Megalong in the Megalong Valley: How Close is the Pasture to your Plate?

Colin with pickled green fennel seeds. (Hamish Dunlop)

By Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop visits Megalong Restaurant and Lot 101 Farm in the Megalong Valley. He talks with Chef Colin Barker and Farm Manager Mark Wells about their philosophy of sustainability, being self-sufficient and reducing the time between pasture and plate.

megalong restaurant

Megalong Restaurant (Lis Bastian)

Chef Colin Barker and his business partner envisioned a farm and restaurant with self-sufficiency and sustainability at their core. Megalong Restaurant is located in the middle of Lot 101 Farm and is open after more than two years in development. The pair have leased the Megalong Tearooms and accommodation is available on neighbouring property, Werriberri, with its six self-contained cottages.

The Blue Mountains plateau: looking from the gardens across the restaurant to the north-east. (Lot 101)

The venture is a timely response to growing awareness about climate-related issues, as much as climate change itself. Lot 101 uses regenerative farming and organic practices to work sustainably with the land. Bush restoration is underway, particularly around the creeks. Water is considered a precious resource and rainwater is collected on the farm and Werriberri. Currently one million litres are stored and the dam holds 20 megalitres.

The farm supplies around 80% of the produce and many other products are sourced locally including pigs, apples, honey and wine.

Fresh farm veges at the Megalong Tearooms. (Hamish Dunlop)

A market is held at the tearooms every Saturday and a smaller selection of vegetables is available daily. Preserves and pickles are made in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Lot 101 grown (Hamish Dunlop)

Pasture to plate

Colin sees the restaurant and farm as a demonstration of what ‘pasture to plate’ should really look like. He tells me he’s not a fan of the phrase because it’s been overused and abused. “For us there’s no cold storage, no transport chain. It’s literally a couple of hours between the garden and the plate. The other night we were halfway through service and we ran out of beans. We were out in the bean patch with a head torch and grabbed what we needed.”

Beans in the bean patch. (Lot 101)

In the restaurant the menu reflects the provenance of the produce. Colin sees this as an opportunity to educate people about what’s possible. “One of the snacks we provide when people arrive is raw baby vegetables served on ice. The intensity of flavour is incredible.”

Fresh baby vegetables on ice. (Lot 101)

Farm Manager Mark Wells says the restaurant gardens are designed to give people the feeling that they’re sitting in a food bowl. Tables are booked for the whole evening, so there is an opportunity to walk around the gardens between courses. In colder weather, a fire pit is lit on the escarpment side. Drinks can be enjoyed in the warmth before heading back in for dessert.

The garden behind the restaurant (Lis Bastian)

Gardens run up the slope behind the restaurant and there is a market garden down the hill. There’s a huge variety of different vegetables such as capsicum, garlic, tomatoes and cucumbers. Standard salad greens and less common varieties grow too. Italian spiarello, Portuguese cabbage, purple wombok, escarole and celtuce are among an assortment of different colours, textures and flavours.

The market garden (Hamish Dunlop)

At the back door of the restaurant is a substantial herb garden. There are the usual suspects: coriander, rosemary, parsley and fennel. But unusual ones too such as Warrigal greens, notably eaten by colonialists to stave off scurvy. Stone fruit and berry orchards have been planted, with new hives to assist with pollination. Alongside these grow a range of olive varieties.

Fennel allowed to go to seed. (Hamish Dunlop)

The farm runs about 30 head of cattle including Hereford, Wagyu and Speckle Park breeds. The Herefords and the Speckle Parks were raised in the Valley, but the Wagyu steers come from further afield. There are around 60 sheep. Colin tells me they are about to let the ram back in with the ewes with projected lambing in August/September that will produce around 50 meat animals. The restaurant gets old school Berkshire pigs from the Kanimbla Valley. The farm also runs free range chickens.

Colin says everyone in the restaurant and on the farm is conscious about available resources and how to stretch them as far as possible. “For us it’s a responsibility to waste nothing. For example, we use the whole carcasses of our animals. We have to do them justice. Watching them grow, and being part of that process gives a greater appreciation for what you have.”

The worm farm (Lis Bastian)

He tells me that once the stock bones are boiled out, they go to the compost. There is a worm farm that can process 20kg of vegetable matter every day, but the restaurant uses a lot of skins for pickling and fermenting. Colin says there is currently a ‘kombucha-off’ (kombucha competition) in the kitchen. Other ferments are on the way too, such as boutique sodas.

The farm produces more food than the restaurant, tearooms and market can take advantage of. Surplus product goes to a company that sells to other restaurants in the Blue Mountains and Sydney. The farm had been running for 2 years prior to the restaurant opening. It was important for Colin to have production in full swing to be able to sustainably service the restaurant and tearooms.

