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 Anna and Ben’s 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,’ says Anna.
‘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.’