The Gypsy Farmer
When Kaycee Simuong graduated from university, she walked straight into a role as an environmental consultant for an engineering company. Working in both the Melbourne and Newcastle offices, Kaycee assisted with flora and fauna surveys, environmental monitoring and writing reports for environmental impact assessments. “There were some great perks,” she reflects, like “getting to travel around the two states, finding cool plants and animals, a steady pay cheque and working with a diverse range of amazing people.”
But Kaycee became disenchanted with corporate life. She disliked working on projects with slim budgets and unreasonable timeframes that challenged her personal ethics. “So many projects involved clearing of vegetation and habitat for developments and over time the guilt and frustration built up. I felt like I was just a cog in the wheel of a flawed system,” she says.
I wanted to do something that would truly help improve the planet, but at the time I wasn’t sure what that was.”
Kaycee soon quit her job, bought a van and hit the road. Her travels took her to Transition Farm, an organic and biodynamic farm on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, where she realised she could make a living growing food. “I’ve always been really into food – growing it, cooking it and eating it, and I’ve always fantasised about having a farm, but I had never really considered farming as a viable career path,” Kaycee says.
She returned to New South Wales and started her own market garden business, The Gypsy Farmer, on a small share-farming plot near Port Macquarie.
After spending one of the hottest summers on record living in a caravan, Kaycee jumped at the chance to move her farm to a new plot – with a house – in the Nambucca Valley.
Kaycee loves her new life as a farmer. “I feel like I have the most important job in the world – feeding people fresh, nutritious food grown with love and in harmony with nature.”
Can you describe your market garden operation
I’ve recently relocated to a new farm at the top of the Nambucca Valley, about 40 minutes inland from Macksville on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. A friend and I have been building a market garden over the last month and so far we have cultivated about one third of an acre on a beautiful river flat alongside the Nambucca River. The market garden has 25 meter long raised beds planted with a diverse range of seasonal vegetables. We have also just planted 10 beds of garlic (about 300kg) on another river flat which will stay in the ground until harvesting in November.
What do you grow? And where do you sell it?
I grow whatever I can that’s in season and doesn’t take up too much space or take too long to grow. I like diversity because it brings people to my farmers’ market stall, so I probably have about 20 different vegetables and herbs on the go at any one time. At the moment my staple crops are eggplants, tomatoes, capsicum, kale, basil, zucchini, cucumbers and carrots. Currently I sell produce at Bellingen Producers Market, Kempsey Riverside Market and Grown and Gathered at Pappinbarra. I also offload excess produce to Kombu Wholefoods and Bello Food Box in Bellingen when possible. In the near future I am hoping to do a local veggie box scheme the feed the Nambucca community.
I can’t imagine putting chemicals on plants I’m going to feed to people. Or any plants for that matter. It seems completely wrong and I wouldn’t sleep at night! I grow edibles because I want to feed people nourishing, healthy food and grow it in a way that doesn’t harm our planet. I really believe that growing organically (whether certified or not) is the only way forward.
How much did you know about market gardening when you started Gypsy Farmer? Have you done any study or training?
I studied environmental science at university and although I didn’t do any specific agricultural subjects, my degree gave me a thorough understanding of environmental systems, which is really important for farming. Over the years I did a bit of volunteering on farms in Australia and Canada, but it was very sporadic and brief. The only real market gardening experience I’ve had was a three-month internship at Transition Farm on the Mornington Peninsula, which I did at the start of 2016. I’m lucky that I learnt from some of the best…they produce so much food to feed their community and are really inspiring.
The last eight months have been a very steep learning curve – starting up my own market garden, farming solo and learning how to run my own business all in one go has not been easy, but I love it!
Describe a typical day…
Well it’s pretty hot right now so I get up at about 6am to try and beat the heat. If it’s not too hot I’ll do some yoga, but if it’s going to be a steamy one I get out in the garden right away while it’s cool and start harvesting. Right now, I’m harvesting cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes every two days. After that it’s TLC time – weeding, watering and fussing about. By 10-11am it’s too hot to work so I retreat to my caravan to keep cool (which is basically impossible to do in a caravan in the middle of summer). I cook breakfast with my produce, do some life and business admin and sometimes have a siesta or a dip in the creek. The temperature usually drops at about 4pm so I get back out there and water, sow seeds, transplant seedlings and just potter around until it gets dark at about 8pm. Then it’s time for dinner and bed!
What do you enjoy most and least about market gardening?
Market gardening doesn’t feel like a job to me…I get to be outside in nature all day, watching things grow, listening to birds, feeding people and being my own boss. It’s such a wholesome and rewarding lifestyle. I couldn’t ever imagine going back to a 9 to 5 job.
As much as I love it, it’s also a tough gig. Right now, wallabies, possums and bush rats are driving me up the wall! They love to come to my garden at night and munch on things… it can be pretty heart-breaking going to the patch in the morning and realising a crop has been demolished. I’m trying different things to keep them out but I’ve only had mediocre success. Unfortunately, pests are part of the parcel and are always going to be a problem!
How do your daily tasks change over the year?
I’d say that a lot of the daily tasks are the similar throughout the year, but the intensity changes. Spring and summer are so busy – getting all the seedlings prepared for the spring and summer season is pretty intense. Then the plants really pump when its warm so harvesting and weeding have to be done daily. In autumn and winter as the weather cools and the days get shorter, plants start slowing down. Although I can grow all year round here, the pace is much more chilled. There is more time to relax, reflect on the previous year and prepare for the upcoming season.
All images supplied by Kaycee, and shot by Dan Doherty