• Kim Ung (from left), Leakkhena 'Laks' Ma, Ngim and Bona Ung (Your Food Collective )Source: Your Food Collective
Started by Cambodian refugees on an unusual site, Goldenfield is a powerful reminder of how important locally grown ingredients are.
Lee Tran Lam

1 Sep 2020 - 11:43 AM  UPDATED 20 Jun 2022 - 1:09 AM

"There'd be monkeys in the trees and emus running around – sometimes they'd break through the fence and try to chase us in the cherry-tomato rows," says Leakkhena 'Laks' Ma.

In the mid-'90s, her family relocated its Goldenfield farm to Wallacia in Western Sydney, at a site that once belonged to a zoo: lions, giraffes and tigers used to walk on the land they planted on. The family ended up with this unusual location because Bullen's Animal World had subdivided its grounds and her parents had taken over one plot – but a few wild animals remained as neighbours. The Bullen family had kept part of the original zoo as a private menagerie (with some lions once famously escaping into the public – and ending up on the news).

"They had zebras next door as well, and buffalos. The buffalos were raised as food for the lions – so every day they'd shoot one, just to feed the lions," says Ma. "I never realised how strange it was."

She was six years old at the time.

Ma admits that it sounds like "the weirdest childhood", but being on the farm didn't phase her. It helped her family pay the bills and she wanted to contribute. Ma recalls her mother teaching her which tomatoes to pick ("if it's red, pick it, put it in your bucket") and which snowpeas were ready. Over 25 years later, Goldenfield is still based on the site and remains a family-run operation – although Ma needn't worry about emus running her down nowadays.

Your Food Collective is a treasure trove of tomatoes.

Today, she runs Goldenfield with her brothers Bona and Kim Bory Ung, as well as Ngim, Bona's wife. Her younger brother Richard opted out and is now a lawyer. "I don't blame him because he's really heavy-handed. He squeezed all the tomatoes and strawberries. He couldn't pack, he couldn't wrap."

Their dad, Kim Nguon Ung, and mother, Sokhom Ung, began Goldenfield. They fled Cambodia in 1983, not long after the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly killed a quarter of the country's population in just four years. "My dad lost both his parents, family members and siblings. My mum lost her dad. It was pretty terrifying," she says.

"My parents took the chance to escape over the Thailand borders, where there were refugee camps. And in 1983, they won the lottery of [being accepted as refugees in] Australia."

Her father was sent to Victoria to pick grapes; he later ended up in Dural, in Sydney's west, working for a tomato farmer who became his mentor. Ma's mum joined him on the farm, too. 

One day, their family home was burgled and completely emptied. It became a turning point for the family.

"My mum was like, 'this is all too hard … How about we move to Dural and start our own farm?'"

So that's how Goldenfield was started. Not long after, it relocated to the former zoo grounds, and today is home to rows of red and green chillies, snake beans and heirloom tomatoes (such as green zebras, red and pink oxhearts and Black Russians).

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For Ma, embracing plant diversity and heritage seeds is especially important. Compare her fragile-but-flavoursome heirloom tomatoes to the supermarket-ready, hybrid tomatoes engineered to withstand coolrooms, freighting, superficial imperfections and customers squeezing them in the produce aisles. "They're designed so you could throw them across the room, and they'd still be like a tennis ball," says Ma.

Goldenfield also tends to Golden Jubilee, cherry and grape tomatoes. By emphasising the sustainability of local produce and tomatoes grown from saved seeds (as opposed to supermarket-quality hybrids), the farm's ingredients have been sought out by top chefs such as René Redzepi, Sean Moran and Martin Boetz.

She also uses Goldenfield's produce in many Cambodian dishes. The green tomatoes are especially prized. They can be sliced thinly and turned into a quick pickle with a bracing amount of vinegar, sugar, chilli and minced garlic (this pickle "goes really well with pan-fried fish", she says). She'll also finish an aromatic Khmer soup with the bright, tart addition of green tomatoes.

Tomatoes transform into an aromatic Khmer soup.

Goldenfield's rows of many chillies, such as bird's eye, long red, Thai green and jalapenos, also end up in the home kitchen. "In Cambodian cooking, we use everything," she says. Long reds bring a spicy flourish to a papaya or green mango salad, while bird's eye or Thai chillies will generate fragrant heat in curries.

In summer, the farm is home to green and white snake beans, which are used interchangeably in Cambodian cooking. Either variety can be thinly sliced and crushed in a mortar and pestle with shrimp paste, lemon juice, salt, sugar and chilli – or deployed in a snake bean omelette, which is another Cambodian speciality.

Currently, sugar snap peas and snow peas are in season. "It's the best time for eating that crop, it's got more fruit, it's more nutritious, it's more flavoursome, it also uses less resources, fertiliser, because it’s grown in the season that’s more favourable to it," Ma says.  

"It's best for people to eat seasonal, it's more sustainable as well."

In contrast, growing out-of-season ingredients involves manipulating light, water, heat – and is resource-heavy. "It's best for people to eat seasonal, it's more sustainable as well."

As a farmer, she's witnessed record-setting days of extreme heat, cold and rainfall and the devastating effect they have on crops – and the bees that need to pollinate plants.

"Farming is becoming a lot more perilous," she says. These weather extremes are a reminder of the need to address climate change and she believes one simple way people can do so is by eating locally. It's why her produce is available through Your Food Collective, an online market that makes ingredients from NSW farmers easily accessible – you can order Goldenfield's heirloom tomatoes from your sofa.

"Your Food Collective source from us and they focus on local produce and seasonal produce…That is the most sustainable way going forward," she says. It's a win-win for everyone: the environment, farmers and people who enjoy tomatoes that don't resemble tennis balls.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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