How losing her mum inspired a new life for Amy Willesee
WHEN AMY WILLESEE AND MARK WHITTAKER UNEXPECTEDLY INHERITED AN OLD DAIRY FARM FROM AMY’S MOTHER, LIFE AS A FAMILY CHANGED FOREVER.
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 willowfarmberry.com.au