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Island flower farm sells direct to top-end chefs

Pretty Produce owner Simone Jelley runs an edible flower farm from Lamb Island.
Pretty Produce owner Simone Jelley runs an edible flower farm from Lamb Island. Andrea Davy

IT started with a weed.

A tricky weed that grows rampant on the Moreton Bay Islands off the coast of Brisbane.

Scientifically, it's called gotu kola centella asiatica, but to first-time home gardener Simone Jelley it was just a tedious pest she was fighting to control.

While battling to keep the pesky plant out of her freshly grown tomatoes and corn, the photographer-by-trade was also dabbling in growing interesting edible flowers, and one night, when Googling new products, she noticed the very same weed that was giving her grief was also for sale online.

"It was in a tube and being sold for $5.50. The exact same plant,” she said.

This moment sparked an "edible epiphany”.

"It really started me on a journey of, well, if I am fighting this, what else am I fighting that is edible?”

She was soon filled with wonder wherever she looked - the possibilities were endless.

"I was looking at ornamental plants, looking at trees, shrubs ... I thought, 'if I can eat the leaf, can I eat the flower?'.

"If it's pretty and it tastes nice, is there any way I can start to grow it where I can amplify that to make it more herbaceous, or can I get a smaller form of the flower?”

With more research Simone was led further down the garden path, and started to sell some of her produce to locals on the islands as a small business.

Fast forward to the present, Simone's venture Pretty Produce, which sells a range of charming edible plants directly to top-end chefs in Brisbane, has won a national award and is picking up more customers as months go by.

This week the Rural Weekly had a tour of Simone's small farm to learn how a former newspaper photographer, alongside her geologist husband David, paved the trail for a new edible flower industry from their island home.

Pretty Produce is based on Lamb Island, off the coast of Brisbane.
Pretty Produce is based on Lamb Island, off the coast of Brisbane. Andrea Davy

ISLAND HOME

The ferry from Redlands Bay to Lamb Island, where Pretty Produce's 2ha farm is located, takes about 20 minutes.

Along the way you pass stops at Russell and Macleay islands.

While they look like your run-of-the-mill residential hubs, with mostly retiree-type folks on the boat over, the island chain has a rich farming history.

During the 30s, there were more than 70 farms running across the Moreton Bay Islands, which all prospered on the rich red soil that stems from a volcanic ash fall.

When driving across her small property Simone explained not all of the islands were completely covered in the high-quality soil, but she was lucky her small plot had a thick, "delicious” strip of it.

Hibiscuses, zinnias, pansies, as well as more than 60 different leaf varieties, now paint a vibrant landscape on her block.

However, Simone admitted she was not a natural green thumb when she first started out. Back in 2010 her husband David had completed their dream home on neighbouring Macleay Island and Simone started her very first home garden.

"I wasn't good at it at the beginning,” she said.

"I didn't understand the holistic relationship of soil, plants and pests.”

However, Simone's love for science and natural curiosity, as well as a knack for online research on her smart phone, quickly resulted in her skills blossoming.

At the same time Simone was mastering the art of growing 300 tomato plants (she went big from the beginning), her brother Justin Fawdon, who owns stone fruit farm Fawdon Orchard, at Stanthorpe, was looking to diversify.

"So their box price hasn't changed in 20 years, and yet all the other costs have gone up: labour, fuel and services.”

As a foodie photography lover, edible flowers were popping up on Simone's social media feeds, so she suggested to her brother he should try and plant them as a diversification project.

"However, after he looked at edible flowers and tricky garnishes and things like that, it became evident to him it wouldn't work because this is the kind of product you need a drip-free, spray-free environment,” she said.

"The produce is pulled off and arrives as is. It's not sent through a process of wash.

"So I started thinking, 'well why can't I do this?'.”

It was during this time she was experimenting with plants when she had her "edible epiphany” and plunged further into different varieties at her home garden.

By 2015 Simone had leased two small farming blocks on neighbouring Lamb Island, one which already had a bore she could use for irrigation.

Simone, who still loves photography, was capturing her gardening journey with her camera. As her business began to bloom, she flooded social media with gorgeous posy pictures.

It wasn't long before Pretty Produce caught the attention of big buyers in Brisbane.

