‘Do What You’re Good At’ with Matthew Evans | Yanget Farm, Geraldton, Part 2

Cover photo Matthew Evans relaxing before speaking at Yanget Farm

September 15, 2023 | Yamatji Noongar Country

Keep Water in Your Soil

We reconvened after lunch on Yanget Farm, approximately 28 km east of Geraldton. Rod O’Bree shared they purchased Yanget farm in 2005 and shortly thereafter endured two years of drought in 2006-2007. After this drought he recalled they had a 23 mm rainfall event and he watched the rain literally wash away in minutes off his farm, nothing was retained by the land. He decided he needed to do things differently to keep future rainfall in his soil. He put in structures and changes low in the landscape aimed to keep water from washing away and taking valuable topsoil with it. They learned plenty about building structures that won’t wash away when it rains.

Rod O’Bree speaking at Yanget Farm

Fast forward to 2022 and they had a 73 mm rainfall event. This time the water didn’t run off the farm. All the rain was held by the soil. Rod shared their property has changed so much that when it rains the water now takes days to weeks for creeks to start to flow. Precious rain that used to wash away in minutes, now takes weeks to leave the farm. There is now lots of water moving under the ground rather than over the top of it as it did years ago. Their efforts have been rewarded and their soil has improved as its water absorbing capacity increased. Now, their farm remains greener for longer into the dry season.

Rod says “Water is critical to life. It is important to keep every drop of water that falls on the land. Water that washes away doesn’t help our plants.”

Matthew Evans spoke up to describe the life cycle that Rod worked to establish on his farm. “Plants need water to grow. Holding more water in the soil causes more plant growth by extending the growing season. More plant growth causes more carbon in the soil. This creates better water infiltration into soil to cause more plant growth.* This increases plant diversity and soil biology to produce more nutritious food for us and more nutrient-dense meat from cows or sheep that eat the grass. All of this is better for us.”

* 1% more soil carbon helps soil hold an extra 16 L of water per square metre, or 160,000 L per hectare.

Agritourism

Experience from Fat Pig Farm

We spent the rest of our afternoon discussing agritourism. Matthew Evans shared his experience running a ‘paddock to plate’ restaurant on their property, Fat Pig Farm, near the Huon Valley in Tasmania. He said they didn’t really think it through beforehand and set it up as a tourism venture, chiefly because they thought there would be an interest in food. Matthew is a chef with a high profile from the series the ‘Gourmet Famer’, and his wife, Sadie, an actor, could carry plates, was good with people and could remember names from her years as a school teacher. Simply put, they could grow, cook and serve food. They had everything they needed except a building. They built a restaurant and advertised on Facebook and people came. “Our aim was to grow as much food as we could from our farm to feed the people that came. We had to bring in flour, olives and on occasions some butter when we couldn’t produce enough of our own.”

Matthew Evans speaking on his experience with agritourism at Yanget Farm

They budgeted $120,000 to build the shed and commercial kitchen only to soon discover this would only get them power and sewerage, and no building. Reluctantly, they had to borrow more money to build. Matthew shared his local council had “conniptions” over their idea to cook food where it was grown. Laughing, as he reflected, they’d actually opened illegally for four months before their kitchen received council approval.

Initially, they opened 1 day a week to serve 46 people using as much food from their farm or as locally sourced as possible. Tasmania is somewhat less affluent than other parts of the country and with their farm only a 45-minute drive from Hobart, their goal was to attract as much money as possible from the mainland to provide local jobs and boost the local economy.

Taking into account wages, utilities, insurance and other costs, they needed to earn $135 per person just to breakeven. They charged $85 per person and hoped their customers would buy wine and books to make up the balance they needed to earn. “We were told that if we continued this way, we’d go broke, so we began charging $135 per person.”

“Our challenge was to create an experience for our customers to justify the charge. We told them what to eat and drink and gave them a farm tour.”

Even with a set price and set menu within two months they increased their fee to $150 per head. Matthew said “We didn’t want to waste any food and at the same time honour the ingredients we grew. One big change we implemented was ‘no decision making by the customer.’ ” He shared people are busy and appreciate not having to make decisions especially on holiday, so they gave them this experience. In the experience they gave they wanted to instil several ideas with their patrons: 1) how to grow food; 2) to think about food; 3) to nurture ideas for their farms and 4) how to cook food.

They served 10,000 meals which is more like 20,000 ‘normal’ meals per year from their 70-acre farm. They started with 1 lunch every week and ended up serving 2 lunches per week. From this they turned over $8,000 per day open. At the end they charged $210 per head. Of this $140 went on wages, $20 towards tax and the $50 leftover was used to buy drinks for their meal. They had all sorts of customers. Caravaners, in particular, were really ‘cashed up’. Matthew shared “often our customers would spend more in the valley around us e.g., for accommodation, than they spent at our farm.”

He continued “we couldn’t do more than 2 meals a week because we couldn’t grow enough food from the farm. If we opened 7 days a week it would totally change the experience we offered.” At first, they opened on Fridays and then Thursdays and Fridays. Occasionally they swapped to Friday and Saturday and found this attracted younger people with more money that had jobs Monday – Friday.

