They had farming in their bones!
Read about Kate and Iain's journey to developing their award winning goat produce.
The feeling of escape, of relief, a moment to breathe, it’s when you know you are truly alive. It’s always the same when I get in the car and hit the road to visit a farmer somewhere in Tasmania. There is a sense of leaving the hustle and bustle of urban life behind, as I get to explore an area I may not have been to before, or haven’t seen for far too long. This time, I am heading east from Hobart to visit Sprout’s 2019 Small Producers of the year, Kate and Iain from Leap Farm and Tongola Cheese.
The sun is shining on the hills as I drive through the curves on the road, I turn onto a dirt road that leads me up the hill towards what looks like an ancient pocket of land with a house protected by the soldiers that are the old Macrocarpa pines planted many years before.
Pippi’s sweet face appears at the window, Kate and Iain’s four year old daughter is grinning with delight, pointing me towards the meandering path down the side of the house so I know where to come. Such a social button. I am welcomed into Kate and Iain’s home where immediately I feel safe, warm and at peace, even amongst the chaos that I know all too well myself as a parent of two small children.
With a warm coffee in hand and sun on our backs, we get chatting about life and farming, while watching the chooks scratch around in the garden outside the window. Kate began reflecting on the last 6 months since receiving their award in November last year; it’s been a challenging time.
“Things were quite busy, just normal season busy ticking along on farm, Iain making lots of cheese, me trying to help on the farm, doing my work (in the RHH Emergency Department), trying to help with kids and I was trying to start a podcast at the same time, but couldn’t make that happen. March came along, I had a couple of weeks of leave, so I started my podcast and then COVID hit Australia, so I launched my podcast right at the start of COVID, which was probably good…”
Iain, who is sitting opposite Kate at the table, grins and hands her a wooden spoon with a pale blue handle. Kate takes the spoon and then explains that the spoon (which was part of their award gift) is now the talking spoon, “we have to hold the wooden spoon, and that person has the right to talk, otherwise we talk over each other”, says Kate.
We continue reflecting on the unprecedented times of the pandemic and how this put pressure on decisions both on and off the farm.
“With the sudden closure of the food service industry, we lost 75% of our income and sales, and we weren’t quite sure at that point what was going to happen in Tasmania, or Australia and what that might mean for me at work (RHH).”
They had some big decisions to make about how to juggle the needs of the property, with the needs of their children and family, along with considerations for what might happen for Kate at the hospital and whether they needed to move Kate into a location in the city in isolation, as well as what to do about grandparents who are normally an integral part of their life balance and support network.
“It was a really stressful period of time for us. We hadn’t quite reached the point in our season on farm where we put the girls in with the bucks and plan for the next season, we were trying to manage our anxiety about what COVID meant for our family, trying to manage our logistics for living arrangements and trying to work out how to continue to run both of our businesses (the meat and the cheese) through all of this.”
“We had various plans, flexible plans, plan a, b, c, d….x and z! So, we just loped along for a few weeks, and then we made a conscious decision to look at our business very objectively as though we were a consultant. We looked at the economics of different options. Because of the way we farm, we milk seasonally and once a day, we were able to more easily make the decision to stop milking early. We were already towards the end of the season, which was very fortuitous for us, when the girls milk production is slowly starting to dry off, and we finish milking and let them dry off completely.”
Iain reflects on the cheese production and how this was impacted. “We made what cheese we thought we would sell between now and next season, as we were able to look at the information that was coming in from the government and how the Tasmanian Premier was handling things. So, we filled the freezer with 1kg and 500g tubs of our fresh cheese for the public and our food service friends to ensure we could still service them.”
Farmers markets were under pressure to close in the first stage of this COVID journey in Tasmania. Iain and Kate, along with many other stallholders were advocating for the Hobart based Farmgate Market to remain functioning, as it was now the only avenue many of them had to sell their produce direct to customers. Thankfully, the Farmgate Market remained open, so Tongola Cheese increased their presence at this market and found they were heartily rewarded by the ever-growing interest and passion to support small businesses and small farmers from the local community in Tasmania.
“We were going to three farmers markets a month and we were moving it all. Even though we’d grown the herd, we’d increased cheese production, we were selling it all and we weren’t so dependent on food service. We are very thankful to the Tasmanian people for stepping up and buying local produce and supporting farmers like us. The refocus of Tasmanian shoppers onto Tasmanian and local produce has meant that life on farm hasn’t changed that much for us.”
Flexibility, agility, is possible for small businesses like Kate and Iain’s as they have short supply chains, they aren’t beholden to investors, strict timeframes or outcomes or larger corporate functions, and the seasonal nature of how they farm and I would say their astute approach to looking objectively at their business all lead to the incredible outcome they experienced.
“This has sort of been how we’ve always operated, we want to sell direct to our customers, we want to talk to our customers, we want them to come to our farm, to see what we do and why it’s different. If people simply want to ring up and order a massive quantity of product…we’re not your ‘fish’, it’s not the right fit”, Iain explains.
Just as we begin discussing finding the right fit between the farm and customers, and how it works really well when you can build relationships with people who understand the ebbs and flows of seasonal farming, Pippi appears at the table, probably the best customer the farm has! Pippi is armed with a bag of wraps and a container of Tongola Curdy, and she plonks herself down with a plate. What more could a kid want in life?
While Iain prepares Pippi’s favourite meal, I really want to find out how a researcher and an emergency medicine doctor came to be goat farmers and cheese makers. This ‘tree change’ adventure that so many choose fascinates me, as I am inspired by their gutzy approach to life knowing that I don’t think I could take that leap of faith.
“Ok, so, for my 11th birthday, growing up 6km outside the CBD of Melbourne……” All three of us are laughing and laughing, as Kate starts the story that she promises will be the ‘short’ version, and how when she was turning 11 and all she wanted was a lamb, a calf and a chook and she cried and cried and cried, when she didn’t get it.