Lamb Island has rich red soil.
Lamb Island has rich red soil. Pretty Produce

PADDOCK TO PLATE

Suncoast Fresh co-owner Graeme Twine, who is known as the "produce hunter” to those in the food industry, was quick to arrange an island trip to see Simone's work when her pictures caught his eye.

"He is quite well known for finding the tricky gear for the top chefs,” Simone said.

"So when he was out here looking around he shared some pictures on his Instagram ... from that, I got a call out of the blue from a guy called Ryan,” she said.

"So we were talking about fishing and boats and how he loves the islands and would love to buy a little place out here one day, and I was wondering to myself, 'who is this guy?'.

"Then, he said he owned a little restaurant in Brisbane and asked if I would mind dropping off some samples.”

The eatery turned out to be Esquire on Eagle St in Brisbane - Queensland's only three-hat restaurant that's owned by Ryan Squires.

"He is an absolute genius,” she said.

Ryan liked that Simone's unique produce challenged him and his best chefs, and provided complex flavours and textures for customers.

It was through Esquire Pretty Produce was nominated for the Delicious Produce Awards, which it won a gold medal for in 2016. Simone still meets up with the chefs who are using her produce once a week.

"These direct supply arrangements benefit both us, and the buyer,” she said.

"The benefits for them is that they tie into an emotional arrangement with us.

"We try our damn hardest to supply the very best because we know them. I have seen pictures of their kids.

"You don't want to let them down.

"You become part of each other's lives. In a business sense, you form an alliance.

"The benefit for us is that we get direct access to what they need in their businesses.”

Example of some of the edible flowers Simone Jelley from Pretty Produce dishes up.
Example of some of the edible flowers Simone Jelley from Pretty Produce dishes up. Pretty Produce

NEW SKILLS

Simone's photographic talent and training has been essential in spearheading her business's marketing.

Social media sites like Instagram were vital in getting her access to buyers, she said. She capitalised on the fact her property was a unique, pretty farm run on an island landscape.

"It's not too hard to sell, it's a flower farm,” she said.

"When you have an understating of what your produce is, and you can shoot it, direct it, and brand it with your own heart and passion, that's something that is such a useful tool.”

Her bubbly personality and deep curiosity for nature also shines through on the site.

As well as professional photos of things like mini-edible flower punnets, she posts videos of herself talking about the marvels of a good summer season, which has turned her neat rows of plants into "jungles”.

While her marketing has been somewhat reflective of herself and her own farming journey, she feels she has learned an array of skills that will help other primary producers.

"In farming it has been conventional that there are avenues laid down for generations of how produce is grown, and put through distribution channels,” she said.

"But I can see a day where there will be more choice for producers on how they can distribute their produce.

"I can see through this project how I can go out to other farmers and help them find better choices.

"Ask them what they actually enjoy growing, what grows best for them on their land and if they want a direct supply agreement.

"Farmers have been growing the same thing for some time, but if someone came to them who said, 'hey, I know somebody who can design what you're doing into a value-added product.' Surely they would jump at that chance.”

Example of some of the edible flowers Simone Jelley from Pretty Produce dishes up.
Example of some of the edible flowers Simone Jelley from Pretty Produce dishes up. Pretty Produce

GARDEN LIFE

The community on Lamb Island loves that Pretty Produce has brought some fame to their patch.

Last week, Simone's pump broke down and she was surprised to see residents arriving in droves to lend a hand. She also has help from hard-working volunteers and describes the farm as something that has brought the community together.

As it's mostly Simone running the business on her own, the farm cycle runs on a tight schedule. Sunday to Monday is picking, packing is completed by Monday and Tuesday, then by Wednesday, Simone's ute has been booked on the noon ferry to head to Brisbane, where deliveries are made.

"On Thursday I jump into my car on the mainland and I go and chat to chefs. I do up little samples and get their advice and feedback on things that I have coming up,” she said.

Then, Friday and Saturday is for planting and strategising.

When I pointed out to Simone that the cycle did not allow time for a day off, she just laughed.

"I have a chap here, and it's his goal in life to make sure I have a day off when my husband comes back from his fly-in-fly-out roster,” she said.

"So, now, every two weeks when he comes back for a weekend, we are spending a Saturday together.”

Topics:  flower farm lamb island pretty produce simone jelley


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