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Kate Washington of Vive knew she had a big decision to make before she accepted the Willunga Farmers Market’s 2015 Young Farmers Scholarship grant.

As she weighed up the realities of small-scale farming, the sort that involves long, physically demanding hours, irregular income, and limited resources to do the job profitably; she took a deep breath, and decided to follow her dream. It set Kate on a career path that’s changed her life – and what she hopes, is contributing to sustaining and valuing the traditional methods that support our precious food systems.

Having already invested her own money into irrigation, seedlings, seed and compost, the scholarship assisted Kate to take the next step towards growth as it covered costs for business insurance, key hand tools, water bills as well as improving irrigation.

“The grant allowed me to operate at a scale that could turn my market garden into a viable business.” Kate explains. “This has been achieved” and in less than one year “I now have reasonable part time income because I was able to expand and grow more food crops.”

“I’ve developed an efficient irrigation system and mulching helps to reduce evaporation. I grow crops that aren’t water greedy – such spinach, chard, French breakfast radishes, zucchinis and potatoes. Watermelons actually improve their sugar content through water stress, making them beautifully sweet and flavoursome.”

A typical week for Kate involves one full day of harvesting and two full days of labour which includes weeding, clearing crops, preparing beds, fertilising, planting, building infrastructure such as more than 100 meters of hand dug irrigation and a shed.

Kate’s farm is located on a picturesque block that was once a vineyard in the heart of McLaren Vale’s farming district. The block is very small, about three quarters of an acre.

“Because I don’t have a lot of land I have to find ways to draw an income more regularly. I’m working towards increasing my supply of baby vegetables because they allow me to continually rotate my crops. I’ve also found that baby vegetables are in high demand from my customers. I’m experimenting with heirloom, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, baby kiplfler and dutch crème potatoes and smooth skin beetroot.” Kate explains. Especially popular are the French breakfast radishes “they always sell out.”

Under the scholarship program “I was mentored by Annemarie Brookman who was fantastic because she gave me the confidence to develop my own crop plan and other farm management systems. It’s vital to get the diversity of crops and rotational planting right at the beginning because it helps with the biodiversity of the block. A planned and effective system confuses the pests and reduces the amount of soil born diseases, and from an organic perspective there is less need for sprays. Sometimes sprays are necessary so I use organic based sprays such as garlic spray, which I make myself.”

“Currently I’m planting and growing cover crops – fava beans & clover. They fix nitrogen and at the end of season I will cut them down and feed them back to the garden as mulch. It helps build up the organic matter.” Kate informs me.

Kate has also learnt how to work with the sandy soil, which allows her to get plants into the ground earlier than other local growers. “The soil temperature is important because it determines if a seed will germinate”.

Mentoring in brand development and effective social media presence benefited Kate’s business enormously. “My mentor, Malcolm Leask’s advice was invaluable and he was also incredibly generous. He reinvested his fee to employ a promising young graduate graphic designer to develop my visual brand and it looks fantastic!”

Sitting next to her farming commitments, Kate also works as a garden specialist with the Stefanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program at Woodend Primary School. “It’s full on but I love it and it takes the financial pressures of full time farming away”. She works with about 125 primary school children every week, teaching them all about seasonal planting, building their own compost piles, companion planting, seed propagation and harvesting techniques.

Kate recalls her previous life, achieving a Masters in Environment at the Australian National University while working as a public policy officer for the federal Department of Agriculture. “I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’ve learnt to value hard work, resilience, simple living and farming has made my passion for growing food even stronger. In the end, I wanted to grow food where the method for growing was as important as provenance, but the biggest reward is that people are eating this precious nutritious food.”