With a little help from our mates
Many of us dream of escaping our hectic city lives and moving to the countryside, where we would live in harmony with nature, grow delicious food and frolic in flowery fields with adorable baby lambs. But the reality is that starting off a new life as a regenerative farmer involves far less frolicking and a lot more hard yakka.
Just ask Matthew Tack and his wife Coreen Ung, who decided to start their own farm and apple orchard in Tasmania’s idyllic Huon Valley back in 2013. It was a long-held dream of theirs, which was first inspired by a taste of delicious Gloucester Old Spot bacon at a farmer’s market in London in 2008, which Tack describes as being “like eating bright colours when other food was monochrome”.
“You know how sometime you hear music and it takes you back to a memory? Food is like that,” Tack says. “It’s got nostalgia power, it’s got that ability to take you places where you’ve been in the past. This was what food used to taste like, when we were kids.”
After this life-changing bacon encounter, Tack and Ung began growing their own food in an allotment, put more thought into where their food was coming from, and started learning about farming techniques. When they returned to Australia in 2012, they began working on farms around Victoria and Tasmania, and ended up working for Matthew Evans, of Gourmet Farmer fame. That was when they began looking for a property of their own. What they found was an abandoned apple orchard.
“We had never even considered growing apples,” Tack admits. “But the real estate agent said to us, ‘Before you rule it out, I know somebody who you should talk to’. So we went to see this fellow called Andrew Smith [the largest supplier of organic produce to Woolworths and maker of Willie Smith’s organic apple cider] who grows certified organic apples in the Huon Valley. We went to see him, and he spent about an hour trying to talk us out of it.”
But when Tack and Ung explained their plan – they didn’t just want to grow apples; they wanted to raise pigs, sheep and cattle as well – Smith soon changed his mind, and offered to help the couple get started. Our Mates Farm was born.
“We started chipping away at it, and we did everything – we said yes to everything,” Tack says. “We thought that if we said no, we wouldn’t get another opportunity like it. But what we didn’t realise was that in the Huon Valley, saying no doesn’t stop the opportunity; they just keep coming down here. It’s a very opportunity-rich environment.”
Saying “yes” to everything certainly had some drawbacks. The couple suddenly found themselves with a flock of ducks, and a neighbour gave them 55 sheep.
“When I look back now, I know why he gave us those sheep,” Tack says with a chuckle. “He knew they needed shearing and their feet weren’t suited to such a wet climate. If somebody doesn’t like you, they give you sheep. And if they hate you, they give you goats, because goats get out and destroy everything!”
Evans also gave the couple two Wessex Saddleback pigs named Peter Pan and Tinkerbell.
“We put them in our orchard, and within about three or four hours, Peter Pan the boar had dug a hole big enough for me to lose a tractor in,” Tack recalls.
“It was one of those periods when I look back and go, what was I thinking? We just knew nothing. We didn’t even have a real handle on the apples at the time. Basically, the whole lot needed to be cut down, redrafted and fixed up to something that was marketable.”
But the couple kept working on their dream, and began figuring out that some things just weren’t the right fit for Our Mates Farm.
“We gradually realised that ducks weren’t for us,” Tack says. “We couldn’t get them to lay, and they basically went wherever they wanted.”
The sheep gifted by the neighbour were also replaced by Wiltshire Horn sheep, an English breed that doesn’t need shearing as it sheds its own wool naturally, and has feet that can handle the rainy Tasmanian weather. But things were still not smooth sailing.
“Like when you look at the kitchen window and there’s a sow walking past, come looking for you because she’s somehow gotten out of the paddock,” Tack says. “Or you get a phone call from the neighbours, saying, ‘Do you know your ram is walking down the road?’”
Starting a farm is challenging, even if your animals don’t decide to wander blithely around the neighbouring countryside. Luckily, Smith put the couple in touch with another orchardist, who became a valued mentor and guide. Thanks to the help they were given, Our Mates Farm now supplies the majority of organic cider apples to Willie Smith’s.
The generosity of the Huon Valley didn’t stop with apples, either. Tack and Ung soon discovered that the place they had decided to call home was an incredibly giving, supportive and welcoming community.
“I grew up in North Queensland in a small community,” Tack says. “And I grew up with the knowledge that you never told anyone your problem, because the moment you tell somebody your problem, it becomes grist for the local rumour mill. People would be out there gossiping about you and your problems.
“What I learned after moving into the community here is that the more people you tell your problems to, the more people come forward with help and solutions. This is a community of people who look out for each other. It’s the people who make it. It’s wonderful.”
The farm also raises English Large Black pigs – the perfect orchard pig that also happens to be the closest genetic match available in Australia to the Gloucester Old Spot, which means Tack has been able to recreate the delectable bacon that started the couple’s journey.
“What we think about now is how we can work what we have into the orchard, whether it’s having a breed of sheep that doesn’t damage the trees, or pigs we can put in the orchard to clean up apples after harvest and won’t dig giant holes in the ground,” Tack says.
“It’s all about trying to put layers of things in the orchard. We rotate the sheep through to cut the grass down so I don’t have to mow it, and we put the pigs through to clean up the apples so that we reduce that disease pressure for the next year, and which makes great-tasting pork at the same time.”
Our Mates Farm sells most of its meat to the public, taking orders on the farm website (but be warned – there is a wait list). The farm also sells produce through local businesses.
“We knew that when we were in London, that’s what we wanted – we wanted to buy food directly from wherever it was produced,” Tack says. “And we’ve got a customer base here that does what one customer did last Sunday, which is come down here, go for a walk, meet the pigs, see the sheep, see the cattle, see how we do things and ask us questions.
“We want people to not just buy something wrapped in plastic and not have to think about it. We want people to think about where food comes from. And it doesn’t matter whether or not someone is our customer – we don’t care if they’re our customer or not. We care about whether they’re asking questions about where their food comes from. That’s the most important thing. That’s what matters.”