Ever wondered what it’d be like to leave a cushy city job and set up a small farm without any experience of rural life? Join Matthew Evans as he adjusts from being a restaurant critic to learning exactly where his food is coming from, on a farmlet in Tasmania’s beautiful Huon Valley.
Matthew Evans was once trained as a chef, before crossing to the dark side of the industry and becoming a restaurant reviewer. After five years and 2,000 restaurant meals as the chief reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald, Matthew realised that chefs don’t have the best produce in the land, normal people who live close to the land do. So he moved to Tasmania, to a small patch of earth where he’s raising pigs and sheep, milking a cow and waiting for his chickens to start laying.
The long dry summer has given way to emerald green paddocks, but, still, most farms could do with a bit of rain. Our apples are just about finished on the trees. The quince are in, most rescued green from the parrots and the possums. We’ve harvested the first broccoli, the first cabbage; both while the tomato plants are still hanging from hooks in the shed, as we ripen the last few for the table.
We had 14 piglets over the space of a couple of days. Our youngest and oldest sows decided to farrow (give birth) at pretty much the same time. The youngest moved from her warm, insulated shelter with plenty of straw, to the far corner of her paddock, where she built a nest out of dry grass she found herself.
Another week. Another story of animal cruelty. It seems, as Anna Krien wrote for the Quarterly Essay, that our relationship with animals has reached a weird point. Some people fetishise animals; treat them as child substitutes, make them wear ridiculous clothes, jewellery even. Take them shopping in their hand bags. Feed them better than we feed hospital patients. Then, in another part of the same society, we also incarcerate them in ways we never have before.
The thing I’ve learnt since I started growing a bit more than the family can eat is that the hard work only begins in the garden. Once you’ve harvested two rows of broad beans, eating as many as humanly possible in the weeks before they are all ready for picking, you have to do something with the rest. Freezing, while easy and helpful, is a pretty inefficient use of resources, so while we freeze a small portion of our harvest, the rest has to be preserved somehow.
I reached adulthood about the time of the big NSW drought in the early 1980s. I remember the dust. Farmers could talk about nought but rain. I find myself doing the same.
It’s dry. Very dry. Puggle Farm’s house garden, once watered by a pump, is suffering the worst I’ve seen. The pump now lives on our big farm, watering the vegie garden, keeping one small patch of green on the place. Without it, we’d have no food of our own, except meat.
Tony, who did our grafting, said his dad had an expression for the kind of rain we get in summer. Drought rain: It wets a bitumen road, not a dirt road. Sounds unlikely, unless you live up a dirt road and see just that. Rain that can wet a roof, but not a garden.
What we do, what we farm, how my family lives and eats is driven by a philosophy. That it’s good to be as close to the source of your produce as possible. So if you can’t grow something, hopefully you can buy from (or barter with) the grower. If you can grow parsley, thyme, some coriander, perhaps, then do. If your neighbour has too many carrots, or tomatoes, or apricots, maybe you can look after their dog while they go away in return for a few veg. If there’s a farmers' market nearby...