It’s been a gold medal year for Newcastle Greens.
The small business, owned and operated by Dylan Abdoo and Elle Brown, won a national gold medal in the prestigious delicious food awards for their micro greens and Calvin Lamborn snap greens, which they had been growing in their small but efficient greenhouse tunnels and backyard garden at Waratah.
They have since expanded, building a garden from ground up on a property at Cooranbong, which is producing its first crops. While the plot was a garden more than a decade ago, they’ve added about 10 cubic metres of organic compost and formed rows of garden beds over the last year.
The property has water available from two dams. It stayed frost-free this winter and enjoys a bit of shade from tall trees. The plot is protected by a solar-powered electric fence, although outsmarting birds has proven to be a challenge.
On a recent Sunday the couple spent seven hours harvesting crops from their prized Calvin Lamborn snap peas - which they are now supplying to top-end Sydney restaurants.
Abdoo has been doing some picking by headlamp in the early morning hours, to make the deadline for meeting his delivery truck at Freemans Waterhole at 4am. He doesn’t mind: he knows his product is reaching its destination as fresh as possible.
“There’s lots happening,” Abdoo says. “We haven’t stopped. We started last week with Quay with Peter [Gilmore]. It’s a massive account for us, a bit of a game changer.”
Newcastle Greens still supplies 1400 punnets of microgreens a week sourced from their Waratah greenhouse tunnels to nearly 80 Newcastle clients, including many fine dining establishments like Muse, Restaurant Mason and EXP.
The Calvin Lamborn snap greens were supplied exclusively to Muse for the first season, but now, in the second season and with national stature, they have being picked up by Sydney restaurants, with Quay leading the way.
Newcastle Greens is also servicing the Icebergs group, Bentley, and Tetsuya’s (which they have a longstanding relationship with).
Our game has always been quick things, like lettuces, that we can quickly turn soil over, get them in and get them out.Dylan Abdoo
Besides the Lamborn peas, they are growing produce such edible flowers, two varieties of kale, minutina, baby carrots, radishes, lettuce, broad beans, chickweed, and sheep sorrel at the moment.
While they admit it is a learning process, their methods are paying off, with top quality produce that grows quickly and naturally.
The peas are a bonus, and good farming, as they are nitrogen fixing, giving the soil a boost.
“We use a broadfork,” Abdoo says. “All you do is open the soil.”
The large implement takes plenty of effort from Abdoo as he jumps on the frame of the fork tynes, then leans back to force the fork to push up soil, breaking it up, one row at time after a crop is picked.
“What you are doing, you are not destroying the soil, you are opening it up, then we go along, all the compost and everything, rattle that into it. Then tilt it. The tilt only does the top two inches of soil,” he says.
The result is fast and efficient.
“We don’t bring in any tractors or anything in,” Abdoo says “It’s just a form of gardening, it’s almost like no till. Everyone brings in rotary tillers and all it does is destroy the microbial life of the soil, destruction of everything.”
Abdoo is open about following the trail blazed by Jean-Martin Fortier, the Canadian farmer who has energised a new generation of small farmers with his methods, which he has explained in his best-selling book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming.
”Our game has always been quick things, like lettuces, that we can quickly turn soil over, get them in and get them out,” Abdoo says.
The Lamborn peas will run through October, and then they will switch to cucumbers, of which they grow a range of exotic varieties. There’s always something new to grow, there are always customers looking for the next big thing, if it tastes good.
Standing here in the garden, on a warm spring morning, the couple is enthusiastic and keen, not showing any wear and tear from the furious pace of growing a small business, running two locations far apart with different needs and demands.
Yet, the surest thing about them is they know they are in a competitive environment. And the key for them is driving the market, not chasing it.
“We’ve got what everyone wants,” Brown says. “We’ve got what everyone else doesn’t have. If they can get it anywhere else, they will.”
For instance, the sheep sorrel.
“It’s a wild weed we make for our chefs,” Abdoo says.
“Taste it,” he says as he hands me a leaf. “It’s zingy, lemony, citrusy, a wild weed, found in Scandanavia. It’s used by Rene Redzepi [Noma, in Denmark]. You don’t see a lot of it around. I brought seeds back from Melbourne.”
Or wild garlic capers.
Newcastle Greens has been selling wild garlic flowers for a while, but, of course, there is value in the capers, too.
“It’s a byproduct of the wild garlic flower we pick, Abdoo explains. “As they start to finish, they go to seed, as all plants do, and inside the actual flower is a little caper.
“And if you pick it before hardens up and the seed forms, you can salt them. They are the size of a radish seed – about 4 matchheads. Beautiful, salted, on a bit of meat, delicious . . .
“So when we pick the flowers we’ve got the capers going into another container. So the whole plant is getting sold. Everyone is taking it on board. It’s something nobody else is really focusing on.”
Like a great sporting team, or a great business, Newcastle Greens always has another idea in the making.
“By the time everyone else jumps on board,” Abdoo finishes on the wild garlic caper discussion, “we will have had our run. Same as the sheep sorrel. We will be on to the next thing.”