Local people and produce

Colin and the Lot 101 team have developed relationships with people and producers in the Valley and surrounding areas. Colin sees this as one of the principles of social and environmental sustainability. Almost all the people employed are Blue Mountains locals. Products come from the Megalong and Kanimbla Valleys and Shipley Plateau. Examples are Willowvale Honey, Megalong Gold Olive Oil and a selection of unique citrus including Yuzu, Sudachi and Bergamot varieties. The restaurant stocks wine from Dryridge Estate and Megalong Creek Estate.

Matilda and Coco at the end of a day of harvesting. (Hamish Dunlop)

Nashi pears come from Shipley Plateau, as do crops of heirloom apples from Logan Brae Orchards. The restaurant and tearooms also serve Logan Brae’s apple juice which Colin says is incredible. He tells me that it’s served straight, but that the guys in the bar get creative making non-alcoholic mulled cider and sours. “What Sam grows at Logan Brae is seasonal and unique. “If there’s only a two-week run left on a particular variety that’s perfect,” he says, “we want to be totally in tune with what’s seasonally available.”

Sam picking apples at Logan Brae Orchard

“People in the community have started to come in and let us know about their seasonal produce. They might say we’ve got some fruit trees or x-amount of wild blackberries or currants – ‘Do you want to come and have a look?’” Colin says he feels fortunate to have the support of locals. He tells me about John Allen who lives down near the wineries who is affectionately known as Uncle John.

Every couple of days Uncle John brings a big bag of figs to the restaurant’s back door. Colin says they harvested 120kg of plums at the end of the season. He’s got chestnuts coming on and persimmons in a couple of weeks. Colin smiles broadly when he tells me Uncle John doesn’t pay for coffee or breakfast at the Tearooms anymore. “His name also crops up on the menu sometimes and on preserve and jar labels too. He’s chuffed when this happens.” Colin says.

Farming sustainability

Mark standing in the orchard next to the signs his daughter painted. (Hamish Dunlop)

Prior to working at Lot 101, Farm Manager Mark managed Hawkesbury’s Stix Farm that grew certified organic produce for top Sydney restaurants. On top of his expertise in organic practices and processes, he employs regenerative farming techniques. Fabrice Roland, the Production Manager at Lot 101 is also a key member of the team. He lives in the Kanimbla Valley and has intimate knowledge about what can grow when.

The grow house (Hamish Dunlop)

Mark says, “The seasons in the Valley aren’t traditional seasons. The Megalong gets frost right up until late November, so local knowledge is essential. We do a lot of experimentation too. We have a grow house and we’re going to see what will flourish over winter. We had a vision of having free range chickens, but the wedgetail eagles have put a dent in that plan. It’s a process of discovery and seeing how we can pivot.”

Hereford cattle on a rotation block. (Hamish Dunlop)

The farm uses regenerative grazing practices. This means lots of electric fences and not many permanent ones. Mark says that sometimes they have cattle in one area for only a few days. Other times for weeks. “It’s incredibly labour intensive, but it means that pastures can get knocked back, but then recover well. This means great photosynthesising and nitrogen fixing microbes can flourish.

The land is naturally fertilised by the cow manure and moving the cattle around so regularly means that intestinal worms can’t get foothold. It’s a practice that really looks after the animals, the soil and the plants. Keeping a record of pasture recovery also gives us insight into future feed availability and this means better timing around stock management.”

Bush protection and restoration

Unlike an all-gates-open approach, livestock aren’t allowed anywhere near the creeks. Instead, there are water stations where they can drink. This helps manage erosion and limits the amount of excess nutrients getting into the waterways. Mark understands that water is a precious resource: “Currently all our water comes off the rooves of our building. It’s very important for us to manage it in a way that is sustainable and enhances the farm’s self-sufficiency.”

He explains that 90% of the venture’s land area is covered by bush. “We’re committed to caring for the land in a way that promotes biodiversity. Part of this is through regenerative and organic farming practices. We also do animal control including pigs and deer that damage the bush. In the creek areas we’re mechanically removing blackberry and other weed – no poisons. This is allowing the native grasses, sedges, and tree ferns to repopulate the riparian areas.”

The market garden surrounded by bush (Hamish Dunlop)

Working together

While I’m in the kitchen chatting to Colin, a truck arrives. The driver comes in, not sure what she’s delivering. Without a word being said, everyone in the kitchen and restaurant file out the back door. I’m caught up in the energy and find myself preparing to assist. Theres’s a conversation with multiple voices pitching in. The package is identified and it’s decided a forklift is the way to go.

It all happened so quickly and seamlessly. A group of people with a common goal, self-organising to solve a problem. It’s a great metaphor. Climate change affects us all. What if we could agree it’s a problem worth addressing at a community level as they’re doing in the Megalong Valley? As I’m driving out of the valley, I wonder about how far the power of our united intentions could take us.

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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