Before they can even walk, most children can name the farm animals in their books, and imitate their snorts and whinnies. But it’s an altogether different thing to stand in a paddock and pat a woolly sheep, milk a cow or search through straw for a still-warm egg. The Collingwood Children’s Farm encourages kids to do all this and more in the name of education. Farm Manager Alex Walker says, ‘It’s important they understand food doesn’t just show up on supermarket shelves. They need to learn about where it comes from.’ Here, city children get up close with animals that supply them with food, milk and clothing. They see what’s in season in the vegetable patch. ‘They find out that the environment isn’t just trees – it’s all kinds of living things,’ says Alex.
The sprawling, seven-hectare city farm sits on a wide bend in the Yarra River, a unique oasis just four kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD. Red gums, silver wattle, tea trees and bottlebrush grow along the river’s edge. Well-worn dirt tracks snake through the farm, past large animal enclosures, an old wooden stable, a barn built in the early 1900s, an orchard, and a cottage kitchen garden.
The community-run farm was first opened in 1979 to give city children the opportunity to experience rural life. Alex says, ‘We give kids the chance to run around a green space that’s not a football field. When I was young, we used to visit relatives out in the country, but not everyone can do that. There was more connection to country living back then. People are so busy now that kids don’t even get enough time to just explore outdoors.’
Except when they visit this farm. There are months when school groups pour through the gates every day. ‘We get up to four thousand kids a term,’ Alex says. ‘They get to wander around, milk the cows, hunt for eggs, go into enclosures with sheep and goats, and hear about worm farms and composting.’
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Collingwood Children’s Farm went through a tough time. It was struggling to survive and developers were eagerly eyeing off the nearby abandoned convent and the farm’s carpark, without which the farm would never get the visitors it needed to sustain itself. It is testament to the local community’s passion for the precinct that the area was not razed to the ground. ‘Visitors backed off a bit when they thought we were about to loose all our parking and the convent was going to be taken over,’ Alex says. ‘None of us was sure whether the farm was going to be around for long.’
But the farm not only survived, it thrived. Once a month, on a Saturday morning, when more than sixty stallholders come into town to sell their produce at the Farmers Market, between two and three thousand adults flood through the farm’s wooden entry gates. ‘Kids are free,’ says Alex, ‘so we have no idea how many of them show up on a market day. Thousands I reckon!’ Mind you, he adds, on a quiet day they can get twenty people through the gates. So if it’s serenity you’re after you can still find it. ‘There’s a spot here,’ Alex confides, ‘between the four paddocks, down the lane, where you can stand and do a 360-degree turn and see nothing but the farm and trees.’
While there is a strong emphasis on educating the younger generation, the farm is not just for kids.
One of attractions here is the Farm Cafe. Melbourne is renowned for its amazing eateries, but none of them is as enchanting as this place. Owned by husband and wife team Tom and Pip Hay, the Farm Cafe serves wholesome, tasty and nourishing meals within the grounds of the farm.
Pip, 27, says mornings are especially exciting at the cafe. ‘The horses come over to watch us open up. Cows walk past on their way to milking, and ducks and geese strut around in a line when they’re let out of their pens, just like they do in picture books. The goats get very excited when they’re herded from one paddock to another right in front of the cafe. A couple always stray off and customers help the farm staff round them up.’
‘It’s a really magical spot,’ Tom, 26, says. ‘To stand in the cafe looking out at the paddocks, making coffee, watching families throng around is phenomenal.’
Tom and Pip worked as volunteers at the farm in 2004. To help the farm raise much-needed funds, Tom and Pip set up a coffee and pancake stall in the barn on days when the produce market operated.
‘Because the Farmers’ Market was the one thing that reliably drew a crowd each month we thought it offered a great opportunity to run a stall and donate the takings to the farm,’ Tom says. ‘I’d just met Pip and I roped her into doing the cooking. It was just the two of us, and the stall was incredibly popular. We started to come every weekend, then began dragging in friends and family to help. After a while, we asked the farm if we could turn it into a full-time venture. They didn’t have funds to hire us but said we could lease the kitchen they used for making jams and running the occasional barbeque. I was really excited by that.’
