has revitalised a neglected community orchard by establishing a food forest. ‘They don’t just do it for themselves, they take those skills back to their own communities, and that sense of interconnectedness spreads,’ said Mark.
‘I don’t think we could have foreseen the effect that the urban development has had on the direction of Purple Pear,’ Kate said. ‘But I’m glad we decided to stay.’
Check the Purple Pear Farm website for information on upcoming events and tours. www.purplepearfarm.com.au.
Meg Smith is a freelance writer and urban food forester from Newcastle.