MEET THE COUPLE BEHIND EPICUREAN HARVEST, A SMALL-SCALE AGRICULTURAL BUSINESS THAT CONNECTS PRODUCE RESTAURANTS RESTAURANTS WITH QUALITY ORGANIC PRODUCE.
Meet the couple behind small-scale organic farming business Epicurean Harvest in Little Hartley, NSW.
ONE OF THE YEAR’S VEGETABLE highlights for Erika Watson and Hayden Druce is the arrival of new potatoes. “They’re thsososmallandtheskinissothinitcanjustcomeoffwiththe brush of your thumb,” says Hayden. Erika jumps in with praise for carrot tops — she blends the delicate fronds with oil, garlic, sunflower seeds and parmesan cheese. Hayden and Erika are Epicurean Harvest, market gardeners who grow small crops of heirloom vegetables for Sydney restaurants. Their clients, chefs such as Peter Gilmore at Quay, will often use more than the vegetable itself; new shoots, flflowers and leaves. The relationship with chefs is vital. “When they buy vegetables from people who are taking care of the landscape, they influence a lot of people about sustainable production,” says Erika. Hayden and Erika represent an emerging breed of farmer seeking to create a food system interconnected with nature and based on diversity and which doesn’t operate by the same rules as large-scale industrial farming. Their approach to growing food stresses community as much as it does profitability, and natural over synthetic. “We want community to drive what we’re doing,” says Hayden. “Post-war agriculture has been a constant push for a return on investment. Our priority, in the future, is to feed our community.” The couple envisages a future where they share their land with other small-scale food producers. They already host herds of Belted Galloway and Red Angus (the cows, moved frequently, increase organic matter, which helps in developing healthy pasture) and have plans for beehives. Neither Hayden nor Erika comes from a farming background. They grew up in semi-rural areas on Sydney’s periphery — Hayden in the Blue Mountains and Erika at Brooklyn on the banks of the Hawkesbury River — and both became captivated by the natural world as children. The couple met while studying horticultural science at Sydney University. “I had a fascination and love for plants and plant life and I also care about the environment,” says Hayden, who followed up his degree with a Masters in Agricultural Research focused on aroma sciences in France. Upon returning to Australia the pair started their market garden, fifirst in their own backyard, before expanding on to a small acreage they leased in Blackheath. As science graduates, they had sound theoretical knowledge, but the real learning has come about in the paddock. One of the biggest hurdles that the couple faced, and one that is common for would-be farmers, was access to land. Three years of solid growth on their Blackheath lease enabled them to buy Bula Mirri last year — 50 hectares of clay and sandstone country at Little Hartley, on the western side of the Great Dividing Range. They live here with their dogs, Pip and Sway. “We named our property Bula Mirri, Wiradjuri for ‘two dogs’ because we wanted to pay respects to the traditional owners of the land,” says Erika. “Pip and Sway are with us every day and are our little farm family.” Growing small volumes of many difffferent plants isn’t efficient in the same way that a single crop farm is. “If you want to shrink scale and diversify, which we do, there’s a cost to that process,” says Hayden. “Not using chemicals, not being in the industrialised food system, doesn’t mean a poor return. It comes down to management. Every time we’ve improved our practice or made an investment, it’s paid off.” The reason the new potatoes taste so good is that Hayden and Erika grow them slowly. There’s no pushing the plant with extra feed and water; plants are let to run their course. “Our kale has a shelf life of about two-and-a-half weeks and chefs tell us it still looks the same as when we picked it,” says Hayden. “I tell them it grew in Blackheath in winter, building sugars, and hardening up. A fridge is a holiday after that.” Follow Epicurean Harvest on Instagram @epicureanharvest