Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where PICCOLO FARM, Thirlmere, NEW SOUTH WALES
The dream of escaping the city to raise your family on a farm in the glorious countryside is one that many share. To most it remains a dream, a far-fetched fantasy that, although lovely to imagine, doesn’t seem quite within our reach. There are others though, like Lizzie and Gianluigi Buscaino, who have managed to overcome numerous obstacles and make this dream a reality, in all it’s stunning albeit messy glory.
Lizzie, her husband Gianluigi (or ‘Giangi’) and their two young children Lukas and Georgia, own and run Piccolo Farm near Thirlmere on the outskirts of Sydney. The lives they are now leading are a far cry from their busy city lifestyle of just a few years ago.
Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, Lizzie first moved to Australia in 2003 to study hospitality and business when she met Giangi while they were working together at a restaurant. Their combined interest in travel and food saw them eat and explore their way around the world for several years before marrying and returning to Sweden to live. After a few years the couple started planning a return to Australia, with dreams of living on their own piece of land, growing and raising their own food.
“We had always been acutely aware that mainstream food is unhealthy – not just for people but also for animals and the land,” says Lizzie. “I think having roots in Europe also meant we had a certain food culture and a closer connection to the land.”
“Giangi’s family is Italian, and Italians are very passionate about their food! They make things from scratch, a lot of the time with produce from their own gardens. It’s all about making simple meals using fresh, quality ingredients.”
The couple began searching for property that was just a few hours outside of Sydney, that had a house the small family could live in, and good quality soil for growing purposes. The search proved difficult and it took a year and a half before they eventually found a small acreage property in 2014.
Finally, after negotiating work schedules that would allow both Lizzie and Giangi to continue working part time in the city, they made the move out to live on the farm in early 2015, and have been working hard to develop it ever since.
Piccolo Farm (which means ‘small’ farm in Italian) is a humble 4.25 acre property that was originally a dairy pasture and in more recent years was used as grazing land for horses. This meant that while the land was flat and clear, it was also very compacted with an incredible amount of grass seed and a high level of clay.
“There was very little life left in the soil, so after heavy tilling we brought in about 100 tonnes of organic matter and have been working hard to regenerate the soil – without doing this we wouldn’t have been able to grow anything with much success.”
"We’ve researched and read as much information as possible, done courses, we’ve got all the books, we network, visit other farms…. and now we’re learning first-hand through trial and error.”
While Lizzie continues to work part time in North Sydney, after 17 years as a chef and restaurant manager, Giangi made the decision to leave his job last September to dedicate himself full time to the farm.
“The lead up period for us making this move has been quite long, because obviously we had a big mortgage to cover. And we’re in a difficult transition period at the moment where we’re trying to build the business and establish ourselves in the local area.”
“There’s a couple of facets to the challenges we find as farmers. The pinnacle in being able to run it consistently is being able to have someone who runs it every day, because what we were originally doing only allowed us to tend to things every three days or so – so we lost crops because we hadn’t picked them in time, or they hadn’t been watered, or both of us were in the city one day and there was a heat wave on. If you have someone there who can sort those things out then you’re covered, but how do you do that if you can’t pay for the land?”
The couple have certainly had their share of setbacks too. After putting a huge amount of effort into building a small but profitable market as the only farm in Australia offering pastured quail and building a strong customer base with local chefs in the region, the abattoir where they were processing was shut down.
“The abattoir was purchased by a competitor, not because they wanted to use it, simply so that they could shut it down to give themselves a monopoly on the market,” explains Lizzie.
“It was incredibly upsetting at first, it’s a volatile industry. You just have to roll with the punches, not waste time on ‘woe is me’ thoughts …you just have to keep going and work out something else."
Lizzie says they're in the process of finding a solution so that their quail business can continue. And it's a good thing too, since they were recently awarded State Winner in the 2017 Delicious Produce Awards for their quail, nominated by one of the many chefs that clearly love their product.
The couple are also focused on expanding their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) market garden. “We really only started using a CSA model fairly recently. We didn’t have quite the capacity to be able to do that properly which is why Giangi quit his job so that he could dedicate more time to it. It’s almost impossible to run a CSA without having someone that’s a full time farmer.”
“We’ve also discovered that running a CSA is a highly complex operation, and I didn’t appreciate how complicated it was until I really started to get into the details. I think it’s a fantastic way of selling vegetables, but it can also be very challenging to market. People aren’t really used to subscribing and to being given a mixed box of seasonal vegetables that they need to be creative with. They need to be willing to use the more obscure vegetables – and ‘obscure’ might be rainbow chard or yellow zucchini to some people.”
“These are the things we’re up against – finding customers that are willing to commit to a subscription. The other difficulty is this belief that because their food is coming direct from the farmer that it should cost next to nothing. So we’re trying to work through all of that now. But at least with a CSA, if you’re doing it correctly, then you’re able to generate money up front at the beginning of the season and put that towards growing the vegetables, or paying for some of the mortgage.”
Currently Piccolo Farm cultivates crops on only 1/2 an acre of their property but that is something the couple plan to expand gradually.
“We would love to develop an educational part to our farm, whether that be school visits, mum and bubs sessions or farm stays – or maybe even all three! The aspirations run high on this subject,” says Lizzie with a smile.
“We follow the principles of Permaculture, which means we work with nature as much as we can. We rely on natural organic systems, use no chemicals and try to design our farm layout so that we can utilise all the resources available with minimal labor.”
“I think the hardest thing about running a farm like this is time and money. It's difficult to start a farm because if you manage to get land, which is often a barrier for new farmers, you don't have any money left to develop it. That means you have to take outside work to pay for the farm and thus there is not enough time to work there.”
But Lizzie says it’s absolutely worth all the hard work and that they are increasingly passionate about what they do. “We love living in the countryside and really thrive in taking care of the natural systems and the animals in our care. There is such a tangible, feel good result of being able to grow good food in a good way. Knowing that we are part of and contributing to an alternative source of food which has positive effects on the land, people and animals …that is imperative for us.”
LIZZIE'S TOP TIPS FOR ASPIRING FARMERS:
· “Persistence is key. And make sure that this is something that you really want to do. Go out there and experience it for yourself through an internship, WWOOFing or working as an apprentice - whatever way you can be exposed to someone who is already farming the way that you want to farm. You just can’t beat that experience.”
· “Although you can’t really get that full experience until you’ve started yourself, you can gain invaluable knowledge by working on other farms, even trying on a backyard scale, to grow as much as possible, to get that hands on experience, and to try and sell or give away or barter what you can.”
· “When you’re looking at land – consider what it has been used for previously as this will determine how much work you will need to do to regenerate the soil.”
HOW TO BUY FROM PICCOLO FARM
Lizzie and Giangi sell their produce direct to customers through a local weekly CSA box. You can pick up your box direct from the farm in Thirlmere or it can be delivered to the Picton, Wilton, Tahmoor, Lakesland, Pheasants Nest and Bargo areas for a $5 delivery fee.