Ann Stanley visited Farm Incubator in November 2022.
Farm Incubator is a not-for-profit organisation based in Naarm, Melbourne. Its mission is “to resource passionate folk yearning to…get their hands in the soil… with the knowledge, business skills, farming experience, community and connection they need to get started on growing a fairer food system.”
One of their initiatives is to make it possible for people without land or farm experience to take up farming, starting small, by growing some garlic. Eltham resident, Dania Margerison, sponsored by Local Food Connect, was a 2022 Farm Incubator pop-up garlic farmer. She has always been interested in growing food and applied to Farm Incubator when she was looking to pursue the interest more seriously.
Dania farms several rows of garlic at Wild Wren Farm, the Dandenong Ranges home of Siobhan Simpson and her daughters Arden and Brigid. Siobhan began partnering with Farm Incubator after responding to their call out for a Yarra Valley site.
I visited Wild Wren Farm to meet with Dania and Siobhan, plus Lizzie Foran, who is Farm Incubator’s Pop-up Garlic Program Co-ordinator.
I spoke to Lizzie about how she came to be co-ordinating this program for Farm Incubator. It turns out she participated as a pop-up garlic farmer herself in 2021 and learned a lot.
“Growing garlic,” she says, “is an easy way into farming as garlic is a slow-growing crop with enough to learn about in an 8-week weekend course.”
Lizzie previously worked full-time in the world of large corporate events but she has always been attracted to gardening and horticulture. One day during the pre-pandemic catastrophic bushfires in Victoria, while she was driving to work, Lizzie began to reflect on her job, which was organising the transport of LED screens for supercar events, and there and then, decided to quit. She then used the time of the pandemic to follow her dream of studying horticulture and to do the Farm Incubator Course.
“I sacrificed income for time and happiness,” she says, “and found in the local food, urban agriculture, and horticultural world a ‘great supportive environment that shares knowledge and resources.”
“Garlic is a crop that doesn’t require a lot from us. Just weed and feed with a liquid fertiliser and potash towards the end of the growing period.”
Garlic is a good crop for Dania to grow because, as a mother and high school teacher of Japanese, she already has plenty to do.
Like Lizzie, Dania was looking for a way to pursue her interest. “I have always been interested in growing food,” she said, “and I wanted to see something through from start to finish.”
Growing garlic turned out to be just the thing. Dania sees a future for herself in some kind of farming. “I would love to co-farm with other people,” she says.
Dania showed me the different varieties of garlic she grows – Australian Red, Italian Purple, Keilor Pink, Monaro Purple and Glen Large – and shared her observations of the growth of each of the rows. For example, it was clear that the Glen Large was not growing as well as the others, probably because it is a sub-tropical variety.
She showed me how she harvests the ‘scapes’ (tender stems and flower buds) of the plants. These shoots look and cook a bit like beans but have a mild garlic flavour. Dania explained how it is important to pick the scapes for some types of garlic so that the plant’s energy can go into growing bigger bulbs, and how 3-4 leaves should be left on the plant at harvest because each one forms a ‘wrapper’ around the bulb.
The arrangement between Siobhan and Farm Incubator means that Siobhan, who has a background in garden design and horticulture, plus an interest in permaculture, naturally teaches Dania as Dania works with her garlic crop. Dania says, “Community is a big part of this program. A big part of the experience has been learning from everyone. It has made farming accessible to me, as has the use of the land.”
Wild Wren Farm is a 9-acre market garden specialising in garlic. It has an orchard, a forest, and a creek. It is hilly and idyllic with chooks ranging free in the orchard, dogs, beehives, goats and horses. With a rich soil full of organic inputs (and a pH of 6-7), the farm supplies weekly boxes of cool climate heirloom tomatoes (in season), garlic and greens.
“The first year of the experience with the Farm Incubator pop-up garlic program,” says Siobhan, “exceeded my expectations.”