Many of us dream of leaving behind the 9 to 5 work cycle, buying some land and reconnecting with the earth. Brillig Farm market gardeners and partners in life Sam Costello and Elisabeth Crawford did just that. They tell ESH about their growing lives.
Why the treechange?
Sam: I worked in a university with a large team and was responsible for strategy and business systems. Elisabeth was part of student administration. We lived in the inner west under the Sydney flight path, and work and home was becoming busier and noisier. I started yearning for a clean, uncluttered, quiet life. When the kids finished school and were off, the time came to leave.
How did you happen upon Brillig Farm?
Elisabeth: Living in the Southern Highlands was a long held fantasy and we’d been looking for a while. We loved Exeter and started looking there specifically. The plan was to move here and develop some income streams, then transition out of the workforce. Growing things was definitely part of the plan, and we found a 20 acre block with great soil and dams, paddocks and trees. We wanted to have windows that looked out onto something green and far away.
Was market gardening always the long held dream?
Sam: Not at all! We did a market gardening course a couple of years before making the move and decided it was too much hard work! Not long after moving here I took a redundancy and I was sitting in the Exeter General Store when I got an email offering a discount on an online urban farming course. Intensive farming in a small space seemed much more interesting than what I’d been planning. So I signed up and within two months we were selling produce at the Moss Vale farmers market.
Why the name?
Elisabeth: Brillig is from the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. Basically it means whatever you want it to. We love the poem, and wanted a name that didn’t come with other connotations.
What do you grow?
Sam: Thirteen varieties of leafy greens, including microgreens, and many different varieties of radishes, beetroot, potatoes, turnips, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, herbs, edible flowers and garnishes.
How did you find strong commercial footing in the Highlands so quickly?
Elisabeth: We supply the restaurant trade and we do a line of chemical free salad mix and microgreens to the consumer market through Exeter Village Markets and Berrima General Store Cafe. We had one customer tell us with tears in his eyes our beans tasted like when he was a child. Another said it was like eating at Tetsuya’s. That’s pretty special to us. Jill Dyson (On the Food Path and ESH food writer), Brigid Kennedy (The Loch & Southern Highlands Food Clusters) and Phil Lavers (Moonacres Farm) have been amazing in recommending and helping us get a good strong customer base. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.
Some of your vegetables are exotic. How did that eventuate?
Sam: Living in the city I’d never thought about how limited the produce selection is in supermarkets. When we started farming I did a lot of research into what we would grow, and it didn’t take me long to realise there is a cornucopia of food plants out there. So we started looking at plants that looked and tasted exciting and experimented. I love the idea of plants that were used historically as well as plants used by non western cultures. There is such a huge range of delicious edible plants out there used by millions of people over thousands of years and we’re missing out.
You are not organic but ‘grow as if we were’. What does that mean?
Sam: To get a tasty, nutritious, plant involves interactions from multiple systems: the soil, climate, insects, us. The choices we make as we grow impact positively or negatively on these systems, so we don’t use anything that isn’t approved as organic input. We keep tilling to a minimum. We brew up an amazing probiotic mixture of bacteria, yeast and fungus that boosts healthy soil biological activity.
It sounds like a lot of hard work…
Elisabeth: Our day really depends on the weather and time of year. In summer we work about 10 hours a day; we get up before dawn and work until it gets too hot then go back out until dusk. In winter it’s kind of the opposite. We wait till the sun’s up and the frost clears and then get to it.
What are the discoveries you’ve made since moving here?
Elisabeth: We completely lucked out on the soil here, it’s very good. Sam has diligently transformed bare paddock into umpteen prolific growing beds and it’s been a steep learning curve growing, building a business, nurturing a relationship and he’s doing it superbly. I found the move pretty challenging, and it’s taken me all this time to feel really present in this new lifestyle. It’s brought a lot of joy to our lives.
Sam: Elisabeth is brilliant at building solutions. She can build a bathroom out of a paperclip and a bit of 2 ’x 4’. Here she’s flourished and designed and built so many of our farm tools, it’s incredible. Me, I always knew I could focus but here I really focus and persist. I’ve started to think of myself as a Welsh mountain pony: nothing flash but I just keep putting one foot in front of the other until it’s done. Living in the city I was inside or, if outside, surrounded by structures and concrete. Here the sky is enormous and goes on and on, and changes all the time. The light shifts and changes tone. It’s incredible.
Exotic produce from Brillig Farm
A vine from Sri Lanka and India with shiny red stems and thick glossy leaves. Grows like crazy in summer and a great addition to curries and stir fries. Use it instead of spinach in a spanakopita.
A massive marigold that grows to 3 metres tall. We use this as a herb to flavour salads. It can also be made into a pesto with chilli, garlic and lime, and used as a marinade on white meat. The long, serrated leaves have an amazing citrus, minty, slightly pineapple flavour. Watching people’s faces as they taste it is priceless.
Native to Japan, China and Korea, this is a deciduous ginger. Unlike the traditional ginger it’s the shoots and flowers that are eaten, not the rhizome. The tender crunchy shoots can be chopped and added raw to dishes. The shoots and flowers are often pickled in Japanese cuisine.
Native to Australia (and a bunch of other places). The variety we grow is upright and has long, fleshy, blunt leaves. We use them in our salad mix in summer.