For many people (myself included), picking apples evokes idyllic images of children running through rows of trees, laden with ruby red fruit, wooden step ladders, wide brim straw hats and cane baskets overflowing with nature’s bounty…!
And while the majority of mainstream apple production in Australia looks vastly different to this romanticised version, it turns out that it’s a remarkably accurate description of the ‘pick your own’ business run by Jade Miles and partner Charlie Showers near Stanley in North East Victoria.
The picture-perfect orchard, Black Barn Farm, is open every Saturday from mid-January to mid-May for both locals and tourists from as far as Melbourne to enjoy their very own farm experience.
On any given weekend, up until the bitter cold of winter sets in, you’ll find Jade and Charlie working amongst the rows of apple trees, running their ‘pick your own’ stand, or selling their numerous varieties of heirloom apples, pears and quinces at a nearby farmer’s market.
Their 11-year-old twin boys Harry and Berty have inherited their parent’s penchant for commerce, and run their ‘Dough Bros’ apple cider doughnut stand just inside the orchard gates, taking advantage of customers that build up an appetite after all that strenuous apple picking. Meanwhile, seven-year-old Clementine, the youngest of the family, can be found helping Mum and Dad train a newly acquired pony to carry baskets of freshly picked apples back to customer’s cars.
‘It’s a hectic but incredibly rewarding lifestyle, and the realisation of a long-held dream for us,’ says Jade.
After searching for ten years, the couple found their perfect piece of land just three years ago – ‘East facing, with the right type of soil and guaranteed water’ – and hit the ground running. They established Black Barn Farm, a 23-acre biodiverse orchard, nursery and community-based learning space.
In the years leading up to the land purchase, they had diligently worked towards their goal, completing permaculture design certificates, founding the Beechworth Food Co-Op, and even spending six months in Vermont in the United States, researching the local food systems. ‘We really wanted to see how things operated in those well-established orchards in Vermont, especially from a small-scale family oriented farming perspective,’ says Jade.
It was this trip to the US that cemented their plans, and made them realise the mammoth task ahead. ‘Vermont showed us just how far we have to go in this country culturally in order for our regional and rural communities to thrive.’
‘Our food is predominantly grown in rural areas, and yet these regions are largely ignored and really struggling. As long as our farmers are sending their product, which has become nothing more than a commodity, off to an unknown destination and getting a price that is dictated to them, they will never, ever be celebrated.’
It’s this concern for a food system that is largely broken that drives Jade and Charlie’s commitment to their small-scale, regenerative, community supported farming enterprise.
‘We don’t want to just grow a piece of fruit, put it on a truck and send it away – we want to connect with the person that’s going to eat it so they know where it came from and value it. As long as people don’t value their food, our regional communities and food systems will continue to erode.’
Two years after purchasing their farm, while the family was busy caring for their newly planted apple trees, an unexpected opportunity arose to lease an established orchard nearby. After some initial hesitation, they decided to take advantage of the opportunity and opened a ‘pick-your-own’ stand much earlier than anticipated.
‘The trees on our farm won’t be ready until early 2021, but we’ve leased this established site near our property and kind of leap-frogged ahead.’
While they run the ‘pick-your-own’ at the orchard and attend local markets on weekends, their weekdays are filled with caring for the orchards, farm work, and operating a fruit tree and perennial plant nursery. They also run regular workshops, permaculture courses and farmer gatherings, as well as youth wellbeing programs and school camps, often in partnership with local community organisations.
Jade’s background in tourism and marketing, combined with Charlie’s experience in hydro-engineering and soil management has been key to their success. ‘The business is equal parts farming, education advocacy and community connection enterprise.’
In November this year, the couple will follow through with plans to build a three storey black barn, a timber post and beam structure cut into the natural slope of the hillside. The barn will have a café and workshop space, complete with kitchen gardens and a large nursery.
‘The key to what we’re doing is diversity – diversity of business model and varieties of produce – not having all our apples in one basket so to speak. The diversity of what we offer is what will make us strong.’
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.