A unique Byron Bay farming initiative combines culinary flair with country fare.
The Farm is possibly the most exciting venture to hit New South Wales' most exciting town in more than a decade, maybe two. The 34-hectare community farm, complete with the far north coast's best new restaurant, is located just a few metres from the busy main road into Byron Bay. In the 34 years since my family first moved to this hippie haven, I've never seen anything quite so ... well ... hippie. And it all began with a missing little girl and the dad who found her; the father who could never quite leave his childhood years behind.
It's an unseasonably warm May morning when I visit The Farm. Fields of sorghum sway in the soft northerly breeze, while heritage piglets roll about in rich, chocolate-coloured mud. It's early Monday morning, but already scores of visitors are eating breakfast in an al fresco dining area that overlooks the green mountain ranges west of town, which meander all the way across the horizon to Mount Warning, the region's tallest mountain.
Owners Tom and Emma Lane are keen to show off their property, which has been open to the public only since March. Heir to the Oroton fashion dynasty, Tom Lane decided to leave the city and its trappings behind to escape to the country with his four young children.
Not long after moving, their (then) three-year-old daughter Matilda went missing on the family's property and they searched frantically for her. "We found her in the vegie patch covered in dirt and with beans she'd picked tucked in her shirt," Tom says. "She didn't look distressed, she looked completely content.
"I'd grown up around my family's farm [on school holidays] and I always felt a strong connection with the land and I wanted to share that with my kids. Then we thought, 'wouldn't it be great to share it with the whole community?' Wouldn't it be great to let everyone have a closer connection with the earth since that's what this area's supposed to be about?"
Now young farmers who can't afford their own land have an opportunity to lease small blocks and grow produce (including for the property's restaurant), while visitors are given free access to roam the fields and to visit the livestock.
The Lanes had originally planned to run their own café on the property, but decided to put it out to tender. Through mutual acquaintances, they contacted Sydney's Mark La Brooy, part of Bronte's highly successful chef collective, Three Blue Ducks.
La Brooy is waiting for me on a seat by the open kitchen. One of his four business partners, Jeff Bennett, walks across to us holding a glass of wine, wearing a wry smile.
"Try this," he tells me. "It's gewurztraminer, from a farmer in Clunes (20 minutes' drive south-west of Byron Bay); he brought it to us and said we should try it."
I sip. "It's good, isn't it? And it's 100 per cent organic. The guy grew it on his farm; no one else has ever sold it," Bennett says excitedly. The Byron Shire has no history of wine cultivation, but then the chefs have been discovering new things every day since they uprooted themselves from Sydney.
"We get local farmers knocking on our door every day selling us local produce," he says. "And if it's good, we'll buy it."
For these five young cooking icons, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm is the realisation of a farm-to-table culinary dream. "It's been tough, we scratched up what we could and worked like crazy to do this," La Brooy says. "It's our dream project, but it means we don't run a restaurant in the traditional way. Eventually we won't go beyond this region at all for produce. No one was doing this kind of thing around Byron on this scale before."
Three Blue Ducks takes a hard detour from your standard food fare. Menus change regularly – it just comes down to what the chefs can get their hands on.
After lunch I make my way to The Farm's yoga studio for a 90-minute Vinyasa class overlooking the sorghum, the doors open to catch a breeze that smells ever so slightly of pig manure. The Farm also has an artisan wholesale bakery on site and a florist selling local flowers, some grown on the property.
Across the other side of the busy main road into Byron, building has begun on a fancy new hospital. Behind that, the green fields will make way for housing for the elderly. Previous owners of this block of land tried for years to gain approval from the council to develop it as a housing estate, but thankfully it's just the pigs, the chooks, the cows and the crops who've moved into this chunk of Byron.
Five Blue Ducks is open for breakfast and lunch Monday to Thursday; breakfast, lunch and dinner Friday to Sunday; see threeblueducks.com.au.
Stay in the heart of Byron Bay at The Atlantic Byron Bay; see atlanticbyronbay.com.au.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism New South Wales.