On the outskirts of the small township of Wyndham, on the far south coast of New South Wales, Kay Saarinen, 47, is harvesting handfuls of fresh herbs from her garden, a wide-brimmed hat protecting her from the afternoon sun.
The property that Kay shares with her husband Gregg, 54, and young daughter Gemma is an extraordinary example of self-sufficient living in our modern world.
While the ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ movement in Australia has gone from niche interest to marketplace mainstream in a remarkably short time, for most of us, working on reducing our environmental footprint is a relatively new concept.
Kay and Gregg, on the other hand, have been living this way long before the terms became popular hashtags. ‘We were into sustainable living back when it was considered weird, and only something that dirty hippies did!’ laughs Kay.
‘In my grandmother’s day, everyone used to live in a self-sufficient manner. It was common, even in suburbia, to have a veggie garden. But after the industrial revolution and supermarkets became the norm, suddenly it was very uncool to grow your own food.’
That was still the case 16 years ago when the couple made their tree change and abandoned their ‘very not environmentally friendly’ careers to pursue a life of self-sufficiency. ‘We were both working in two incredibly wasteful industries at the time, Gregg as a carpenter, and myself as a Chef. We were both doing great, but we were spending our days working in complete opposition to our values,’ says Kay.
They decided to ‘give the dream a go’, and moved from their home in Queensland to the six-acre property in Wyndham. ‘When we first moved here, all we had was an old caravan, a burnt out shed and a heck of a lot of blackberry bushes.’ The couple lived in the caravan for almost five years while they built their straw bale home.
‘At the time we wanted to do absolutely everything ourselves. We actually dug up all the clay, made the mud, brought all the water and sand up from the creek. We had no power tools because we had no electricity, so it was all done by hand.’ Kay describes their early years on the property as ‘extreme’ and in the end, they burnt out quickly.
‘We were keeping chickens, milking goats, making our own cheese, growing our own food. We had no running water or electricity. For a few years, we sold our fruit and vegetables locally, but it was so hard to make a decent income from that, and we had loan repayments to make!’ explains Kay. ‘I think we went too alternative too quickly and perhaps should have substituted our income rather than giving everything up all at once.’
The birth of the couple’s daughter forced them to rethink their approach. ‘Once Gemma came along we knew we had to work something out – either we had to sell the property or find another way to make an income. It was a really difficult time for us.’
‘Then when Gemma was six-months-old she got eczema. I’d been studying naturopathy at the time and reading about how to use herbs to treat different skin ailments. So I made an ointment for her and it worked beautifully.’
‘I decided to make up a few different herbal creams using what I’d learnt in my studies and take them to my local market. We completely sold out that first day, and after that things just started to fall into place. I continued my studies and it just grew from there.’
The Saarinen Organics eco skincare range now includes 42 products. The couple grows all the herbs on farm and manufacture all the creams, ointments, herbal infusions and tinctures on site. ‘What we can’t grow here we purchase as locally as possible, and always use certified organic to ensure the quality of our products.’
Finally finding their calling meant the couple was able to put money back into the farm. The property now boasts two huge orchards, a large solar system, a solar bore for ample water, composting toilets and is 100% off the grid, self-sufficient in water, electricity, heating, and food.
They also run farm tours and host local school groups learning about permaculture. ‘It’s fantastic that being self-sufficient isn’t a dirty word anymore. We can go to the markets and put out our sign that says “Permaculture Farm” and everyone thinks it’s wonderful. We’ve been waiting a long time for that!’ beams Kay. ‘It’s such a beautiful thing that an eco-sustainable business has been able to help fund the kind of sustainable lifestyle we’d always dreamed of having.’
Will Work For Food is a creative partnership between writer Karen Locke photographer Honey Atkinson, who are working to elevate the importance of sustainable, ethically produced food. Find out more on their blog Willworkforfood.com.au.