A tiny farm that grows three kinds of garlic and both ornamental and edible flowers has to be heaven scent
The historic Hunter Valley town of Dungog takes its name from a word in the local Gringrai language meaning “place of thinly wooded hills”. Drive a short distance through flat dairy country and into the rolling foothills to the southeast and you reach Marshdale.
On a gentle rise overlooking a winding country road perches Four Acre Farm, a 100-year-old farmhouse fronted by a cottage garden and surrounded by not-so-thinly wooded hills. It’s home to Dominique Northam and Tom Christie, Evelyn, 2, and baby Jude plus an excitable dog or two. Oh, and a small flock of Muscovy ducks.
It’s business out the back at Four Acre Farm, where row upon row of blueish-green garlic spears wave in the breeze. In little more than five years on the property, Dom and Tom have established it as a boutique garlic farm, reclaiming an industry that was hit hard in recent times when Chinese garlic flooded the market.
Tom gives much of the credit to Dominique. “Dom has always been a gardener. Her grandmother Betty was a wonderful gardener. She inspired our front cottage-style garden but she was never much interested in growing food.”
Tom caught the bug about 10 years ago when the pair had their first garden in a backyard in inner-city Newcastle. “We quickly filled the yard,” he says, “and our search for more space led us to Dungog.”
Now Tom’s a full-time farmer while Dom works a few days a week in community development “when she’s not on maternity leave”. She also had a job at a florist’s while studying social work at university and later completed a Permaculture Design Certificate. Her skills — and Tom’s — have paid off handsomely at Four Acre Farm.
The secret of small-scale farming — sometimes called community-supported agriculture — is diversity. Besides garlic, Four Acre Farm grows seasonal organic flowers, which Dom and Tom sell through market stalls and local florists. They also make up bespoke orders for weddings and other events.
“Garlic is our biggest crop and we grow a few different varieties,” says Tom. “Each year we plant roughly 10,000 cloves in March, harvesting in October–November.”
The property comprises a mix of gardens, he says, including “a small market garden, raised beds, perennial borders and fledgling forest gardens”. They also grow edible flowers and a few extra vegies like salad greens, herbs, pumpkin, artichoke, radish and rhubarb.
“We’re slowly planting more fruit trees and other perennials,” adds Tom. “Lots of citrus, figs, mulberries and others.”
Among the “others” surrounding the house are a tough old bush lemon laden with gnarly fruit and several peach trees resplendent with bright-pink blooms. These self-sown trees, says Tom, tend to “pop up everywhere”.
He adds, “We plant fairly intensively in our market gardens, so we’ve been experimenting with cover crops, tarping and low-till methods to improve our soil.”
The couple also uses mushroom compost, chook manure, seaweed solution and fish emulsion. They compost all garden waste and food scraps and use as little pest control as possible: “Some white oil for aphids and mites; pyrethrum for leaf beetle swarms; EDTA-iron compound for snails and slugs”. It goes without saying that they recycle.
“Absolutely. We’ve always considered ourselves environmentalists and are concerned with the impact of agricultural chemicals on the environment. We’d like our farm to be part of a thriving ecosystem, healthy for the bees, birds, lizards, insects and all the other critters that call our farm home.”
They try to live a sustainable life, adds Tom. “For us, that means living in tune with the seasons, eating a lot of home-grown and supplementing with local produce from the Dungog Local Growers Stall or the Slow Food Earth Markets at Maitland.
“We’ve also been really trying to reduce our plastic waste by buying more food in bulk, making beeswax wraps using our beeswax and using modern cloth nappies for the kids.”
Water & wildlife
The climate in this part of the Hunter can swing wildly between extremes, from heavy frosts in winter to summer temperatures in the 40s. “It can be a struggle sometimes to keep things alive through the hot summer, especially during dry spells,” Tom admits.
At the other end of the scale, the farm lost around 1000 garlic plants swept away in the heavy spring storms of 2015.
A long way from town water and uphill from the Williams River and its tributary creeks, Four Acre Farm has to harvest its own water. There are tanks for the house and some garden use and two small dams for irrigation purposes, while grey water is diverted to the front ornamental garden.
“Water is our main limiting factor in terms of how much we can grow, so we’re always trying to stretch it further,” says Tom. “We use drip irrigation to prevent wastage and mulch to protect against evaporation.
“The beds in our market garden run across the slope to catch runoff. We work on improving the health of our soil, building up the organic matter content to improve moisture-holding capacity.”
The little bush oasis draws all kinds of wildlife, from wallabies, rabbits, hares, goannas, water dragons, skinks, frogs and assorted snakes to wrens, finches, bower birds, honeyeaters and parrots. Dom and Tom run the abovementioned Muscovy ducks for eggs and a beehive for honey and wax.
They love to cook using their own produce, making soup from homegrown pumpkins and using the citrus trees to make delicious cordial, jams and marmalades. They also make pickles and sauerkraut as well as soaps using their own herbs and flowers.
Among their most abundant crops are the perennial salad herb sorrel and Queen Anne’s lace, a magnet for bees and butterflies. “Sorrel is great,” enthuses Tom. “It’s easy to grow and always producing. Queen Anne’s lace is great for flowers. It self-seeds and is very hardy.”
Dom and Tom are proud of “all the work we’ve put into the garden over the last few years, getting it to the point it’s at now without spending a great deal of money”.
As Dominique told ABC Open, “It’s amazing what we have in a small area. This is high-value farming.”
More information, fouracrefarm.com.au
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