Though they had no experience in hospitality, Tom was keen to make a go of it. He admits he knew nothing about food. He did know, however, that Pip had a lifelong passion for cooking and that, together, they’d make a winning team.
Three years on from when they opened in March 2005, the Farm Cafe is a thriving part of the farm, much-loved by families, city workers, cyclists, children at horse riding classes and school holiday camps, and couples keen for respite from urban living. Officially, there’s seating around the enormous peppercorn tree for sixty, but on a sunny day, cafe patrons and farm visitors perch happily on nearby logs, fences and rocks. Pip’s uncle made the well-used chairs and tables out front of the cafe from recycled timber.
Initially, Pip offered only cakes and scones with coffee. Now she serves a range of hearty, unfussy breakfasts and lunches made largely from local organic produce, aiming to strike a balance between what people want to eat and what’s in season. Meals include organic free-range eggs with bacon, mushroom, spinach and avocado; corn and zucchini fritters; honey granola; seasonal salads; a ploughman’s plate with ham, cheddar, chutney and sourdough; and banana pancakes, as well as healthy kid’s fare like toastie soldiers, soup and chicken sandwiches. ‘We like simple, farm-inspired dishes,’ Pip says. ‘We serve chunky crunchy organic breads, and homemade pesto, baked beans and sausage rolls. I take a lot of care with the food.’
Breakfast is their most popular meal, and it’s not a treat reserved for early risers. Tom says, ‘On weekends, breakfast can last all day. I don’t know what it is about Melbourne people, but they’re happy to have breakfast right up till three or four in the afternoon.’
The farm and cafe complement one another. ‘The staff love that they can feed the food scraps to the pigs and put the coffee grounds into the compost at the end of the day,’ Tom says.
Both Pip and Tom agree that running a cafe at a farm is a unique experience. ‘We get excited about the possibilities here,’ Tom says. ‘The good food, the community, and the living organism that we’re responsible for. We feel like we’re working somewhere very special.’
Melburnians must think so too. On any weekday morning, you’ll find mothers and children, university students, and office workers sitting in the sun outside the Farm Cafe, watching the farm’s peacocks strut along the dirt track behind the ducks, listening to green parrots and magpies overhead, and saying quiet thanks for a place that reminds us of the interconnectedness of all living things.
Collingwood Children’s Farm
End of St Helier’s Street, Abbotsford.
Open seven days a week, 9am to 5pm.
Telephone: 03 9417 5806
Entry costs $16 for families, $8 for adults and $4 for children.
Farmer’s Market (second Saturday of the month), $2 for adults, free for children.
The Farm Cafe
Open seven days a week. Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday 8am to 5pm.
Telephone: 03 9415 6581
Entry to the cafe section of the farm is free.
Sweet Corn and Zucchini Fritters
4 corn cobs
1 medium green zucchini, grated
1/2 cup fine polenta
2 free range eggs
1/2 Spanish onion, sliced
2 tbsp flat parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
Lightly steam corn cobs and slice kernels off when they are cool enough to handle. Blitz corn briefly in food processor till slightly mushy. Transfer to a bowl, add other ingredients and mix well, adding an extra egg if the mix is too dry or more polenta if it’s too wet. Heat pan and add a good drizzle of oil. When hot, add spoonfuls of corn fritter roughly formed into patties. Fry until golden on both sides.
Serve with a side salad of rocket, avocado, roasted red capsicum, a wedge of lemon and a dollop of sour cream.
Rhubarb Breakfast Loaf
3/4 cup raw sugar
125g butter, softened
2 free range eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 cup plain flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp all spice
2 cups of rhubarb, chopped
1/4 cup soft brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup rolled oats
80g butter melted
Toasted pecans chopped
Cream the butter and sugar, add eggs, then add the rest of the ingredients. Mix topping ingredients together separately. Pour the butter, sugar and egg mixture into a well-greased and lined loaf tin, and sprinkle the topping evenly over it. Bake for 45 minutes or so in a moderate oven, checking with a cake skewer to ensure the inside is cooked.
When cool enough to slice, serve with a big dollop of natural yoghurt, some toasted pecans, a drizzle of honey. If you have it available, some stewed fruit on top is delicious.