Back in my home town of Moruya, on the south coast of NSW, there’s a burgeoning growers scene with locals and visitors excitedly connecting over freshly plucked veggies and the rich soil from which they’re grown. The local farmer’s market is the town epicentre, where people and produce — as unique, wholesome and full of life as each other — make the weekly pilgrimage to relish in the joy of mother nature’s bounty.
Eliza and Alex, farmers and founders of Borrowed Ground, are one of the much-loved and well-respected stall holders loading their harvests into the baskets of hungry-bellied market-goers each and every week. On a recent trip down south to visit family, I drove past the Borrowed Ground market garden one morning and could see Eliza and Alex out working their field. Naturally, with a thirst for growing-centric conversation and a possible surf update, I swung in for a chat.
The Borrowed Ground market garden — the home of Eliza and Alex’s wholesome harvests — is situated on four acres of land just outside of Moruya. Their scrumptious veggies are enjoyed by local households through a veggie box delivery and pick-up service, as well as by farmers’ market-goers, local restaurant eaters and greengrocer shoppers. They’re passionate about employing organic and regenerative practices and their experiences and insights might leave you hungry for change.
It’s a blue-sky morning and I’m stoked to be in the fresh air connecting with locals who are just as enthusiastic about the land and growing as I am. Eliza and Alex describe their connection to the land with an almost sacramental reverence and deep respect for our First Peoples. “We grow on unceded Walbanga Country in the Yuin Nation and feel very privileged to be doing so in such a special place,” Alex says. “The farm is located on the river flats on beautiful chocolate cake-like alluvial soil with a clay-loam texture. (I’d just like to say that for gardeners, this is the bee’s knees!) The area itself has a rich Indigenous history, with Mount Gulaga (the Mother Mountain) towering over the Eurobodalla about 45 minutes south.” It’s an impressive plot, with views to both the mountains and the Moruya River winding past; you could sit here and watch the world go by quite easily.
Eliza and Alex spent some time in the area in 2016 at a local and well-renowned bio-farm, “Old Mill Rd”, during an internship, and fell in love with it. “It really is a unique part of the world, with the majority of beaches falling in national parks as well as rivers and mountains surrounding you all at once. The community here is especially lovely with some of the kindest folk we’ve met. It’s just really bloody great,” says Eliza.
We wander down a row (their Kelpie leading the way up front), admiring densely planted salad greens on our right and freshly planted leek seedlings on our left. A tractor, which looks as old as the hills but is no doubt as reliable and tough as a mallee bull, sits proudly on the land. With irrigation and propagation equipment never far from view, Eliza tells me how they learned what they know and the great mentors they’ve met along the way. “We kicked off our learning at Old Mill Rd while Alex was studying horticulture and I was studying primary school teaching and was a complete city slicker.” But the internship at Old Mill Rd was enough to plant a fairly robust seed and shortly thereafter they decided to give the farming thing a whirl for themselves.
Eliza and Alex approached other mentors, Andrew and Freda of Eugalo Farm who ran a diverse flower production business in south-west Sydney, and asked if they could start a land-share vegetable enterprise. Thankfully, the couple loved the idea and had an established market in Sydney, so it was perfect to hone growing skills and not worry about anything else.
The pair travelled to South America to gain more experience, working on bio-intensive market gardens in Patagonia, Chile. “The most inspiring of them all was Huerto Cuatro Estaciones, an educational farm that ran intensive apprentice programs,” recalls Alex. “This was a hub of inspiring and trailblazing managers who taught us so much about the realities of building a sustainable farming business from the ground up. It was invaluable.” To make frosty Moruya winters feel balmy they did a stint in Nova Scotia, a small province on the coast of Canada, which gave the duo great insight into growing in an incredibly short season, a cold climate, and how to manage greenhouse growing. “We’ve found that by experientially working on farms here and yonder, we’ve been able to pick and choose what we love and what we’re not that into, and apply it here at Borrowed Ground,” says Alex.
Starting any small business has similar challenges and Eliza says this past year has been a steep learning curve in managing finances and establishing a consistent customer base. Even just the sheer and relentless responsibility of simply running your own business is tough; “You’re ‘on’ all the time and if something doesn’t get done, that’s on you,” says Eliza. But even after all the challenges and steep learning curves (including being flooded three times in the last eight months), the duo still bounce out of bed (via a headland surf check, of course).
Standing around the veggie box packing table with a hot pot of freshly brewed (and greatly appreciated) coffee, we admire the lush stands of rocket and rainbow chard, but also the white board full of “To Do’s”. With caffeine in hand, we all agree that life’s good and anything is possible!
I admire Eliza and Alex’s ability to always return to their north star, despite the “To-Do’s” or weather forecasts that lie ahead of them; “We love the flavour of the food. The fact we pick our meals minutes before we cook them. We love the never-ending nature of learning and contextually problem solving. We love working outside in the elements and reading the landscape as each season passes. We love the community that growing food creates and that has been created years before us. We love the feeling of exhaustion after a long and physical day.”
I wonder why so many people still dread Mondays and the morning commute when we could be living in ecologically rich regional landscapes having a crack at “that idea” we’ve got. So I asked these guys what light they could shed on the subject of making a lifestyle change, as they’ve done so well.
How to make a big lifestyle change
- Get practical experience in the field you want to work in before you take the leap.
- Trust your gut — we know it’s hard but if there is a niggle, it won’t go away until you try.
- Test out the area before you move there — short-term stays or weekend visits to get a feel for the community and land.
I visit the Tuesday growers’ market in Moruya which starts at 2pm sharp to the sound of a bell that signals shopping may now commence — not a second earlier can money or trading begin. “There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline you get as a stallholder in a farmers’ market,” says Alex. “The pride you feel selling your goods to the local community is pretty special and rewarding.”
Loyal customers huddle around stalls under avenues of Manchurian Pears, their deciduous leaves showcasing vibrant autumn colours clearly visible from the bridge entering town not far from Borrowed Ground. If we talk food miles here, you could just walk to the market from where it’s grown.
“When you attend farmers’ markets, you’re meeting the person that has seeded, tended to, harvested and transported to you fresh veg or meat for your benefit,” says Alex. “You get little snippets of insights into the process of growing that bunch of carrots you’re choosing and that hands down has to beat picking up a plastic-wrapped bunch of celery off a shelf any day.”
The buzz in the air is evidence that locally grown produce from healthy soil and sustainable farm practices are better for us and the land, plus the food tastes much better than conventionally farmed food. So how do we “spread the word” among our communities so more people can sample and appreciate the taste of real food and experience the benefits of a local growing economy?
“It’s difficult because there is definitely an ‘elitist’ mindset about farmers’ markets and access to lower-socioeconomic demographics definitely isn’t there because of this ‘bougie’ notion,” says Eliza. “It comes down to education from a primary school level up. It blows our minds that Food Education isn’t a Key Learning Area in the curriculum. Once we teach our children about fair food systems and production the ball will start rolling. They are fearless and see through the bullshit and it’s at that level we need the behaviour to start shifting.”
I know this is true from my experience when I taught the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program at school. Not all schools take part in the program but they can if the parents and school get together and build a garden and dedicate a small kitchen — many hands make light work. And the program can be downloaded for free as a teaching aid. Having my students huddle around the garden at school waiting for the lesson to start so they could harvest their own veggies to cook with is also in my opinion where that learning begins.
As the final customers leave the markets, Eliza and Alex seem pretty chuffed about selling out all their delectable produce. But sometimes getting the produce to the market is the biggest challenge, not selling it. “We grow on a flood plain and this year we have flooded three times in around eight months,” says Alex. Prior to La Nina they had drought and fires surrounding the town. Water bombers were filling up from the river every 10 minutes; the fire was very close. “The extremities of the climate and it’s ever-shifting fragility is something that really worries us. To be honest, you just have to remain flexible and acknowledge that you have no domination or control over nature. It will always prevail.”
But with all their experience and dedication to growing food on borrowed ground, I think these two have built resilience and respect for the land on which they live and for their community. “All we can do is care for the land we steward in a regenerative and mindful way. In saying that, market gardening is an extremely colonial practice and that plays on our mind every day,” says Alex. “In the future we hope to establish stronger connections with local elders to learn from their ways of land management and hopefully implement some to Borrowed Ground”.
Byron Smith is happiest when exploring anywhere off the beaten track or in the water. He is a novice naturalist, the co-author of Slow Down and Grow Something and owner of edible garden business Urban Growers.