Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where FLOWER FARM COLLECTIVE, Dungog, NEW SOUTH WALES
The view is so distracting it’s a wonder anything gets done – mountain ranges, towering native trees and gardens bursting with flowers of the season, alive with the buzzing of hundreds of bees. But Vanessa Garcia (31) and her friend Dominique (Dom) Northam (31) seem completely focused on the task at hand.
After harvesting blooms from their respective gardens, the two women work away in companionable silence, skilfully arranging the mix of delicate flowers into nostalgic hand tied posies. The table in front of them is laden with freshly cut cottage and heirloom flowers, and large bunches of Wattle foliage. Nearby, their respective partners chat under a shady tree while Dom’s 18-month-old daughter, Evelyn, plays with the family dog. It’s an idyllic setting on this slice of rural paradise just outside of Dungog, NSW, a mere 2 ½ hours from Sydney.
Vanessa and Dom run the Flower Farm Collective, a collaboration between their two family’s ‘farmlets’ – Four Acre Farm and Sugarloaf Lane. They grow and harvest seasonal blooms, selling their wares to markets, events and through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model locally and in nearby Newcastle.
The CSA means their customers pay upfront for shares in the Spring, Summer or Autumn growing season and in return, receive weekly handcrafted bouquets of seasonal flowers grown and gathered on both Vanessa and Dom's properties.
The women first met in 2014, not long after Vanessa and her partner Josh Tefay relocated from Sydney. A friendship quickly developed based on common interests that had drawn them out of the city – a longing for a quieter, more sustainable life, and a passion for flowers.
Vanessa and Josh own Sugarloaf Lane, a six acre property a short drive down the road. Both grew up on the North Shore of Sydney and until just a few years ago, worked in demanding inner city IT roles.
‘We used to visit the Hunter Valley on weekend breaks from the city. We’d turn off the freeway and I’d say - oh wouldn’t it be nice to live in a little cottage somewhere in the country and grow veggies!’ Vanessa recalls.
‘Neither of us had any farming experience. We lived in a tiny self-contained studio in Sydney with great water views but no room to grow anything. But we’d been binge watching River Cottage Australia so we felt like we knew what we were doing!’ she laughs.
Life in the country is a series of ‘learning experiences’ for the couple, with an ever expanding orchard, vegetable and flower gardens, a small herd of Dorper lambs and bees. ‘We’ve had to learn how to build shelters, put up fences, gardening skills and animal care. We never would have had the opportunity to learn these life skills in the city.’
While Josh continues to work for the same Sydney IT company remotely, Vanessa spends her days tending the gardens and animals. ‘We also run our own IT business, sell our vegetables at the market, and of course there’s the flowers.’
Dominique (Dom) and her partner Tom Christie tell a similar story. Originally from Newcastle, they made their move to the country about four years ago.
‘We had a house in Newcastle that was a 200sqm block and we’d completely filled it with vegetable and flower gardens, so we started looking for something with more land and just kept widening the search until we ended up here,’ says Dom.
Their home now at Four Acre Farm is a picturesque ‘partly renovated’ farm cottage surrounded by chickens, ducks, a splattering of fruit trees, gardens filled with vegetables and flowers, and a large, neatly ploughed paddock full of garlic that Tom sells annually at the markets.
They both continue to supplement their income with part time jobs and once a fortnight attend local markets to sell their freshly harvested vegetables. ‘The rest of the time we’re working here on the property, tending the gardens and bees, and looking after Evelyn. It’s a balancing act but we love it.’