City farming

DSC_2935_402 low resMany of us dream of leaving our day job and taking up an honourable career … such as organic farming. But unless you’re born into farming, or have a stack of money behind you, it’s difficult to take the leap, let alone set yourself up close to a capital city.

So it’s understandable that some may look at Mandy and Michael Green with envy. They lease 0.8 hectares of paddocks in Clayton, 30 minutes from Melbourne’s CBD, where they grow vegetables under organic conversion by Australian Certified Organic.

But it’s not always greener pastures for these former landscapers and house renovators. They only get one day off a month and do eight markets every four weeks.

The couple started organic farming because they wanted to make cheaper organic food available to more people, locally. The death of a family member in 2013 from a cancer-related illness also inspired them to grow clean food.

A foodies’ delight

Market days are a highlight of the week for Michael and Mandy. It’s where they get their energy and motivation to continue farming through the weekdays.

Mandy says, “We started off doing four markets a month but we needed more income (we have a mortgage on our home as well as the lease for the farm). Farmers’ markets are a good way to sell direct to the consumer. They’re a buzz, particularly when our customers tell us their children will only eat our carrots or our broccoli. Kids are aware of the different tastes.”

She says they grow for taste, not for size, and picking vegetables younger gives them a better taste and longer shelf life.

“Most of our market customers are quite savvy – they’re foodies and quite aware, so they’re always keen to try new things.” Weeds are not off limits either. Wild spinach and stinging nettle, growing in between tomatoes, zucchinis and lettuce, often make it to the markets, where the latter could find its way into nettle risotto served up in restaurants.

DSC_2938_405 low resHaven amongst madness

It’s an unusual place for a farm – only half an hour out of Australia’s second-largest city – and traffic rushes past outside their high fence. But inside the gates it’s comparatively quiet. Birds are singing and WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) are quietly working amongst rows of vegetables.

I ask them if their location helps them feel less isolated than some rural organic farmers report feeling. Mandy says they don’t feel connected to the passing traffic and they can still feel isolated because they work so much but the weekends make up for it.

Their families are proud of what they’re doing. Michael says, “They think it’s important to grow food. Our families have said this is the best thing we’ve ever done.” Is it? Mandy laughs, “If it’s a sunny day I agree but if it’s a cold, windy day I think it’s the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Advice to other aspiring organic farmers

“Go for it,” says Michael. “Do your research and find the right location. Do your soil tests before you commit to land.

“We tested the soil and water before we leased this property. If you have lots of money, buy land close to a city, but if not I wouldn’t recommend leasing land close to the city because it’s really expensive. It would be nice if the government supported this sort of thing to set up something for young people to get into farming.”

The most expensive costs are in starting up. There was nothing on the Green’s property except for the dam so they’ve invested in irrigation, weed matting, seeds, tubes, scales, a tractor and implements. Their landlord signed a stat dec agreeing not to interfere with the organic farming process.

The best thing about being a farmer?

Mandy: “The best thing about growing food is that I sleep soundly at night. One of the best things about growing organic food is getting the great response from customers and their children.”

DSC_2954_421 low resMichael: “It’s challenging and I like that. It’s the opposite of boring. It keeps you on your toes and there’s never a dull day. I like that we’ve created an environment in the city that’s totally chemical free and is almost like a refuge for the local wildlife and I think they can see it; it’s like an aura over the farm. They can see that it’s chemical free.”

The state’s biggest sporting game of the year was happening the day after my visit, so as I was leaving I asked which team they were supporting. They laughed and said, “We don’t even know who’s playing.” What was that about isolation?

You can catch the Greens at the following markets:

  • Kingston Farmers’ Market –1st Saturday of the month
  • Elwood Farmers’ Market – 2nd Saturday of the month
  • Flemington Farmers’ Market – every Sunday
  • St Kilda Farmers’ Market – 4th Saturday of the month
  • Bentleigh Farmers’ Market – 4th Saturday of the month

If you like this story you might also like this one.