It’s a rare person who can seamlessly transition from high-flying television and movie producer to garlic farmer, but Sally Ayre-Smith has done just that.
After producing the acclaimed TV series SeaChange at the peak of her career, Sally and her husband Marcus Skipper left it all behind to start a new life in a little-known part of the coast. Nine years later, their two-acre Macleay Valley farm ‘Sweet Water Farm’ has produced over $600,000 worth of garlic – a figure Sally is happy to share in the hope of inspiring people to take up the “noble profession” of certified organic small-acre farming.
Sweet Water Farm owes its name to the property’s location on the Macleay River at the point where sweet freshwater meets brackish tidal flow. Nestled in the Sherwood Valley only 15 minutes from Kempsey, the garlic farm looks out across the river to a patchwork of fields shadowed by blue mountains – a vista that, for Sally, evokes memories of a childhood spent on an expansive farm in East Africa, where she would wake to see giraffes grazing in front of her home and hippos bathing in the nearby river.“I loved growing up in Africa,” Sally says. “When we inspected this property, I immediately looked out across the river and could just imagine spotting all those beautiful animals. It has the same feel.”
While Sally has always longed to be part of an intimate community and return to her roots on the land, it was when Marcus was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 that the couple decided to seize the day. Sally spotted a tiny advert for a “patch of dirt” and they found themselves driving up to the Macleay Valley.“We’d never heard of Kempsey so had no idea what to expect,” Sally says. “When we got to the property, the agent was smart enough to drive us all the way down to the river. We were speechless when we saw it. I turned to Marcus and said, ‘Is this it?’. He looked at me and said, ‘Yep, this is it’.”Five weeks after inspecting the property, the couple were living in a tent — a far cry from their upmarket digs in Sydney. Marcus, now in remission from cancer, built a cabin to live in temporarily while he created a riverfront, hand-crafted dream home with high-ceilings, an open fireplace and African-inspired murals. As the cost of living rose and building expenses began to add up, they realised that a relaxed retirement wasn’t an option. So, with zero farming experience and plenty of enthusiasm, Sally threw herself into the task of learning how to work the land.She invited an expert out, who told her to try growing “garlic, blueberries or marijuana”, and enrolled in a TAFE horticulture course. She and fellow students grew garlic to apply the theories they were learning and, when the course ended, Sally purchased all the students’ produce – 100kg of Russian garlic – and Sweet Water Farm garlic was born.
After the farm began the certification process and produced its first a crop in 2008 Sally was faced with the task of learning to market the product.
“I got dressed up and drove to Sydney and Newcastle with some beautifully packaged samples and basically started door-knocking,” she says. “I visited top chefs, restaurants and retailers and put energy in developing great relationships with our first customers. We then ensured we always delivered and never let them down and they are still our customers today.”
Sally adds, “It is so important for growers, particularly of premium fruit or vegetables, to market their products in person. There are so many farmers growing beautiful garlic. The reason why we’ve been so successful in marketing ours is because of the relationships we’ve formed.”
Sweet Water Farm organic garlic now produces an average of seven tonnes of garlic per year, an admirable feat for a dusty patch of land in a relatively undiscovered part of NSW. The sense of achievement is not lost on Sally, who now devotes much of her time to helping local farmers transition to organic.
Over the past few years, this passionate farmer has helped three neighbouring farms make the transition to organic (“they got the bug!”). Sally also works closely with the Macleay Valley Food Bowl to promote the region as a place where organic fruit or vegetable farmers can thrive. She is also spearheading the development of an organic distribution centre in Kempsey and plans to create a local farm school where students can study and be paid to contribute their skills to a working farm.
“We’ve lovingly worked to create beautiful soil and to be certified organic and we’re in the position where the farm is running pretty smoothly, so we can use our time to help other farmers transition to organic and to promote the opportunities for agriculture in the valley,” she says. “This is what I love. We know anyone can do it, because we had no skills and we did it!”
Does she ever look back longingly at her successful city career?
“Never!” She says. “I’ve had the richest ten years of my entire life. Before the farm, I had an amazing career and made 20 movies and television series’, but nothing compares to this. There’s something important about living on a piece of land and being part of a community, and you don’t get that feeling in the city. It’s about having to think about the little things, like putting my neighbour’s bin out when he’s away. The people around me enrich my life so much.”