Edible flowers proving a success for this island farm

Simone Jelley’s career as a niche organic horticulture grower really began in 2011 when she discovered that a weed she was trying to control in her corn and tomatoes was selling on the internet as an edible herb seedling for $5.50 per tube.

The “weed” was Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica). Not only is it aromatic and edible but it has been used for thousands of years in India and China for a raft of pharmaceutical benefits including:

  • Improved wound healing
  • Improved mental function
  • Improved blood vessels, and
  • Anti-inflammatory activity.

Simone became curious as to what other rare and unusual edibles were on the island, conducting extensive research on the net.

Her business, Pretty Produce, now grows a large array of edible flowers and herbs on acreage on Lamb Island for weekly delivery to discerning chefs in the Brisbane area and stockists such as Fresh Sensations, Jensen’s Market Suppliers and Suncoast Fresh.

She runs taste tours once a month on farm to educate the public about what can be eaten and offers a high tea showcasing what foods you can make at home with the produce. She also sells seeds and seedlings.

“I lost my preconceptions about what is food. I now view everything as edible or non-edible. If I can eat this flower, can I eat this leaf? It’s been an amazing adventure. There’s a vast array of edibles.

“Of course we are a very conservative culture when it comes to the small number of species we are comfortable consuming. Many people cannot psychologically get past the fact that flowers are to be given to you for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. Yet kids love trying new things. They tell me my flowers taste like ‘some weird lettuce’.”

Last year Simone’s business, Pretty Produce, won a Gold Medal for horticulture in the From the Earth category in the delicious. Produce Awards.

Simone’s business is right on target when it comes to the current trends of foraging and wild foods. She praises adventurous chefs such as Jake Nicholson and Anthony Donaldson from the Black Bird Bar and Grill and Andrew Astby of Thomson’s Reserve restaurant in Brisbane who embrace local farmers and producers and showcase their produce.

“They pride themselves on using only fresh seasonal produce, foraging for whatever they can find from local producers and making something amazing,” said Simone.

“A shout out, too, to Glen Barrett at Wild Canary Eats who is featured at the Regional Flavours festivals and who showcases local seasonal food. They call him the Real Deal, and he is.”

At the beginning of last century, Macleay Island and other islands in Moreton Bay were home to productive farms supplying fruit and vegetables to the Brisbane market. However, before coming to Macleay Island, Simone had been a professional photographer for 25 years working in advertising and had lived in suburbia. Then her husband, Dave, decided to build a house on the island and wanted a kitchen garden for the family. Simone had never tried her hand at growing produce and only had limited picking and harvesting experience working in the stone fruit orchard of her brother, Justin Fawdon’s farm (Fawdon Orchard) at Severnlea, south of Stanthorpe. That all changed and now Dave helps Simone run the small farm.

Her photographic skills, too, have stood her in good stead when she began posting photographs of the edible flowers and weeds she was growing on the social media site, Instagram.

“Instagram is by far the one and only vehicle on social media that works for business, particularly food business,” she said.

“It is pretty much dedicated to food, chefs and growers. The simplicity of the format makes it very easy to connect with other people using an easy photo tag system.

“I got four industry enquiries straight away after posting photographs of my flowers on the site.

“On the first day I was contacted by Graeme Twine of Suncoast Fresh who was supplying produce to restaurants like Noma Pop Up in Sydney run by Chef Rene Redzeppi which offers ‘locally sourced, foraged fresh ingredients’. He also knows Jamie Oliver who also champions seasonality.”

Simone said that early on she was contacted by Dr Luke Holtham at Uniquest at the University of Queensland who is involved in research on food security and came to visit the farm out of personal interest.

“Luke inspired me with his predictions that produce will one day be ordered online and delivered by drones,” Simone said.

“I also think that V Commerce will have its day: virtual reality tours of farms where the customer can see exactly how and what things are grown without stepping out of their living room!”

Expansion of the farm on Lamb Island is limited by available water.

“The islands have always had issues with water and now we’ve had four years of drought. We have a bore which takes water from the aquifer that runs down Toowoomba Range and comes out at the end of Lamb Island. We get a trickle after it has been used by businesses in Lockyer Valley and Brisbane so we are trialling different ways to get the most out of the least amount of water.”

To provide some insurance for her business, Simone’s 1.5 hectare farm is now part of a network of small growers called the Certified Naturally Farmed Brisbane and Surrounds Group which champions seasonal produce grown locally using ecological farming principles.

“If you are stepping out of the conventional supply model and building a direct supply of fresh produce to restaurants and cafes it is important to come together with a community of like-minded growers to cover each other’s bases,” she said.

“A grower at Samford might produce a similar flower or leaf to me as a deliberate insurance policy. They might get a localised super storm cell which knocks out their property but we get only 2 mls of rain. Or vice versa. The important thing is that we can still supply the contract.”

Pretty Produce is currently growing zinnias, cosmos, and amaranth baby leaf, a selection of mustards, wild fennel and edible weeds including Purslane (portulaca oleracea).

To book a tasting tour that will broaden your food palate while you enjoy beautiful Lamb Island in Moreton Bay visit www.prettyproduce.com.au

Pretty Produce were featured in the February 2017 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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By Chris Walker