Brooklands Free Range Farms

A Regenerative Family Farm

It took Natalie Hardy and Jonathan Hurst 5 years of research to find the land suitable for their regenerative family farm.  The land had to tick a lot of boxes – size, affordability, proximity to Melbourne and good soil.  Jono hailed from a big family farm in New Zealand but had been working in hospitality in Australia.  It was a pivotal moment while waiting for a bus home one day he saw a poster on the side of the bus stop.  It was a graphic picture of a sow cramped in a muddy sow stall feeding piglets.  Confronted, he thought, ‘there has to be a better way.’  It reignited his desire to get back into farming and do it ethically.  Nat had a veterinary background and was trained in equine herbal medicine, so farming was a great fit for both of them.  Eleven years on Nat, Jono and daughter Ruby have been working their farm now for six years.

What they do

They specialise in rare breeds, farming Berkshire Pigs and British White Cattle. The stock is ethically born and raised outdoors on 270 acres of owned and leased chemical free volcanic pastures in Blampied.  They have 16 breeding sows, 2 boars and approximately 100 growers; and 16 registered British White beef cows, a bull and around 40 head of growers; all grass fed. As a family affair, they only outsource to the butcher and small goods maker.  

Progress and Prizes

Nat and Jono sell directly to the public, starting at Farmers Markets as the best place to get their produce out there.  Fortunately they both love talking to people as they need to be at the markets in person.  Initially intended it to be a slow growth model, people loved their product so much it has motivated them to do a huge amount of hard work to build the business.    They are very time poor, with as little as three days at the beach for annual holiday.

It seems they have moved really fast, but in truth they started with a lot of research, an empty paddock and a lot of hard work. Already they have won prizes and media attention for their efforts.  They were delighted to be featured in food icon Alla Wolftasker’s latest book.   They do farm tours with Wesley College every term, who in turn give them 1.5 hours help on the farm.

A fairly impressive milestone for a family of three and 6 years of hard work. 

Soil, Animal and People Health

They really concentrate on healthy soils as the basis of their farm – looking after microbes, bugs and fungi in the soil.  They see soil health as an imperative that underpins animal health, which in turn contributes to people’s health.  They don’t spend money on chemicals or fertilisers and work to improve pasture with biodiversity, aiming to get as many as 16 different varieties of pasture and different root structures.

Making the farm drought proof is important and they hope that when they eventually move on others will carry on the tradition.

Financial Viability

Nat and Jono are paying off a farm mortgage.  So far, every spare bit of cash has gone back into the property.  The most recent edition is a watering system that will save them 2 hours work per day in summer.  After years of carting water they are starting to see light.  Comparative bliss!

They recognise the importance of futureproofing themselves financially as well as environmentally and are mindful to be prepared for unexpected events and not to overstretch themselves.

Benefits and Challenges

There is so much they want to do but it all costs money, so it is about doing bit by bit.  They would love to be mortgage free but that will have to wait.  Insurances are crippling and regulations are mainly designed for large scale commercial agriculture and are constantly changing.

They have received a lot of help from the Victorian Farmers Market Association (VFMA) to work with regulators. For example, to sell at a farmers market they need to be able to use a registered refrigerated vehicles. Even finding out who is responsible for these decisions is a really challenging issue.

They had a rough trot when Jono’s dad passed away after being sick for 18 months. While Jono was overseas with the family Nat ran the farm.  There were a lot of missed farmers markets and lost wages.  They were grateful to be able to keep going and receive good advice and help from the Rural bank.

Best and worst

Nat is reminded that, ‘Every day is pretty special up here, living a life in the country doing what we love doing and providing good healthy food for people and animals, and soil, bread from Twofold Bakehouse and Veggie box from Angelica Farm.’  They remember this on the days they are up at 4.30am organising the food trailer or putting straw in a pig shelter in wild weather or preparing for bush fire and extreme weather events.

Advice to newcomers

It is important to do the research and get clear on what you want.  Dream big but go in open eyes and financial backing.  Get the location and land right.  Start young!  Network with other farmers who are doing what you want to do. Nat and Jono really love what they do, or they wouldn’t be doing it.  It was their dream and see the benefits of being in a massive food hub so close to Melbourne, surrounded by people like themselves.