Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where LITTLE HILL FARM, Hunter Valley, NEW SOUTH WALES
Strolling through the lush green grass on his farm in the Hunter Valley, Simon Carroll cuts an impressive figure. Clad in work gear and a wide-brimmed Akubra, a large brood of chickens follows behind his ankles, ‘Pied-piper’ style, while two Maremma dogs watch on nearby.
His young daughters, 5 year old Mia and 3 year old Asta, skip around in the long grass, trying to pick out their favourite hens and ‘helping’ their father with his chores.
Simon and his partner Kelly Eaton are one of a growing number of small-scale farmers blazing a new, albeit bumpy trail, rejecting industrial scale agriculture in favour of small, personalised farming practices.
The family rears meat chickens and laying hens at their 80-acre property, Little Hill Farm.
They take a multi-faceted approach to farming, selling their pasture-raised meat and eggs directly to local restaurants and stores, and at farmers markets. They also sell raw honey from their hives and vegetables from their small market garden.
‘Farming is so fickle’, says Simon, ‘if something goes wrong with one batch of chickens, or one crop of vegetables, then that’s your income for weeks and weeks. So it makes sense to have more than one source of income, to not have all your eggs in one basket so to speak.’
Driving them is their desire to produce ethical food without the use of chemicals, and with great care for the land and the welfare of their animals.
‘Our customers are people that want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. They’re looking for a connection with their farmer, and they care about eating food that was grown without chemicals and in a sustainable way,’ says Simon.
Though neither grew up in farming families, the two share an impressive work ethic and a willingness to learn and trial almost anything.
Both Simon and Kelly were raised in the Newcastle-Lake Macquarie region of NSW. ‘I suffer from a lot of allergies to preservatives and artificial flavours, so I’ve always had an interest in eating wholefoods grown free from chemicals,’ says Kelly.
‘I was a vegetarian for a long time, and when we first met Simon pretended to be a vegetarian to get on my good side,’ she laughs.
‘Years later when we started eating meat again we began raising our own animals, because we didn’t want to eat meat that hadn’t been ethically raised.’
While living in the suburbs on a 1/3 acre and working full time jobs, the young couple started raising meat birds, pigs and growing their own vegetables. ‘We realised pretty quickly that we needed more space.’
‘When Mia was born it became even more important to us to know how the food we were feeding her was grown.’ The dream of being self-sufficient and producing food for a living became all consuming.
'Like many people we were inspired a lot by the UK series River Cottage - that had a pretty significant influence on us. We discovered the show right when it was at the end of it's run, and we binged watched the whole series!' smiles Kelly.
'When we first bought this property we weren't really sure if we wanted to just simply live here self sufficiently, and work off-farm, or if we wanted to have a go at a commercial business of some sort on the farm. We just knew that we wanted to keep the investment low so that we didn't have to be making heaps of money out of whatever we were doing."
Despite the desire to keep things simple, the young couple soon discovered that economies of scale meant that they'd need to get a bit more serious about their enterprise.
'We soon realised that we needed to buy a refrigerated vehicle, and that that needed to be filled to capacity in order to pay for the cost of running it, so we needed to be doing bigger batches of the meat birds. Those sorts of issues meant that we had to expand in order to cover our costs and actually make any sort of profit.'
'It's worth it though, because we love that we can both be here all the time and Simon doesn't have to go and work off the property.'
Almost four years since moving to Little Hill Farm, the family has become well-respected for their quality produce. So much so that their pasture raised chicken was awarded a State Winner title in this year’s Delicious Produce Awards.
‘It took a lot of work to get here’ says Simon, ‘lots of juggling of our finances, and living with my parents for a time to save enough money to buy the property.’
‘I spent the whole first year here researching and building pens, animal shelters and putting infrastructure in place, and setting us up so that we’re completely off-grid. When we first moved here we had to put the essentials in straight away so that we could live comfortably. It was a big investment, but absolutely worth it because it means we no longer have those living expenses to worry about.'
‘We’ve really had to learn everything from scratch. It’s hard work, and it can be exhausting, but it’s worth it because I get to spend time with my kids every day and be heavily involved in their lives – they make great little farm hands too!’
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Website - www.littlehillfarm.net.au
Instagram - @little_hill_farm