22 December 2023

After five generations of dairy farmers, Little House On The Dairy begins new era

| Kellie O'Brien
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Erica Downes Little House On The Dairy

Erica Downes, from Little House On The Dairy, is running her first dahlia harvest workshops on-farm in Jamberoo. Photo: Supplied.

Jamberoo’s Steven and Erica Downes made the hard decision to end a five-generation run as dairy farmers this year, but it has opened the door to their property Little House On The Dairy becoming a flower farm.

For the first time, Erica will host an on-farm Dahlia Harvesting and Morning Tea to spread the beauty of what she does in growing and creating bouquets for sale.

“I’ve actually been running workshops with a friend of mine who also grows flowers up in the Southern Highlands for the past year,” she said.

“I’ve known that I could do it but haven’t really had my space ready, so now it’s just looking so beautiful, that I thought it’s a shame not to share it.”

Erica’s focus in the flower patch is dahlias but she also grows annuals like Cosmos and Feverfew, all from seed and without chemicals.

She will offer visitors information on how to grow their own dahlias from tuber, from cutting and from seed.

“I’ve built this flower patch from scratch just this season, so if you came here this time last year it was a paddock,” Erica said.

“Your backyard gardener can learn a lot just from that, but also the experience of wandering through and being able to have this abundance around you and cut what you love.

“It’s something that people don’t get the opportunity to do otherwise.”

The property was Steven’s family farm and had been home to five generations of dairy farmers.

While the new venture is exciting, Erica said it was “a bit of a sad year” as they had to wrap up the dairy business after Picton milk processor Country Valley, the promoter of Jamberoo Valley Milk, went into administration. The couple had been supplying milk to Jamberoo Valley Milk.

“We just couldn’t afford to keep going after that,” Erica said.

“Steven’s now working off-farm, which has been sad, but we’re lucky we can still stay here and we don’t have to uproot our lives.

“So I’ve just stolen extra paddock space.”

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Describing it as “heaven”, the property in the rolling hills of Jamberoo has the Minnamurra River running through it, a dahlia patch adjacent to the creek and “a beautiful waterhole that the kids swim in”.

“I grew up in Sydney, so I look at it every day and just think how lucky we are. It’s so beautiful,” she said.

“I’d never worn a pair of gumboots before Jamberoo.”

Now supplying bouquets and buckets of flowers to The Pines Pantry in Kiama every Friday and occasionally doing floral arrangements for weddings, Erica said it all happened organically.

“When I moved here, there was already a lovely cottage garden that my mother-in-law had put in years ago,” she said.

“I’ve been adding to that for quite a few years now and I can’t help myself, I just have to cut the flowers.

“I started gifting them to friends and then people started asking for flowers and it just grew really naturally from there.”

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Erica said a big driver was the ability to find work on the farm that allowed her to still be available for her three children and, at the time, counterbalance low milk prices.

However, when she started out, it wasn’t dahlias she was interested in, but rather roses, of which she has 250 growing.

“I started to grow a few dahlias and they’re so addictive … It’s just become a real passion of mine,” Erica said.

“I’ve also started breeding new cultivars of dahlias, which is really exciting.

“So I’ve got two large rows of dahlia seedlings in this year – so probably about 500 plants – and every flower is completely unique and it’s just such an exciting thing to watch as they all bloom for the first time.”

One of her favourites is a seedling her daughter named ‘Nana’ after Erica’s mum, which will be ready for release in winter.

She said one of the biggest challenges was during the drought when she felt a lot of guilt around growing flowers and had to let go of all her annuals grown from seed.

“I basically kept my roses alive because they were an investment and I felt in 10 years I can continue cutting from those,” she said.

“It was sad, but it was a daily creek check for us at that point as to whether there was enough water for the cows.

“That has been probably the biggest challenge.

“I guess now as I’m growing more, it’s figuring out the best way to share it that still works for my family and works for me and that’s what’s led me to the workshops.”

Her first workshop in February sold out quickly, with another now scheduled for 22 March and others to be announced on her website.

Erica has also harvested her first batch of honey, which will be available soon.

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