On the winding drive to Timbarra Farm, the temperature drops, the air moistens and the scenery turns a healthy green. Surrounded by mountain ash forest, there is a serenity to the isolation. We are greeted with warm smiles by organic farmers Chris and Helen Brock who live and work from the farm with their two children Lily and Giles.
Both Honours graduates, Helen studied Botany and Zoology and Chris Conservation and Park Management with Honours in Science.
The couple met in Darwin, and spent a lot of time ‘out bush’ on fauna and flora survey trips where their love blossomed. The family moved to Don Valley six years ago for “a lovely property with some bush, some paddocks, good soil and water.” Helen tells us, “We were probably an unusual customer for a real estate agent who is used to promoting the number of bedrooms or garage size. Our first questions were, ‘What is the soil like and is there a natural water source on the land?’"
As our tour of the 50 acre property commenced, we were struck by just how green everything was, especially coming out of such a hot dry summer and autumn. “It’s at least 4 degrees cooler on the farm than in Healesville – 20 minutes away” Chris explains. Amazingly, the property can experience areas of unique microclimates. “The other day we were walking from one paddock to the next and as we came out of the dividing forest, it was raining in the next.”
Within five minutes of being on the farm we were eating figs off the tree, so delicious it was as if their ripeness had peaked the moment they
were pulled from the branch. To the untrained eye the first sets of beds went unnoticed. Plants that looked overgrown were actually kiwis left
to branch out and grow freely or blackberry weighed down with fruit. Though a commercial venture, the property doesn’t have that appearance, feeling more like a village farm. The plants grow naturally in their own time and in some cases die back, break down and compost the beds for the next seeds to be sown. Organic in the true sense of the word.
Spirits were high on the farm after an early morning birthing from their sow Jenny, a three-year-old Wessex Saddleback. Helen tells us,
“This breed became extinct from their country of origin (UK) with the loss of smallholder farming and the intensification of the pig industry, which concentrated on growing only a few breeds. It had to be reintroduced there from Australian stock. The survival of this breed relies on the smallholders and consumers who appreciate flavoursome pork raised by smallholders.” Lily and Giles were up at 4.00am as Jenny began to give birth. Sitting on a log by the tin shed they radioed updates to the house via walkie talkie. Unfortunately, not all the piglets made it.
“That’s just nature.” Helen says, speaking from experience, “It changes our plans but we have to adapt.”
A big part of the Brock's farming business is the raising of pastured chickens. Chris and Helen buy a breed of meat chicken called a Cobb.
At one day old they are brought to the farm, raised for two weeks close to the home before being carried out to pasture. Incredibly fast growers, they stomp about on big strong legs, foraging happily, until they’re dispatched at eight weeks. The Stables at Stones kitchen team fell in love with the flavour of Cobb meat and have had it on the menu since first introduction. Executive Chef Hugh Davison recounts, “We were introduced to Timbarra Farm by fellow Cobb farmer Patricia of Misty Valley Farm. When our demand grew to more than Patricia’s supply she put us in touch with Chris and Helen. That simple community engagement has changed the way we source and write for our menus. It’s opened up this world of fantastic produce and now we have this special direct relationship with the two farmers.”
Through thick shrub our tour continues. Chris leads the way along a narrow track till it parts to reveal a beautiful secluded paddock bordered by tall forest. Mist sits on the peaks of surrounding hills, the landscape reminiscent of tropical hinterland. The older chickens who have been moved from their coop, peck about happily on contained pasture.
Chris and Helen show us a trial patch they’ve been working on. “The area needed some love.” Helen tell us. “Soil preparation started with ploughing, then we took a sample of the soil for assessment at a lab to gives us an idea of the fertility of the earth. Determining the nutrient content, deficiencies and pH level of the soil provides the understanding we need to prepare the ground so it’s perfect for what we want to grow.” Taking the time to prepare the soil has paid off, the couple proudly dig up big potatoes and pull beautiful beans off stalks for us to enjoy as we walk through the rows. The farms water source comes from the natural spring. “The irrigation took some planning but was relatively straight forward to put in. Besides maintenance costs we have no water bills.”
Every Saturday you’ll find Chris at the Healesville Organic Farmers Market selling from the back of his ute. From fresh produce and special extras like home made jams to foraged mushrooms and chestnuts. The farm has a loyal following of organic devotees that extends to weekly vegie boxes – a growing movement amongst conscious consumers across Australia. The curated packs feature seasonal veg and some fruit, along with essentials like herbs, garlic and onions. Most customers are families from Little Yarra Steiner School where the Brock’s two children attend.
“We bring a lot down to school where families pick them up. We also have locals collect their box direct from the farm, just as Hugh does.”
Timbarra Farm are now the exclusive supplier of vegetables for The Stables at Stones kitchen. Hugh writes each week’s menu depending on what is ripe and ready. “When I go to pick up my weekly veg box for home, I ask Chris what he’s got. We’ll walk through the beds and he’ll just pull stuff out for me to taste, it’s fantastic. It couldn't be more direct and I get so excited about how we can use the produce in the kitchen.”