Five years ago Beverley Exley was an inner-city dweller whose green thumb extended only as far as her tiny herb and lettuce garden under Sydney’s flight path at Petersham. ‘’I was very proud of those herbs,’’ Exley laughs as she prepares to pluck a pear from one of her many fruit trees on her two-hectare farm just outside of Berry, a charming rural town on the NSW South Coast. She underwent a dramatic life-change in 2008 with daughter Antonella, then seven, when she left behind 9-5 corporate job in the big smoke with one goal in mind – to live simply off the food she grew.
She was inspired by American farmer, Joel Salatin and his model of sustainability on his farm called Polyface in Virginia, particularly the technique of using animals to do what they do naturally to clear and fertilise soil for food production. ‘’I support the slow food movement and wanted to improve the quality of what we ate by reducing the food miles, so what better way to do that than grow it yourself,’’ says Exley.
She couldn’t have come to a better part of the world. Thanks to an inspired like-minded community, Berry probably has more food growers and artisans per capita than any other town south of Sydney. Exley discovered it in the 90s during a family holiday when they stayed in a cottage north of the town. ‘’This property is actually just across the road from where we holidayed and when I saw it, I knew it was the place for me,’’ she says. It is a compact, ultra-modern farmhouse designed by the previous owner using rolled steel and plenty of glass to draw in the emerald countryside.
Exley, an artist in her spare time, also liked the generous wall space where she could hang her collection. She soon set to and planted a wide variety of fruit and vegetables which now provides 80 per cent of her and her daughter’s diet. This includes four varieties of oranges, apples, lemons, lemonade, peaches, pears, and lime. There’s also a smattering of blackberries, wild raspberries, blue berries and now even a small almond crop.
More recently she has become interested in the trend of foraging for wild plants that offer a high level of nutrients like dandelion, and stinging nettle which she swears perks up no end her green smoothies. Exley relies on her chickens and her neighbour’s cows to fertilise her orchard and vegetables. But the most diligent worker in the gang is mini pig, Tammy who roots out the weeds. ‘’Tammie is a bit of a character who likes her food to the point where I’ve caught her climbing the fruit tree,’’ laughs Exley.
Her original vision, despite its simplicity, was life-changing but has it measured up to expectations?Physically she looks half her 48 years which she puts down to the demanding farm work, disciplined lifestyle and yoga.‘’I start every day at 5.30am so it’s not a life that accommodates a lot of socializing or hangovers,’’ she says. Spiritually, it has delivered in spades. ‘’It’s the combination of the surrounding natural beauty and the animals…it makes you feel centred and contented,’’ Exley says.
But like any lifestyle, it has its ups and downs. ’’When you produce your own food, there are plenty of variables that get in the way,’’ she says. ‘’The drought, for instance, brought a plague of rats that just recently munched through a crop of fully-grown broccoli, leaving nothing behind,’’ she says.
And then there was the mystery of the flattened spinach not far from her front door. ‘’I solved that one when I came out one day to find a two-metre diamond python lazing in the sun using my spinach as a lounge chair,’’ she laughs. Bev says what keeps her engaged is the fact she is learning every day, a new skill like fencing, or a new way to doing things better.
But despite her success with her crops she is not interested in going beyond her goal of self-sustainability.She says a significant spin-off from the tree change has been watching her daughter live a near idyllic life that many in this day of technology overkill would love for their children.
‘’Antonella has a pretty good life here,’’ she says gazing around at the property and the old caravan that is a 12-year old’s cubby house. “She has just finished her primary years at a lovely country school and enjoys helping out around the farm. ’That’s not to say we don’t love the buzz of Sydney, the galleries, the cafes, the people, but I know we’re always happy to be on the road and heading home.’’