Matthew shared their aim was to not be trendy. They learnt they needed to be clear with their 1) platform e.g., Facebook advertising; 2) message – e.g. grow food and 3) philosophy – e.g., within the farm. They decided the experience for customers, what to charge and provided a level of certainty. If they were successful, they’d bring others with them. “If we did well others in the community would also do well and they would for instance, look after the more vulnerable in our community. We’d create a flow-on effect into our community.”

Seven years after opening they closed their doors. Their model was flawed, it was too dependent on them. Sadie greeted everyone and remembered their names. Matthew was the chef with the high profile and guests wanted to spend time with him. Their problem was their staff couldn’t step into their roles. Their 19 staff required management which added more complexity to the situation. As Matthew shared “we closed to re-asses. We also needed to consider boundaries. The farm is also our home and people wandering around can be stressful. Parking left to customers by themselves is a mess. We created a farm to fork purpose-built restaurant that relied on our personalities. We are re-assessing other models that will work for us and our farm.”

Frances Pollock from Wooleen Station shared boundaries are an issue for them too. They have an 8-bedroom homestead. One bedroom is for them and the other seven are for guests. “Managing personal and private time poses challenges with guests and their boundaries. Guest peer through our windows and meeting their expectations is hard. We, like Matthew, have a profile and guests want to spend time with us. Set strict boundaries and don’t be afraid to set the experience.”

What would you do differently if you had your time again?

I would definitely consider cheaper options. I spent $80,000 on double-glazed windows yet, two fireplaces would’ve been much cheaper. Longer-term planning would also have been useful. For instance, thinking about what the building might eventually become once we closed the restaurant.

Diversity is great, however, it’s stupid to do it all yourself. Get others to do things you want that you can’t do yourself. Swap wine for pork or vegetables for saffron from neighbours. Sharing enterprises is positive. Get someone else to make you cheese with your own milk.

“Give people a local experience”

Following afternoon tea we continued with an interactive agritourism discussion. Matthew recounted a story from years ago in a café in New Norfolk, Tasmania. The cakes on display were proudly flown in frozen from Queensland three times a week. Unbelievably, the next week they flew in cakes from Italy. He shared “I don’t want to eat cakes flown in from Queensland or Italy, I want a local experience.” He recounted a historical story of the Pigeon Sisters from the same region in the early 1900s that was on display at the hotel he was staying at. They had a small shop and a Jersey cow. For a few months of the year they sold scones with raw Jersey cream and raspberry jam and when in season, fresh raspberries and Jersey cream. That’s all they did. Matthew loved their attitude “we know how to make scones, we milk a cow and it’s raspberry season. Give people a local experience. Do something that you know how to do. Maybe it’s something meaningful to you and you can do that where you are, possibly with your neighbours.” Matthew shared another example of a successful café in Melbourne without a chef. This is smart. Their business does not depend on a chef so think carefully about what you do and what you actually need.

What makes a good brand?

Word of mouth really counts in hospitality. The key is how to get people to leave and talk about you. Half our customers are by word of mouth or posts on social media.

Hayley from Illegal Tender Rum in Springfield spoke up. “For us it’s about staying true to why we started in business. Having staff that promote our passion is really valuable. Producing a great product is critical.”

Melissa Finlay from Finlay’s Kalbarri shared “we have a uniquely distinct restaurant with literally no floors – it used to be a fish processing plant. The fish is as local as possible. Word of mouth is critical.”

“The experience is priceless”

Matthew spoke up “the experience is priceless – you can’t get this anywhere else. The nature of the business is unforgiving and you can get bad public press or poor reviews on social media. You need to leverage everything you’ve got that is positive.”

Richard from MEEDAC was invited to share part of their story. MEEDAC is an Aboriginal Community Development Program. In Morawa they have a 1-hectare shade house they use to grow vegetables, as organically as possible, like tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers and melons with many varieties of each, e.g., they grow 14 types of chillies. Their produce goes to the Karara Mining site and to supermarkets. Rod O’Bree who incidentally also runs a food shop in Geraldton takes the ‘seconds’ to sell to locals.

Matthew emphasised it’s important to know the farmers to access all the food they grow when it’s rejected for ‘stupid reasons’ like the Pink Lady apples are too pink; the capsicums are not red enough or the carrots aren’t straight enough.

Matthew was asked for a final comment:

“What you’ve got is brilliant enough. You don’t need anything else. Give people what you have here: a culture, an experience they can’t get anywhere else. Do what you’re good at. If you’re good at lamb, do lamb. It’s not a blank canvas rather it’s a simmering pot – you need to take the lid off.”

Our day concluded with a beautiful meal prepared and cooked on an open fire by local TAFE chefs and students from Geraldton. As the sun went down, we enjoyed a tasty meal of local produce including Yanget lamb, jacket potatoes, olives, flatbreads, salads, dips and cheeses. Washing the meal down with refreshing beer from Finlay’s with lively conversation around an open fire was perfect. It was a magical way to conclude Matthew Evans’ tour of WA.

The 2023 Matthew Evans Regional WA Tour is funded by the Western Australian Government’s Agriculture Climate Resilience Fund, supported by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in a collaboration between Perth NRM, RegenWA, the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, Certified Organic Biodynamic WA, Gathered Organics, Loose Produce, Merredin & Districts Farm Improvement Group, Wheatbelt NRM, Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, Midwest Food Industries Alliance and Galloway Springs.