A frustrated home chef who ran out of garlic suddenly had an epiphany. If he set up a garlic farm he would never run out again. SPENCER FOWLER STEEN caught up with a couple who transitioned from a few plantings in their backyard to a full blown organic farm set up on Victoria’s famed surf coast — a long way from their Melbourne home and the kitchen where it all began
IT’S HARDLY the most logical progression of thought but hey, it takes all kinds to make the world go round.
Take John Olliff and ask him about the day he ran out of garlic.
He went straight from A to Z, bypassing all the points in between when he decided the best way to ensure he always had plenty on hand was to start growing his own.
After all, wouldn’t you think “I had better start a farm” was a logical response if you ran out of garlic?
Or any other product of an agricultural inclination?
Well believe it or not, that’s the story behind the story of Freshwater Creek Garlic.
“I was cooking at home and did run out of garlic, so I nicked down to our local market to grab 10 bulbs, used two, and suddenly thought ‘if they could do that, why can’t we’?” he said.
We being wife Sarah (who did not yet know she was about to become a lady on the land) and John.
Ten years ago their first step was growing garlic just for family and friends as a hobby (although somewhere in the back of John’s mind he saw himself as the next Old MacDonald who had a farm).
About five years ago, as market conditions at John’s work in Melbourne started to deteriorate, the couple (now knowing a lot more about garlic than just eating it — or running out of it) decided to take the plunge and expand their burgeoning backyard garlic into a broader acre business.
“In year five, we made a substantial leap and got access to local farmers’ markets in the area,” John said.
“We just grew it from there.”
Now, the couple produce about eight tonnes of garlic a year, selling the bulk of their produce to a wholesale food market in Epping while maintaining a strong local presence at markets and festivals.
And they’re also conscious about who works at their farm.
John said he was incredibly lucky to employ about 25 people from the Karen and Karenni refugee communities around Geelong to help with planting and harvesting.
“We were at a farmers’ market where we fortuitously met a school teacher involved in their community,” he said.
“We’re very grateful to have their help.”
John said while there wasn’t much difference in taste between different garlic cultivars, Freshwater Creek garlic did have distinctive characteristics.
“Ours has a very strong garlic taste with vegetative overtones,” he said.
“The garlic flavour lasts a long time, and when cooked, it has a very nutty-creamy taste.”
Now they are in the bigger business they occasionally have some big problems — with the bad ones coming out of the sky.
John said rain and pests pose the main problems for John and Sarah’s farm.
“Too little water means we have to find it from other sources, which costs a lot, too much, and your crop drowns,” John said.
Then added he couldn’t remember there ever being such intense changes in weather events as now, recalling how he had 50 mm of rain recently — virtually unheard of in February.
Garlic generally doesn’t go into the ground until May, but John said if such extreme rain had happened then, it could have been catastrophic for his crop.
Airborne raiders — especially cockatoos — can also cause John serious headaches.
“Two years ago, we got absolutely hammered by cockatoos,” he said.
But ever the entrepreneur, John said despite the challenges, and with everything the couple have learnt he admitted expansion plans were now always on the horizon.
He just wasn’t giving away too many details at this time (probably worried the cockatoos might get them first).
“The push around local foods will drive a bit more demand,” he said.
“So I reckon we’ll keep on this path for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a lovely crop and I enjoy people enjoying it more than I enjoy it myself.”
Freshwater Creek Garlic
Sarah and John Olliff
P: 0412 489 752