“All I ever wanted to be was a farmer, I loved animals…but I tried my hand at Vet school, went to the open day and thought it was rubbish and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. During that period in history was the civil war in Rwanda and I discovered Medecins Sans Frontieres so thought I should focus my energies there and I became a doctor, studying Medicine here in Tasmania.”
“I had family in Victoria who farmed, and my best days in my childhood were going out to milk the cows. My best days!” reflects Kate.
Looking back at this fantastic photo (left) of Kate some thirty years ago (Kate can be seen front left) with her sister, her Mum's cousin Bruce and his wife Marg, on their in West Gippsland farm., Kate recalls the memories - sight, smell and sound, remain with her as clear as day, even now. One of her happiest childhood places.
I am interested to know how Iain came to be here too, having grown up in rural UK. Iain’s grandfather had been a farm labourer in NE of Scotland and so he used to head off on the train during school holidays, to help on the farm.
“The north of Scotland was a little bit like Tassie, my grandfather had a sizeable market garden and used to supply vegetables to the local town, and when he wasn’t busy he used to help his neighbour farmers with whatever they needed, and they would do so in return. I would go and spend my summer holidays there, and occasionally a winter holiday, which was a nice break for mum and dad I’m sure. I would help Grandad with his market garden, and then I would go and help the neighbours too.”
So, both Iain and Kate had positive childhood experiences of farming life, and knew they wanted to do the farming thing at some stage in their lives. Their journey together took a path that eventually found them living, working and researching in the bustling city of Sydney. There was a moment in time, when they were walking along their local yet very populated beach on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, looking up at the massive mansions on the hillside, seeing famous actors on the beach, looking at the flash and expensive European cars surrounding them, when they suddenly realized they wanted OUT. This materialistic, fast consumerism culture wasn’t for them and reflecting back on it, Kate says they just weren’t happy.
“We had a nice life in Sydney, but we were so disconnected, there was no connection to the community. There was a complete and utter disconnection from food, it was about where you ate, not what you ate. People there were so obsessed with image; where they lived, what car they drove, how they looked, it was just consume, consume, consume. We felt very disconnected from that world. We weren’t unhappy, but we weren’t happy…we were just a bit discombobulated”
Iain was feeling disillusioned with the administration of academia, and the ever-growing difficulty in sourcing research funding. “We were looking at SE Queensland, or Tassie. But our connection to Tassie was strong since both of us had been to Uni here. We started looking, and we thought value adding on farm would help keep the business small and to diversify the income.”
So, they found their piece of paradise in Copping on the lower East Coast, and they were sold by the views down to Marion Bay when you head up to the top paddock of the property. Fast forward 8 years, and they have established their two farming businesses: Leap Farm for goat meat and Tongola Cheese for their goat milk products. They found their fit in terms of the enterprise that works for them and their family as well as what works for the land, in order to tread lightly on the soil while they are the custodians. Like so many producers, their journey has involved educating their customers about their methods, their produce and how to eat it.
“We had to teach Tasmanian’s how to eat goat back in 2012, there wasn’t the diversity of culture here that is here now, but there was definitely a willingness to try. Things have changed so much over the last 8 years.”
Receiving the Sprout Small Producer of the Year Award in November 2019 meant so much to Iain, Kate and Erin (their employee), and we talk about why this particular award really validates what they do.
“It has meant the most to us out of anything we’ve received, because it’s peer nominated and our customers too” reflects Iain.
“We looked at all the finalists for the award that year in the email we received, and we were going through the other finalists thinking, oh this is so lovely and we felt amazed and thrilled to be thought of so highly by our peers and our customers to even be included among those other producers in that category of calibre,” Kate says. “Honestly that’s how we felt and we were really happy with being a finalist.”
We couldn’t talk about the Award without mentioning ‘the spoon’. So for those that don’t know the story, bear with me while I give you the background. In all my work at Sprout, I so often hear from farmers that life on the land is hard. It’s really hard. I wanted to find a way to make sure that any winner of this Award could be reminded, at the end of a really hard, wet, cold day, when 10 things have gone wrong on the farm and they’ve only managed to fix 2 of them, that what they do matters. That their effort, their passion, their drive is appreciated by their customers, and revered by their peers. That they felt connected, supported and in a way, that ‘something’ could give them a big collective hug, to be sure they can get up the next day and feel energized to do it all over again. Enter – the wooden spoon. I know, the ‘wooden spoon’ is normally a metaphor for coming last, but not anymore! We at Sprout are mixing it up…pardon the pun. I knew that at the end of a really hard day on farm, someone was going to be standing over the stove, cooking dinner, and what better way to remind them of how amazing they are, than to give them an ‘award’ in the shape of a wooden spoon.
“Especially for me, the week that we got the award, we had lost one of our favourite goats, and something else went wrong. We just had this run, some weeks are just bad weeks and we were in the midst of one of those and we were thinking why are we even here, why are we doing this, what’s the point. Then we got this award, and the spoon is just a visual reminder that what we do is valued by the community.”
Iain reaches for the spoon, and takes it from Kate’s hand. “I think it just gives me a voice” he grins. Obviously, the spoon has multiple uses!
What’s on the horizon for Leap and Tongola? “Gypsy time” laughs Iain. “It’s a wonderful term for when farmers have time away from the farm.”
“In seriousness, we will be reconnecting with all our chefs, supporters and friends, to be sure we can be there for them and provide them with what they need. Keep doing what we are doing, try and improve what we are doing and make sure we have a sustainable business in all senses of that word.”
“Fencing” Kate interjects. Yes, there is always fencing. Life on farm doesn’t change, it’s always on the list!