An Epicurean Harvest

‘We used to camp here before we had a house in Blackheath,’ says Hayden Druce as he, his partner Erika Watson and their two dogs tumble out of their van at Blackheath Lookout, in the Blue Mountains of NSW. We’ve just spent the afternoon at the pair’s organic vegetable farm down the road, nibbling our way through rows of borage flowers, baby radishes and kale.

Facing due west with views over the Kanimbla Valley to rolling hills beyond, it’s as spectacular a camping location as any. But to be here at the golden hour – as the sun makes its way through banks of soft clouds, highlighting the spring green of the farmland below and turning the dams into shimmering jewels – is simply mind-blowing.

We wander down some stairs on the edge of the escarpment to a hang gliding launchpad. Content to be land-bound, we open some beers and talk about life in the hills, farming, and love.

Hayden and Erika own Epicurean Harvest, a one-acre organic farm supplying delicious and often curious vegetables to high-end restaurants in Sydney’s CBD like Quay, Bennelong, Rockpool, Sepia, Bently, and occasionally to local food co-ops when produce is in abundance.

Epicurean Harvest was born in mid 2013 of a desire to create a farming business built upon sustainable and organic practices. The pair had recently finished studying horticultural science at Sydney University and most of the people from their graduating class were getting jobs with large chemical companies and agribusinesses. ‘We were looking for a workplace that practiced what it preached but couldn’t find one,’ says Erika. ‘We didn’t want to compromise our morals for a dollar, so we decided to start our own farm.’

The pair leased some land, and committed to doing their best to make a go of it. There was no money behind their venture, just a passion for farming, plants, and doing things properly. They had also not long started their relationship. A new love and a new business venture are individually challenging but combined, well, Hayden and Erika are a brave pair.

At the time they launched the farm they were both still living in Sydney. Hayden would drive 2 hours each day to Blackheath, work on the farm, and then return back to the big smoke each night. Later that year they moved to the mountains, just three weeks before the devastating bushfires that swept through the area. The fire came within a few hundred metres of their house.

We ended up doing a delivery to Guillaume at the Opera House during the fires. Our van was packed with our entire life, our three new chickens, and produce for the restaurant,’ Erika reminisces. ‘We stopped under the Harbour Bridge so the chickens could have a look at it!’

The pair still have the well-travelled trio of birds but according to Hayden ‘they’re frantic and they hate us.’

Unlike their relationship with the chickens, Hayden and Erika’s love for each other is clearly reciprocated. They met whilst studying at university and there was no romance until their last year, when they went on a field trip to New Zealand. ‘We fell in love,’ says Erika. ‘It was a bit awkward and stressful as we were both in long-term relationships.’

Hayden just said ‘I love you’, and I said, ‘That’s too much!’

On returning from New Zealand, Hayden broke up with his girlfriend and started campaigning for Erika’s heart. ‘I worked really hard for a while. I bolt into change without too much consideration, whilst Erika is much more considered and takes time to decide things,’ he says. Hayden then went to study in France for a year, and during that time Erika broke up with her boyfriend. She decided to go to Europe for six weeks. ‘I ended up staying 6 months in France with Hayden and we got together,’ she says. The rest, as they say, is history.

As we stroll around their farm, it’s clear Hayden and Erika know what they’re doing. Our conversation bounces between soil science terminology, the practicalities of setting up irrigation systems on a slope, and general botanical excitement – they’ve got 50 little saffron bulbs growing, one wasabi plant, Chinese artichokes, a few different types of horseradish, beetroots that look like carrots, and plenty more weird and wonderful edibles marching across their patch of hillside. Their farm is their laboratory, and they love it. ‘This is the best job in the world,’ says Erika. ‘We love being outdoors and working for ourselves. Our life is intrinsically linked to the environment, and it’s so exciting when new plants pop up – our job satisfaction is excellent!’

Of course, though, it’s not all beer and skittles. Farming is a wonderful, yet occasionally harrowing, job. There are always things to be learnt.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt since starting the farm is that you can do your best and things can still fail. It’s not because you didn’t try hard enough, it just happens. We’ve learnt to be OK with this,’ says Erika.

‘Being in the bush makes me feel clean in the heart,’ Erika adds, as the last rays of sunlight leave for another day. We all agree, perched insignificantly on the edge of an ancient escarpment, immersed fully in the landscape. As the sky turns a ‘terrifying Mordor red’ according to Hayden, we pack up and head back to civilization. I’m shivering – it’s about 3 degrees in the mountains – yet I’m absolutely warm inside.

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