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 a 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,’ she explains.‘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 Emmy returned to Australia in early 2017, Emmy had decided to turn her career on its 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!’ she recalls.‘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,’ she recalls.
A few months later, when Buena Vista Farm was looking for a new market gardener, Emmy was a natural choice. It was a record career turn-around and an impressive accomplishment for someone without a background or experience in farming. ‘Prior to working on a farm, I knew absolutely nothing about growing food. I remember being in Vanuatu and carefully cultivating a whole bed of what I thought was eggplants but was actually weeds. The locals just laughed and laughed at me!’
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,’ says Emmy, who enrolled in a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture but found it to be political and not focussed on the practical side of farming. ‘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.’
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.
Her 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,’ she explains. ‘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.’
Will Work For Food is a creative partnership between writer Karen Locke and photographer Honey Atkinson, who are working to elevate the importance of sustainable, ethically produced food. Find out more on their blog Willworkforfood.com.au.