Seeing Green with Newcastle Greens
Specialising in hand-grown, handpicked produce, Newcastle Greens has established itself as a go-to supplier for many top chefs. Selector chats with co-founder Elle Brown about its origins.
Located in Cooranbong, just under an hour’s drive from Newcastle CBD, Newcastle Greens occupies roughly three acres of land, peppered with grow tunnels and outdoor beds. During a break in the rain – the 2022 winter has been the wettest on record for the region – the delightful Elle Brown was gracious enough to take us on a tour through the business and talk about its past, present, and future.
Newcastle Green's produce garden located in Cooranbong.
Newcastle Greens was founded in 2013 after you and business partner Dylan Abdoo arrived in the Hunter region from Sydney. What was the ‘gap’ that you’d identified in the market for high quality, naturally grown ingredients and microgreens, and had you had prior experience in food production before its founding?
I founded Newcastle Greens after having a child and contemplating where I was going career-wise. I had worked previously in the hospitality industry and for a literary agency in Sydney. I started out growing wheatgrass before moving onto microgreens and the business grew from there. We started in a suburban backyard in Waratah. After three years, Newcastle Greens was earning enough for Dylan to leave his job as a chef and work in the business full-time.
What was the response in those first years to Newcastle Greens? Was there an education process that needed to occur for people to recognise the benefits and advantages of your produce?
It was very hard to break into the market – there were a lot of samples delivered and conversations with chefs. As far as microgreens, mine were sometimes more expensive than others on the market. I did have many discussions on their point of difference... they were hand-seeded, grown in soil and with natural sunlight.
Newcastle Greens import and grow a few Lamborn Family pea varieties exclusively in Australia.
Speckled and Royal snow peas, hand-grown and handpicked.
What really kicked things off for the business?
Firstly the support from local chefs such as Anthony Kocon from East End Hub, (who placed the first large order for my microgreens), Troy Rhodes Brown from Muse, and Chris Thornton from Restaurant Mason. Also, the first of a few Delicious Produce Awards we received for microgreens and the Lamborn Snap Greens, then meeting Peter Gilmore at that same awards party and him approaching us for produce.
How has Newcastle Greens grown, and have there been any significant changes over that time in terms of your approach to growing?
Newcastle Greens has evolved from essentially just microgreens to edible flowers, baby leaves, heirloom vegetables and Lamborn Family peas. We’re constantly learning and changing things up. What works one year may not work the following, especially with the unpredictable weather we have been experiencing the last few years.
Elle Brown holding a bunch of white baby radish.
The Newcastle Greens logo.
How many varieties or lines of microgreens are you currently overseeing?
Microgreens are not our main focus anymore, although they’re still an important element. Currently we’re working with about 24 varieties, growing baby leaves, edible flowers, heirloom vegetables and exclusive Lamborn pea varietals.
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of being able to supply? Anything that’s in particularly high demand? What is it, and what are the challenges in producing it?
Some of what we have at the moment is puntarelle, six different types of radish on rotation, turnips, celtuce, Florence fennel, cime de rapa, spigarello, rainbow chard, kale, bronze fennel, lovage, baby leaves, edible flowers. And the Lamborn pea varieties: honey snap, speckled snowpea, acacia leaf and so on. Everything’s always in high demand, and it can be challenging to keep up numbers – especially with all this rain!
I’m very proud of the work I did to be able to import and grow a few of the Lamborn Family pea varieties exclusively in Australia. It took a year of communicating with Calvin Lamborn’s son Rod before I was given the green light and I could start the import process. I love the Lamborn varieties; there is so much beauty in them and so many different ways they can be harvested and presented to chefs.
Elle Brown handpicking some baby radish.
Newcastle Greens also grow edible flowers.
Could you explain for our readers the key benefits of growing in soil over the hydroponic approach?
Hydroponics has its benefits, but it’s not something we’ve been interested in. We prefer to grow in soil. I feel that microgreens grown in soil and natural light have more flavour and hold up better and for longer than those grown hydroponically. I feel this is because the plants are growing in a natural environment without being forced. They are much slower to grow though, especially in winter.
The rainfall this year has been significant. What impact has it had?
We lost most of our crops and then unexpected pests destroyed our seedlings. We have large numbers of water hens, ducks and rabbits eating our seedlings, but this has never been a problem before the heavy rainfall.
Red baby radishes freshly picked.
Handpicking Lamborn Family pea 'heads'.
Of course, the pandemic continues to affect everyone in the hospitality and produce sectors. How have you navigated its challenges?
It’s been super tough. As we grow for restaurants, our business has suffered immensely. Lockdowns meant no income, which meant letting go of staff and us working more. We went from a farm that employed five full-time and three casual employees, to just Dylan and I.
After the Covid lockdowns, we were lucky to still be operating. If it wasn’t for all the support we’ve had with Go Fund Me, Quay/Bennelong restaurants and Sydney Direct Fresh Produce (who do all of our deliveries to Sydney, Canberra etc.), we would have folded. We sold vegetable boxes to move produce. The local community in Newcastle were fabulous, and during the second wave of lockdowns Fred’s in Sydney and Pilot. in Canberra were of great support selling them for us.
Elle Brown tending to her produce garden.
What does the future of food production look like in Australia – do you see a larger embrace of this kind of hand-grown, handpicked approach becoming more common?
It’s becoming increasingly hard to make a consistent living doing what we do. The weather has been devastating. I think more people are embracing small-scale production and are more understanding and educated in what it takes to grow food. I suppose it’s become very popular to farm, but I don’t think anyone knows how difficult it can be until they start themselves. It is an all-embracing career choice and not for everyone – you definitely have to have passion for it.
To learn more about Newcastle Greens and its produce, visit newcastlegreens.com