“🌻 Sunflowers : Some little ones..”
The daily ‘state of the flowers’ update on Farm & Co’s Instagram page is testament to their incredible popularity.
As young girls pile out of cars on the weekend to pose for selfies amidst the flowers, the farm abounds in prettiness.
It’s easy to see Farm & Co like this: a picturesque display farm with fields of waving sunflowers, lush produce on display and a trending café to feed visitors. Yet it’s far more than this…
Farms are hard work, yet they bring a unique lifestyle. They not only bind families together, but sometimes they tear them apart, many teenagers leaving farm life to take up careers in the city, and economic realities too often threatening the sense of ‘wholeness’ that farmers enjoy.
For the family behind Farm & Co, Michele Stephens, her partner Ian Kettle and their children, there have been ups and downs.
“We hit a turning point where we faced the reality of farm life head on. We sat down around a table and everyone was honest about it,” Michele told us on our recent visit.
“The kids, who were teens at the time, hated the farm and felt that we were working for nothing. But it’s heritage as well. We came to the point where we decided to turn the farm around or to sell it,” she said.
“In looking at ways to ‘value add’ to the property, the kids came up with the idea of a café. It made sense, as it was a way of utilising everything we did from paddock to plate,” Michele added.
Rather than selling through farmers’ markets, the couple had already started a roadside stall, experiencing enough success to graduate from a shade sail to shipping container to cool room.
But the question remained: Would anybody come to a café that was five minutes away from Kingscliff Beach?
That question was answered one day when the sunflowers were blooming.
“Mum! Come and look at this!” Michele’s son pulled her across to the window to check out a group of teenage girls getting changed beside their car in preparation for a ‘selfie session’ amongst the sunflowers.
While the sunflowers going viral may have gained Farm & Co cult status, the café and shop are a coming together of several philosophical influences: Michele’s down-to-earth childhood in Cooma, her professional life and interest in nutrition as a B. Health Science-trained paediatric nurse, the couple’s personal interest in vegetarianism gained through facing health issues, and their study and practice of organic farming since purchasing the 52-acre former avocado farm in 2002.
It took huge commitment from the couple to make the investment, not only in capital works, but also labour, with Farm & Co’s employees going from 5 to 26, including their children, who work in the business.
Making the most of the already rich soil of the Caldera in their market garden, the soil is enriched even further through organic practices (such as planting a diverse range of crops, rotating crops, using natural biological and environmentally friendly inputs, and conserving natural ecosystems) as a building block for healthy, delicious produce.
Ten years in the making, the farmgate café-shop, opened in May 2019, has been purpose built to be both functional and beautiful, the dining area spilling out to veranda and grass alfresco areas where picnic tables overlook the farm.
That’s where we sit, dining at lunchtime, watching children walking with parents around the crops, lying in hammock swings beneath the trees, checking out Hank Not Ham, Peppy and Bean, the three pigs beyond the fence with Chickpea and Sprout, the calves.
“Who knows the farmer? Who grows your food?” The questions are answered when we buy vegetables at Farm & Co. All the farm’s produce is not only sold through their own shop, but also used in the café.
There, it’s a farm-to-fork experience in its purest form, the breakfast and lunch menus of about a dozen dishes each showing off the work of not only the farmers but also Head Chef John Wearne (ex-Slow Food restaurant Rasoterra Bistrot, Barcelona) ably helped by Peruvian Carlos Salazar.
“John has brought an Asian style of dining that he loves – bao, cold soups (such as the smoky Strawberry and tomato gazpacho we enjoy for lunch) and almond soup,” Michele tells us, “as well as his take on other world classics.”
“The café is complementary to what we do,” adds Michele, and it’s plain to see. Rather than ‘foods that replace meat’, this is a wholistic plant-based menu including eggs and cheese (notably from the local Byron Bay Mozzarella Co) in some dishes. Tortillas from Dona Cholita are filled with pulled jackfruit, black beans, avocado and pico de gallo; Mushroom ragout presents three types of mushrooms on a next of crispy Sebago potatoes; Roast fennel and blue cheese tart sits in a short pastry crust, while for a different take, Potato salad is dressed with soy milk, oil and dill, Dijon mustard and capers.
For families, Farm & Co, just across the border is a top day excursion. It’s a family farm come market garden presented as a whole experience, a grassroots operation by a real family without a lot of fanfare.
“Everyone needs to grow something,” Michele tells us, and if there’s a takeaway that’s it: We need to grow and connect with the best food we can, even in home gardens if we can, without harmful chemicals, to nourish and build healthy bodies and communities.
Go visit Farm & Co. It has something there for everyone…even sunflowers!
529 Cudgen Road, Cudgen, NSW Ph: 02 6693 2196
Open: Café: Wed-Sun 8-3pm; Store: Daily 8-4pm