Around Melbourne, a bunch of first-time farmers are sowing their cloves.
Em Herring has grown garlic once before: in an old tyre on her grandpa’s beef cattle farm in Gloucester, NSW, when she was only 8 years old.
“He said to me, ‘Emily, if there’s one crop you grow when you’re older, it should be garlic’,” she recalls. “It’s funny that I’ve come full-circle.”
Herring is now 25, a tertiary-trained musician living in Northcote, and she’s turning back to the land.
From left, Paul Miragliotta, Emily Connors and Em Herring, with Age photographer Simon Schluter. Credit: Farmer Incubator
The fledgling farmers have each sown 500 cloves, at four different donor farms around Melbourne – in Coburg, Keilor, Ballan and the Mornington Peninsula. They’ll take the crop all the way from seed to market, harvesting in December, and learning about sales and marketing along the way.
“It’s a way to engage people in the city with farming,” explains Paul Miragliotta, from Farmer Incubator. “There are lots of positive things you can do in agriculture, like regenerating the land and growing local food systems. But getting into it is quite daunting if you’re not from a farm, or don’t have much money.”
The 32-year-old is in a similar situation himself, having recently taken his first lease on a small farm in Keilor.
He says garlic is the ideal crop for the experiment: it grows slowly over winter, which eases the pressure for watering; and it stores well, so the farmers won’t have to sell on a deadline.
“We’re also trying, in a small way, to bridge the gap between imported, supermarket garlic and boutique, farmers’ market garlic,” Miragliotta says.
Before Pop Up Garlic Farmers began, he interviewed six experienced growers for their tips. Number one is to avoid a “weedy nightmare”, he says. “Weeds are like street fighters and garlic can’t compete with them.”
Emily Connors hasn’t grown garlic before. She grew up in Sandringham, without a veggie patch. She always shopped at supermarkets and had no understanding of her food, how it was grown, or by whom. “I went to an all-girls Catholic school and I don’t remember a seeing a farmer at the careers nights!” she laughs.
She now works at CERES in Brunswick East, often labouring at its Harding Street market garden in Coburg, where she recently sowed her first garlic crop. The site has been a market garden since the late 1800s, when Chinese migrants began farming on the banks of the Merri Creek.
“I feel like I’m part of that rich tradition,” Connors says. She hopes the coming months will help steer her towards a market garden of her own.
“We have a food system dominated by companies which are profit-driven, rather than focussing on nurturing people and land,” she says. “This a perfect way of countering that system, and connecting our community with our food.”