Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where BUENAVISTA FARM, Gerringong, NEW SOUTH WALES
It’s early morning at Buena Vista Farm in Gerringong, on the southern coast New South Wales. There’s a cool, crisp breeze blowing in from the ocean, which sits tantalisingly in the distance, just out of reach.
Perched on a plateau at the top of the hill, protected from the wind by a line of tall Pine trees, market gardener Emmy King is on her knees amongst neat rows of beets and onions, strands of blonde hair falling around her face.
At just 26 years of age, Emmy is a rare creature on the Australian farming scene, where the average age of farmers sits at an historically high 56 years. Unsurprisingly, our Aussie farmers are also mostly male and likely to have been working the land for some 35 years.
These days, farming is seldom considered a career option for young people due to societal prejudices and a myriad of economic reasons. It’s an issue of great concern, particularly as our population continues to grow. And since no civilization has ever survived the inability to feed itself, many argue that we’re on the verge of finding ourselves in quite a pickle.
But for today at least, the stereotypical farmer is nowhere in sight, as Emmy shows us around the garden and tells us about how she went from a career in communications and international development to one in farming in just six short months.
‘It’s hard to believe but just over a year ago I didn’t even know that ‘market gardener’ was a career option, and I certainly didn’t know anything about farming,’ says Emmy.
‘I’d been working overseas, most recently in Vanuatu just after Cyclone Pam had devastated many of the villages. There was a lot of rebuilding going on and I saw how resilient and amazing the people were. They knew so much about everything – how to build and how to grow their own food and sustain themselves without very much at all. It made me realise that I didn’t know how to do any of that.’
By the time she returned to Australia in early 2017, Emmy had decided to turn her career on it’s head. ‘It came as a bit of a surprise to my family. My parents are incredibly supportive but I guess they would have preferred I find a career that offered a bit more financial security. I think they find it crazy that someone would want to work so hard for such little money!’
‘But they also understood how important it was to me to find a career that I loved, that matched my ethics and values and that provided the lifestyle that I wanted to live. And farming definitely does that.’
Fortuitously, the Deep Winter farmers gathering was due to take place in Gerringong, just days after Emmy’s return to Australia. ‘It was held here at Buena Vista Farm, so I got to meet Adam and Fiona (owners of Buena Vista) and Linda McMahon, who was the market gardener here at the time. It was the first farm that I had ever walked onto, and the first market garden I’d ever seen. After that I just started coming and volunteering with Linda and learning as much as I could.’
Emmy went on to complete a 10-week internship at Old Mill Road Farm in Moruya over the Spring and Early Summer. ‘Being there made me realise how much I really loved working on the land every day.’
A few months later, when Buena Vista Farm was looking for a new market gardener, Emmy was the natural choice. It was a record career turn-around, and an impressive accomplishment for someone without a background or experience in farming.
Emmy attributes her success to having such great mentors. ‘The thing that helped me enormously was having mentors like Linda, and Kirsti and Fraser from Old Mill Road, but also the entire Deep Winter community – being able to talk to people online, visit different farms and see what everyone else is doing – it’s been pretty important for my learning in general.’
‘I did enrol in a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture but I didn’t finish it because I found that it wasn’t focused on the practical side of farming at all. It was much more political and trying to push you into agribusiness, which wasn’t something I was interested in.’
‘Honestly, you can’t learn a lot of this stuff – there’s no school that teaches this to you. The resources that are available are getting better, and there’s an amazing network of people willing to share which is pretty incredible, but it’s not like you can go to University and learn this.’
Joel Salatin, in his book ‘Fields of Farmers’ attributes the loss of economic opportunity, consumer disconnectedness, and our dependence on industrial food conglomerates and supermarkets amongst the reasons why young people rarely consider a career in farming.
Emmy says that she thinks there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed, but the biggest one in her opinion is the most obvious – land access. 'If you don’t come from a farming background or you don’t inherit land, there’s really no way for someone like me, in my current financial state, to be able to purchase my own bit of land.’
‘There’s a huge push towards the idea of leasing or sharing land, but that doesn’t bring you the security that you might want, and you would have to compromise on a lot of your dreams and be at the mercy of other people.’
‘The second thing is the financial incentives to do it. You’re going to be rewarded in so many ways, but making good money from farming is difficult. So you have to compromise and give up a lot of things.’
‘And the third biggest thing in my opinion is education. You’re not supported anywhere along the way as a young person. I didn’t even know that market gardening was a career until I was 25. So I think there’s a lot of shifts that need to happen so that more young people consider farming as a viable career.’
Emmy currently sells her produce at the Kiama markets and to local cafes and restaurants, as well as supplying produce to the Buena Vista Farm workshops every weekend.
‘My long term dream is to open up a school or education facility for young farmers. I’m much more interested in working alongside other people and teaching, being a part of that education process rather than just growing food by myself. I love the idea of being able to open up these kinds of opportunities for younger people to turn this into a career, and make more people aware of how their food is produced along the way.’
You can follow Emmy's journey on Instagram here: