Erika Watson is one half of the inspirational farming duo making up Epicurean Harvest; an organic farm nestled in the Blue Mountains, NSW.
Just over two years old, already supplying some of Sydney’s best restaurants and awarded the 2015 Young Grower of the Year, it seems that Epicurean Harvest has had a farmer’s dream start. Its not all gumbooted romance however, as Erika shares the struggles of erratic winter weather, starting a farm from scratch and some of the lows to a farming life. So brew a cup of tea, find a spring beam of sun and meet one of Australia’s most awesome kooky young farmers (she eats the peel of lemons), you’ll end up crushing on her just like we have.
We’re always a fan of the icebreaker so let’s kick off this convo with one.
YFM: What’s your spirit-vegetable?
Erika: Zucchini. This is because it is giving, generous and versatile. LOL.
It’s the first day of Spring. Let’s play a game.
YFM: When we say ‘Spring’, you think…
Erika: I think of a riot of colours, and weeds growing fast, and magpies swooping. I think of hats, and food growing and getting busy and meeting with potential new customers. I think, “there goes my social life” (that’s for winter).
YFM: Do you remember your ‘food-epiphany’, “uhuh!” moment, when you realised for the first time that food was more than fuel?
Erika: I think I was fortunate enough to grow up in a national park on the river. Feeling connected to the environment around me, I didn’t see myself anything more special than that of the plants and animals that fitted into the life cycle too (okay, I was a joyously wild bush/river kid). Something is always fuel for something greater.
In a societal context, food is a medium to bring people together and I had this revelation at about 17, when I had a dinner party for my birthday. After that, most parties and social interactions had good food. With consideration now, I think I intuitively took this further and studied Horticultural Science at USyd to connect that environment I grew up in as child with the societal relationship I identified with food.
YFM: Do you remember the first veggie that Epicurean Harvest grew and sold?
Erika: The first veggie in our business, Epicurean Harvest in Blackheath, that we grew from seed and sold to a customer was the French Breakfast Radish and the Japanese White Turnip. I remember picking them and feeling really proud but nervous to sell them to someone who would ultimately serve them up in a restaurant.
YFM: For a newbie grower, what’s the best thing to remember when trying to grow food at home?
Erika: Gardening and growing food is an act of optimism, always learning, turning a corner, being ok with failure, sometimes succeeding and always looking to the future. Be patient. It is a labour of love for a lifetime with a lifetime of rewards.
YFM: Growing food is joyous and full of wonder but it’s not always easy. What is your biggest ‘pear-shaped’ moment been along your food growing journey?
Erika: That crazy rain event in April/May. That really caused a few things to go ‘pear shaped’. Our shed got blown to pieces, beds flooded, washed away, waterlogged. We lost a lot of crops and more significantly lost the time before winter to prep land and sow crops for winter. Making this winter pretty skinny.
YFM: What keeps you marching on, planting and picking throughout the heavy rains and frosts?
Erika: Cash flow.
Back to “pear-shaped” moments…
Erika: By far the greatest challenge was just starting to grow at all. Its incredibly hard getting off the ground as young farmers with absolutely no money, no capital investment, no land and your livelihood hitched entirely on finding land that is viable and close to a market (that you can lease!) and then planning to grow food successfully and so consistently that someone wants to use it on their dish, eat it and come back to you again. Establishing relationships with landowners and starting a business founded on the idea of growing food for a living was by far the most “pear-shaped” thing to deal with, the most stressful, dandruff inducing time of our lives.
YFM: You supply to the likes of Sydney’s Sepia, Guillaume and Bennelong; how do you select the restaurants that you grow for?
Erika: We select each other. We have decided to centre our business on relationships; Relationship with land, with growing, with customer and with the menu… and back again. We need to understand their system and they need to understand ours – it is a constant dialogue, which is always rewarding, interesting and inspiring. I respect it greatly.
YFM: Where would you like to see your business go with your partner Hayden, in the next five years?
Erika: In the next five years we would like have our own land to produce on. We would like to supply local families with good quality food, while maintaining supply to a larger restaurant base. I want to be able to start hosting educational science/horticulture workshops for kids mostly. Beyond that, I would love to be able to grow the ethical brand we have already, including more people into the business of Epicurean Harvest.
YFM: For any young, inspired individuals seeding a business idea -whether it is in food or not- what are three pieces of advice you can give them?
Erika: Hold onto your moral compass. Stay positive and practical. Celebrate the little things you have done – as a business owner the “to do” list is never ending…which leads me to a fourth point…Take a day off, because we didn’t and recognise now that we should have.
YFM: Good segway point, on your rare days off how do you like to fill your time?
Erika: Apart from hanging with my dogs – I LOVE my dogs – I am also raising money for the Black Dog Institute with my new and major hobby of mine, cycling. I’m training to do a 430 km cycle in October from Taronga Zoo to Western Plains Zoo; a ride called the ‘Zoo 2 Zoo’. When I started farming I began to understand the gravity of risk a farmer takes everyday to grow or raise food for a livelihood. To be so reliant on the elements became a lot more real. The lack of resources and services in mental health in rural and remote areas and the stigma associated with seeking help is something that needs attention. You can sponsor me (all funds go to the Black Dog) and read more about my involvement with this here.
YFM: What keeps you up at night?
Erika: When my rooster thinks the full moon is so bright he needs to crow. God that’s annoying. Besides that, the wind, it just riles me up. Or the bloody wood ducks – they fly in by the full moon, eat everything and leave only remnants of the party… foot prints and poop. GARRR.
YFM: And to finish, what superpower would you choose to have?
Erika: Fly. But a superpower to be able to bend over all day without getting sore or hurting your back would be really useful.
Image credit: Supplied (taken by Luisa Brimble)