HELLO SUNSHINE: Horticulturist Angela Standen, of the Hunter Farm Collective, says it’s all about the soil. Pictures: Daniel HonanAngela Standen is one happy horticulturist. Standing among a sward of deep green broccoli leaves, beneath a blue sky that blazes high and wide above, she urges me to keep still and just listen. Listen for the bees that faintly buzz in and out of the broccoli’s tiny yellow flowers.
“Can you hear them?” she asks me. “Listen… here, get closer.”
Despite the red tractor humming loudly in the background as it moves back and forth down the newly made garden beds, when I lean in closer I can just make out the quiet buzzing of the dutifully busy bee collecting pollen and nectar for the colony.
“Isn’t that amazing?” Standen asks.
“Good farming is all about finding that harmony with nature … At the end of the day, if you can go home having made nature and other people happy, and you’ve made yourself happy in the process, the money is just a bonus.”
Angela Standen, Hunter Farm Collective
Standen works for the Branxton-based Hunter Farm Collective, which is exactly what it sounds like; an interlinked collection of farms spread throughout the Hunter Valley that grow and raise edible plants and animals for food for people in the region to eat and enjoy.
There are four properties altogether; Farmborough, Kaludah, Hermitage, and Murray Hill. Kaludah and Hermitage run Hereford and Angus beef cattle, respectively, while Farmborough grows fruits and vegetables and also produces fresh eggs and honey. Big plans are afoot for the Murray Hill property, which is intended for cultivating native Australian edible plant species, such as Ribery Lilly Pilly, mountain pepper and aniseed myrtle.
“We’re really excited to get the Murray Hill farm off and running, we’re not there yet, but we’re not far off,” Angela says.
The farm operates under the banner of the Hunter Agricultural Company, which is owned by the Medich Corporation and overseen by Anthony Medich.
“Our intention is to put to use our various farms to create a meaningful supply of local food and produce and use it as a catalyst for our proposed central market in Branxton,” Medich explains.
“Through local food production and creating a local market and food industry, we hope this will be the foundation for Branxton’s revitalisation as a vibrant small village with a central food market at its heart.”
HARD WORKERS: A bee buzzes in the broccoli.
Back at Farmborough, Standen has helped turn a former grazing paddock into a veritable food bowl, brimming with fresh edibles; peas and beans, broccoli, cauliflower, all manner of cabbage – red, green, savoy and Chinese cabbage – bok choy, onions, spring onions, leeks, beetroots, carrots, turnips, silverbeets, not to mention the bees and their honey, plus the chickens and their eggs…
“We’re preparing to put in a big strip of pumpkins and watermelons, and plant some rhubarb and increase our herb garden,” Standenexplains.
“We’ll soon have capsicums and tomatoes and lots more once spring and summer comes.”
Standensays that if there is life in the soil there will be life in the food.
“The soil is the most important thing for growing good food. Anything can recover and survive if you’ve got healthy, fertile soil,” she says.
Besides using an organic soil mix to create a healthy foundation for the plants to grow, performing the necessary crop rotations and using a green manure crop to put back essential soil nutrients, Standen says the most important tool in her farming arsenal is her life-giving brew of compost tea.
“The compost tea is pretty simple to make and so rich in microorganisms. The tea basically helps to promote healthy, happy plants, which gives us healthy, nutritional food to eat, which makes us feel happy,” Standen says.
You can taste Farmborough greens when dining at Bistro Molines, or you can buy the farm’s fresh produce in pre-packed boxes at markets like the Slow Food Hunter Valley Earth Markets in Maitland, also, just up the road at the Dalwood Markets at Dalwood Estate.
“My biggest thing is selling a box of veggies and having people remark on the look and taste of the food; that’s what I live for,” Standen says.
You can even visit the farm and help collect your food every Saturday between 10am and 2pm. Indeed, wandering between the rows and rows of flourishing winter veggie beds, plucking fresh-as-you-can-get edible greens will be a revelation for anyone, especially many city and suburban kids.
“It’s lots of fun, especially for the kids because they can look at the chooks and meet ‘Bundy’ our Maremma sheepdog, and just get a sense of where their food is coming from,” Standen says.
Maybe it’s simply being outside in the sunshine, or perhaps it’s being surrounded by so many vivid and vibrant vegetables, like the juicy red sorrel leaves, the fiery, peppery rocket, or the unbelievably moreish mizuna (wow), knowing and actively engaging with your food in this way really is a wonderfully simple, yet fulfilling thing to do.
No wonder Angela Standen is so happy.