Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where APPLE CART PRODUCE, Southern Highlands, NEW SOUTH WALES
On a warm Spring day on a small farm in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Anna and Ben Lohse are busy prepping garden beds for the growing season ahead. Their young girls, Ruby (6) and May (4) play under a nearby tree that is heaving with pink blossoms and humming with bees.
The couple own and run Apple Cart Produce, a small market garden providing fresh vegetables and preserves to families in their local community.
Anna and Ben are one of an increasing number of small producers working to change what they identify as a ‘broken’ food system, one in which the large majority of people seem to have lost the connection to where and how their food was grown.
‘As small scale farmers we can’t produce enough to supply hundreds of families, but we can comfortably supply 20 local families with vegetables. We want to have a real connection with those families, one that goes deeper than just dropping a box of vegetables on someone’s doorstep every week. We want them to get to know the people that are growing one of the most essential things in their life – their food,’ says Anna.
Anna and Ben are relative ‘newbies’ to the world of farming, and until a few years ago both lived and worked in Melbourne. While Ben was employed as an engineer, Anna worked with universities and state government on environmental and sustainability programs. In their spare time they helped coordinate their local food cooperative, and filled their inner city block to bursting with vegetable gardens.
‘We’ve always grown vegetables in our backyards. Whenever we moved into a new place, within the week I’d be digging a veggie patch if there wasn’t already one. Once we even ripped up our concrete car space in the front yard and replaced it with an intensive vegetable garden and chicken coop!’
With a love for growing food that was curbed only by lack of space, the birth of their first daughter provided the impetus for a move to the country.
‘Once Ruby was born the city just felt claustrophobic to us. We wanted her to grow up out of the city with plenty of space to free range and play in the dirt.’
After relocating north and a few months of Ben commuting three hours a day to and from Sydney for work, the couple decided to make further changes.
‘We’d moved out of the city, but we still weren’t living the life we wanted. The girls were so little and Ben would have to leave before they’d even woken up in the morning, and he’d get back very late. We’d been buying our fresh vegetables from a local organic farm and a job came up so Ben took what was supposed to be a year long sabbatical. He ended up loving it and staying there for three seasons.’
Armed with the experience they had gleaned working and being involved with the organic farm, the couple then decided to take the leap and run their own market garden.
‘It’s been a huge couple of years for us. Market gardening is intensely challenging. You’re using every part of your body – you need to have vision but also be very detailed, you have to be great at marketing but also know your soil science, it’s intellectually draining but also physically exhausting. So you really have to love what you’re doing!’
Unable to afford the high land prices and knowing that the chance of servicing a mortgage as full time vegetable farmers would be next to impossible, they decided to lease land instead. After a few false starts the couple are now settled at Farm Club at Werai.
‘We lease one acre of land and pay a weekly lease fee based on local agistment rates which has been manageable as we start up. We also help each other on various projects so there is give and take of time, expertise and even equipment within the partnership.
‘For us, this feels like the best way that we can contribute to improving the food system in this country, by providing an alternative for our local community where diversity, resilience, health and people are valued above profit. We really can’t imagine doing anything else now.’
‘We’re really working towards building a life that we love and we feel like we have to build a future around food…there’s no other way, everybody eats. I think that we’re so far at the wrong end of what our food system should be like, that it has to bounce back, it’s the only way we’re all going to survive,’ says Anna.
It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey for the couple who started a market garden three times on three different sites in under 12 months.
‘We knew we couldn't afford to buy land in the Highlands, so we had to lease. That meant we didn't have to just find suitable land, we had to find a good relationship with the owners. The first time we had a good relationship but the site turned out to be unsuitable because it flooded. The next site was good but the relationship failed. Finally we landed at Farm Club where we now have a great site and a really solid collaborative relationship with the owners, Hugh and Alice.’
‘Starting any market garden on new land is exhausting but starting it three times in one year was, well …there’s no words! We had to just keep getting back up again. I think the third time I was so stubborn and determined – we knew that this was what we wanted to do, and we were going to make it work even if it was the death of us!’
Thankfully this year the couple feel they’re right on track and are excited for the growing season ahead.
‘We’ve got a great relationship with the landholders. We keep saying if we had to go through all of what we went through last year to get to where we are now then that’s a fine sacrifice for us. It was totally worth it.’
Anna and Ben’s basic business model is currently part veggie boxes direct to families, part wholesale to cafes, and part sales through the Farm Shop. This includes both fresh veg and preserves such as chutney, pickles and fermented vegetables made from their own produce.
‘The pickling and preserves makes sense because you might have a bad month and if you’ve got a heap of bottled products then you’ve always got something to sell. Our veggie boxes always have preserves in them over the winter. And that’s how we eat as a family too. We’ve pretty much turned how our family eats into a business. I still believe it’s going to work – I reckon Ben and I can pull this off!’ laughs Anna.
‘We also have a fantastic relationship with a local cafe, Highlands Merchant, who has supported us from the start and obviously the collaboration with Farm Club and the opportunity to run the Farm Shop has been a game changer in terms of access to a new market and stability to invest in the site we lease over time. I would say our model is really collaborative farming, based on shared values and aims and mutual respect, rather than a basic share farming relationship or straight up leasing.’
Anna says that they plan to progress into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model in the near future.
‘The current model where you put a box together for people and you drop it at their door – which is what the modern day system seems to demand for convenience reasons – it’s not really desirable for us and it’s not conducive of the change we want to see.’
‘We’re small producers, so if we’re producing food for 20 families then we want to know those families, and we want them to have a real connection with us as their farmers. So we’re going to ask them to come and pick up from us so that they can actually see how and where their food is grown, understand some of the challenges that we face, and why it’s so important to eat seasonally.’
‘On the flipside it also gives us more motivation because then we really know the people that we’re growing for – they’re not just some faceless family that we only converse with over email or phone.’
‘I think the thing that we can offer as a small producer is to provide that real connection with food and the land, that most people just don’t get. They can order boxes from Coles now or from just about anywhere that turn up at their door. I understand why that’s attractive – it’s totally convenient – but we want to be different and perhaps the old school ‘pick up your box from the farmer’ might be the way forward.’
‘In the US the CSA model seems to work really well, but in Australia it’s very new and people are mostly very conservative. But we hope and we believe that there will be 20 families out there that will be willing to commit to us in that way. The commitment we want from them is that they’re going to turn up every week and pick up a box from us, bring their kids out to play on the farm and to pick and eat carrots right out of the ground, and build a relationship with us as the people that are growing food for them.’
Follow Anna and Ben on Instagram - @applecartproduce