Bickleigh Vale Farm: the joy of organic
September is Organic Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness of our organic producers, and the many benefits of choosing organic. One of the best places to find organic produce is at a local farmers’ market. This is where certified organic producer Diana Bickford made her start, selling seedlings and seasonal produce that she grows at Bickleigh Vale Farm in South Australia’s McLaren Vale. Eativity had the absolute pleasure of speaking with her, to discuss the many joys that spring from growing your own food.
Bickford was inspired to start growing vegetable seedlings after the establishment of the Willunga Farmers’ Market in 2002. In the same year, she established Bickleigh Vale Farm at her family property, just five minutes down the road from the Willunga markets.
“I was at a crossroads in life and contemplating what to do,” she says. “I had come back to live here on family property, and it made logical sense to try and grow seedlings to sell at the market. I’d always done it myself, and my mother once had a nursery. One thing just led to another. But the farmers’ market was definitely the stimulus.”
Finding a better way
Bickford completed a Permaculture Design Certificate, and her farm become certified organic in 2003. She says her decision to grow organically came from a deep interest in health and wellness. But at that stage, it also gave her a point of difference.
“I’d been a little bit disillusioned by the commercial seedlings that you can buy,” she says. “People still tell me today that you buy a punnet of these commercial seedlings and often they don’t all make it. I just felt that there must be a better way.
“By experimenting and speaking with other producers that I got to know at the market, I started to make my own potting mix using certified organic compost, which I still do.”
Bickford’s seedlings were a big success, and she confesses that she has yet to have any complaints about her seedlings not growing. In fact, she’s only received positive feedback about the vigour and strength of the seedlings. And her customers keep coming back.
Kale: before it was hip
While she began by producing seedlings to sell at the farmers’ market, Bickford soon made the decision to branch out and begin producing organic seasonal vegetables.
“It became clear that’s what the market needed,” she says. “That’s what people were coming for. They’re seeking that kind of authentic product. And an advantage of being a small producer is that I’ve been able to experiment with different, lesser-known varieties.”
While you can’t walk into a cafe or down a supermarket aisle without tripping over bushels of kale these days, Bickford began growing it back when it was still relatively unheard of.
“I remember when I started, nobody knew what kale was,” she says. “People were most intrigued by it. It was just beginning to be written about, this healthful vegetable that’s very commonly grown in cold countries like Europe as a winter staple. But Australians hardly knew it, because in winter here, we have plenty of foods that grow.
“Kohlrabi is another one. People still will say, what is kohlrabi? It’s an ancient vegetable that’s delicious. It’s not widely grown, and largely unheard of here until a few years ago.”
Nurturing the next generation
As Bickleigh Vale Farm has flourished, Bickford has hosted many younger growers who are keen for work experience on an organic farm or in an organic seedling nursery.
“I’ve had some delightful connections with young people who feel they’d like to be involved with growing things,” she says. “A lot of them work here for a time, and some have certainly gone off and developed their own direction. It’s something I feel so inspired about.
“I became so inspired with the whole concept of the farmers’ market, and the growing of things. And that set me on the path. Then you naturally want to give back to others. People become so excited about growing things. And that’s what I love to see. That fires you up to be doing all you can to help them find that joy. It’s a tremendously rewarding occupation.”
While Bickleigh Vale Farm might only be small, it’s a source of great joy for Bickford, who says she draws passion every day from being out in the garden.
“Everything here happens with passion,” she says. “Every morning, I go down to my little hothouse and see what seeds are popping up. It always gives me a real buzz.”
There have also been tremendous rewards to be found in Bickford’s long association with the Willunga Farmers’ Market, where she still sells her seedlings and produce today.
“Because it gave me a start, I’ve always felt a deep affinity for it,” she says. “It’s such an important part of our community. It’s also so important in terms of educating the public.
“At the farmers’ market, every stallholder has to produce what they’re selling. So there’s that direct relationship that generates between customer and producer. It’s so valuable, and it also educates people about the seasonality of food and where food comes from.”
Planting the seed
Over the years, Bickford has watched as consumer interest in organic produce has grown. This has only been further fostered by the recent home-gardening frenzy of early 2020.
“It’s been exciting to witness this surge of interest, and COVID has helped this,” she says. “During the beginning of COVID, we were absolutely swamped. Seedlings were going out the door like toilet paper. I was having hundreds of people come to the farm, as well as selling out totally at the market through those early weeks. Hopefully, a lot of those people who made that choice to grow something have continued to do so.”
Keeping things growing
This passionate organic producer also runs organic vegetable growing courses at the local Cancer Care Centre, and has also recently established a therapeutic community garden on the grounds of the now closed Blackwood Hospital. Before it was a hospital, the property had been owned by her grandparents, and her mother had tended a flower garden there.
“When I realised this ornamental garden was lying dormant, it was a natural step for me to think, well, we’d better turn this into a food garden and educate people,” she says. “That connection with the family property at the hospital – it just made sense to me.
“I’ve got to keep doing this and keep things growing, so that we can get more people growing more food. It’s such a joy to grow your own food. If more people grew their own food, what a difference it would make to the world!”
You can find out more about Bickleigh Vale Farm at bickleighvalefarm.com.au. Willunga Farmers’ Market was named Outstanding Farmers’ Market at the 2021 delicious. produce awards. You can find out more about it at willungafarmersmarket.com.au. To find out more about how you can get involved in Organic Awareness Month, click here.