Buena Vista Farm: A Tree & Sea Change

Picture this: You wake up early, get out of bed and look out the back door of your farmhouse. Rolling green hills tumble towards the ocean, studded with happy cows, free-range pigs, and framed by an abundant vegetable patch that will supply most of your daily sustenance. Sound half decent?! It does to me, and like Fiona Weir Walmsley, her husband Adam Walmsley and kids Henry, Matilda and Ivy, I would quit city life in a flash for such a setup!

Fiona, Adam and their family live on a property called Buena Vista Farm, situated on the outskirts of the small town of Gerringong in the Illawarra region of NSW. Just two hours south of Sydney, it’s a sleepy little place, with a long history of dairy farming and agriculture.

Fiona’s family has lived on the property for over 150 years – her father’s grandfather started working on the land in 1859, buying it 20 years later. Since then, it has been handed down through the family, and it was this connection that drew Fiona home.

We came back to Gerringong because if I hadn’t, the farm would have been sold,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t bear the idea of not being able to sit on the water trough or lie in the paddock or pick the lilies that have grown next to the windmill forever, and I wanted our kids to be able to do that too.’

In 2011, Fiona, Adam and the kids packed up their Sydney city life and headed south with the intention of building a small, sustainable farming operation that would support their young family. They started off with chickens – both for meat and eggs, and have since expanded into bees, grass fed beef, free-range pigs, geese, ducks, a market garden, and a commercial kitchen in which they make a range of food for sale and also hold cooking and farming workshops.

The workshops – covering a range of topics from fermenting, making dairy products, market gardening, growing and roasting coffee, and raising chickens – are something Fiona is passionate about. ‘Sharing these skills is one of the highlights of what we’re doing here at Buena Vista Farm’, she says. ‘Through the workshops, I hope we can support more livelihoods and actively encourage and foster young farmers.’

This sense of community and connectedness lies at the heart of all that goes on at Buena Vista farm. Though they’ve only been farming for a few years, their approach and their passion is infectious – Fiona and Adam are leading and encouraging a new bunch of young farmers into the local, non-industrial food system – creating real, whole, and ethical produce.

As well as their passion for creating a sustainable farming operation, a big drawcard for moving back to the farm was the opportunity of working with Malcolm, Fiona’s dad. ‘Mum has always said that Dad is connected to this farm through the soles of his feet, and I wanted the chance to learn how to farm the land from him’, she says. Whilst Malcolm isn’t officially involved in the farm on an operational level, he’s intimately involved with the daily goings on, and miraculously appears just when Fiona or Adam need him, or before they even know they need him!

It seems he, also, is enjoying guiding and being entertained by the young farmers. Fiona says:

Dad loves nothing better than enjoying a good red wine on his verandah whilst watching some fiasco unfold – the piglets get out or the kids leave a gate open or an enormous drum of raw milk rolling off the trailer and down the hill, narrowly missing the windmill and cows, and landing in the spring!’

Whilst there’s a certain romance to leaving the big smoke and living off the land, the reality is that farming is extremely hard work, regardless of location. Holidays, says Fiona, are uncommon, and the pay isn’t great. And then there are the vagaries of the natural world to deal with – last year Fiona and Adam lost 200 chickens to a fox attack, and their tomatoes were all struck by fruit fly. But what keeps them going are Fiona’s family, and the supportive web of people around them. ‘Sometimes things don’t work’, Fiona says. ‘But the harder we struggle, the tighter our community pulls around us.’

Waking up every morning to 18 acres of rolling green hills, the vastness of the ocean on the horizon, and a few hundred chickens chirping sounds rather nice to me. And, whilst running a small, sustainable farming operation is extremely hard work, its clear Fiona and her family think so too. But she’s not taking it for granted. ‘I know how incredibly lucky I am,’ she says. ‘It took leaving, travelling, and growing up to realize this place means everything to me.’

This story was originally published in Green Magazine, issue #45