It's a farm life

As the industry goes crazy for fresh, local produce, Three Blue Ducks member Darren Robertson reveals the realities behind running an on-site farm in conjunction with a restaurant.

The 'Three' Blue Ducks have become five
The 'Three' Blue Ducks are actually five (Darren Robertson is second from left)

Why did you decide that the Byron Bay venue would be part of a farm?
The idea of having some land to work with had been with us for some time. Just having a small kitchen garden in Bronte taught us so much. Having a few chooks, bee hives, learning about compost and worm farms - it really opened up a whole new exciting world for us all and definitely impacted how we thought about food. We were lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to open a space on a working farm in Byron Bay so we jumped at the chance.

What difference does it make to the business to have some level of self-sufficiency?
We are not self sufficient at all, and it’s really important not to fool anyone that we are. We do have a great deal coming off the farm (thanks to the hard work of farmers Cass, Kirsten, Josh and any help they receive), but we only scratch the surface. We heavily rely on other farmers and producers, without whom we would not survive.

All the produce grown on site is used in the restaurant or sold in the produce store.
All the produce grown on site is used in the restaurant or sold in the produce store.

What were the biggest logistical challenges of making the farm a reality?
Opening any restaurant presents it’s own set of logistical challenges be it, toilets, septic tanks, pluming, parking etc. The farm had to deal with all these challenges. We rent our space from the farm so most of the big issues were in place and being built when we arrived. So our main challenges were really the same of as most restaurants, configuring the space for how we wanted to operate. Sourcing, products, equipment and machinery that were are happy with; finding potential suppliers; building a team from scratch, training and maintaining some kind of sanity!

Do you face challenges of inconsistency or lack of supplies during busy periods?
We did when we first opened. We gave ourselves a rule that all fruits, veg, protein and dairy had to be from within 500km of the restaurant, be spray-free and produced in a sustainable way. So to start with we had no access to decent oysters because of the flooding in the area. There were no onions, no avocados and a whole array of ingredients we had been accustomed to using, which was great in a way because it forced us to learn about the area and get creative with writing the menu! After many arguments – sorry, discussions – we decided to lift the 500km rule. We want to support our local farmers and suppliers as much as possible but also there are some amazing producers all around Australia whom we also want to support and showcase.

What standards have you set for produce?
Our fruits and vegetables are seasonal and spray free, all chickens and pork are free range, and all our beef is pasture-raised. Our seafood is from Australia using sustainable species, and there’s a whole list of standards we are addressing because they’re valuable to us, but not to be preachy or righteous. It’s important to draw a line in the sand with what’s important to you as business owner and do everything you can to see it through – it’s not always easy.

What difference does having the farm make to the customer experience?
People come to the farm and have the opportunity to walk around and see the whole thing. There are regular farm tours open to the public too, run by the farmers that work the land, so people get to learn more about the farm and what it produces. They then get to try the food for themselves at our restaurant or produce store.
We have noticed that people are now a lot more inquisitive about where food comes from and how it is produced. [The farm] is a little step towards opening that dialogue, but if people just want to come and have a decent meal and don’t want to know about the intricacies of a working farm, then all good.

Their fruits and vegetables are all seasonal and spray-free
Their fruits and vegetables are all seasonal and spray-free

How do you educate people on the produce and your approach?
We convey the information via our newsletter, our social media, signs around the place and, most importantly, through our staff. We have a pretty good staff training program, so when we get asked about something we can often answer with a true understanding of why we are doing what we do. If we can’t, then we’ll find out. The project is evolving at a rate of knots; we are barely one year old and are all constantly learning about the whole thing. It’s great that people can take away an insight into where food is from, but above all we want a space where people can relax, have fun and feel a sense of belonging.

In what ways could others incorporate home-growing on a smaller scale at their venues?

  • You can do a lot with a small space. A herb garden is the first thing; a window box or a vertical garden are good options.
  • If you’re going to bother growing stuff, its worth getting amongst herbs that aren’t always around – may be go for a mint box with five varieties of mints, or different varieties of thyme. It’s a nice little way for the chefs to learn about the subtleties of other varieties.
  • You can sprout your own seeds for salads – this requires very little space.
  • Check your roof top – you may have access to a huge space that you’re not utilising yet. If you’re lucky enough to have access to your roof, you could have beehives or grow herbs, fruit and vegetables.
  • If you have no access to roof or garden, you could at least manage what’s going into the bin. A worm farm or compost bin is a good place to start. At least have a recycling program – it’s heartbreaking to go into kitchens and see chefs still putting all waste into the same bin.

Do you think restaurants serving home-grown produce will become the new norm?
I think chefs are becoming even more involved in making food from scratch. There’s been a huge shift even in the last 10 years, with more chefs going back to basic fermenting, pickling and preserving foods. [People are] smoking meats, making cheese and having a lot more knowledge and control with what is in the food they cook. If you want a true understanding of what food is about, then you need to look further than the kitchen. I think chefs will want to learn more about growing food.

What do you wish you’d known before you started?
To be honest there’s so much we would’ve done differently, but I’ve never been one to dwell on what you should’ve done or should’ve known. Restaurants are incredibly rewarding in many ways, though not always financially. They rarely come without the odd curve ball. I absolutely love this place. A lot of people have worked really bloody hard to make this thing happen and I couldn’t be prouder.