How los­ing her mum in­spired a new life for Amy Willesee



Orig­i­nally part of David Berry’s es­tate — one of sev­eral

Berry broth­ers who were among the first Euro­pean set­tlers in the area — the farm had be­longed to Amy’s ac­tress mother, Carol. She had pur­chased it in 2003 and set about ren­o­vat­ing the but­ter-coloured, 1920s-era home­stead.

By early 2006, Carol had re­freshed and re­painted the

in­te­ri­ors, put in an elegant, French Pro­vin­cial-style kitchen and added a gen­er­ous new mas­ter wing com­plete with en­suite and an­tique French doors that opened onto a paved court­yard area. “We’d made fun of her and said, ‘Do you think you’re a queen, Mum?’” re­mem­bers Amy.

Then, out of nowhere, Carol sud­denly be­came very ill.

“It was a mys­tery for a long time,” says Amy, of the ag­o­nis­ing months be­tween her mother’s first symp­toms and the fi­nal di­ag­no­sis of Creutzfeldt-jakob disease (a rare and un­treat­able brain disease), which came less than two weeks be­fore Carol’s death in De­cem­ber 2006. “She was only 59,” Amy says. “She was look­ing af­ter the place on her own, driv­ing the trac­tor, full of life — and then sud­denly not.”

At that time, Amy, whose fa­ther is well-known jour­nal­ist

Mike Willesee, and her hus­band, Mark Whit­taker, also a jour­nal­ist and au­thor, were liv­ing in in­ner-city Syd­ney. Their el­dest daugh­ter Rosie, now 12, was a tod­dler and son Daniel, now 10, a new­born baby. They be­gan to travel fre­quently to Wil­low Farm to tend to the prop­erty and the Mur­ray Grey cat­tle Carol had been breed­ing. It didn’t take long to re­alise they pre­ferred be­ing here than in Syd­ney >

and, six months later, the cou­ple put their Botany house on the mar­ket and moved per­ma­nently. Those early years on the farm were bit­ter­sweet. At times, Amy’s grief was over­whelm­ing and for a num­ber of years she couldn’t bear to change or re­move any of Carol’s fur­ni­ture or home­wares, go­ing as far as to pho­to­graph each room so she would “know how she’d wanted it”. Mark was still work­ing part-time in Syd­ney and nei­ther he nor Amy had any real-life farm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “I found the times Mark was away hard, be­cause he’d say to me, ‘You have to move the Mur­ray Greys from centre pad­dock to down­stream pad­dock.’ I’d have Daniel in the pouch and Rosie hold­ing my hand, and I would have opened one gate but left an­other one open at the other end, so all the cows would run out!” Amy says. “At the same time, I’m quite nos­tal­gic for those years. It was such a pure time — we didn’t know any­one, we were all out­side to­gether and it was just about learn­ing how to grow ve­g­ies and feed our­selves.” One of Amy’s first projects was to es­tab­lish a sprawl­ing per­ma­cul­ture man­dala veg­etable gar­den close to the house. Based on a de­sign in Linda Woodrow’s 1996 book The Per­ma­cul­ture Home Gar­den, to­day it’s over­run with glossy red chillies and thick, hairy pumpkin vines. “[The de­sign] in­volves hav­ing chick­ens and in­cor­po­rat­ing in­sect life and lots of va­ri­ety into your gar­den,” Amy says. “I’ve be­come quite pas­sion­ate about feed­ing the fam­ily from it. All our meals are de­signed around it.” In 2010, Amy re­searched and wrote the book Lo­ca­vore: A Foodie’s Jour­ney Through the Shoal­haven, and to­day en­cour­ages Rosie, Daniel and the cou­ple’s third child, Ivy, three, to pick and pre­pare in­gre­di­ents grown in the gar­den. “We have din­ner to­gether as a fam­ily ev­ery night. There’s al­ways salad and we al­ways spend quite a long time at the ta­ble — we linger and we chat,” Amy says. “That’s how I grew up and I’m re­ally grate­ful to Mum for giv­ing us that habit. She was a great cook and al­ways in the kitchen.” Mark — who has since dis­cov­ered his fore­bears were dairy farm­ers in the re­gion — has al­ways been more fo­cused on the an­i­mals, chang­ing op­er­a­tions with the Mur­ray Grey cat­tle from breed­ing to rais­ing them for meat. His de­ci­sion to in­tro­duce Wilt­shire Horn sheep, a breed that nat­u­rally shed their wool each spring, “has ac­tu­ally been a rev­e­la­tion for us,” says Amy. “He in­tro­duced them for pas­ture man­age­ment, but it turns out their meat is ab­so­lutely de­li­cious — we can’t keep up with our friends’ de­mands!” More re­cently, the cou­ple, who con­tinue to write from home, have de­cided to down­size and are in the process of de­sign­ing and building a smaller, shed-like house on the farm. They now of­fer the four-bed­room home­stead at Wil­low Farm as an ac­com­mo­da­tion, wed­ding and event space. “I feel like we were blessed to re­ceive the farm from my mum, and this is an­other way of thank­ing her and shar­ing peo­ple love it here. It makes me re­ally happy.” 0415 645 772 or visit wil­low­farm­

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