Anne Ashbolt’s life has been dedicated to creating a sustainable lifestyle, and a “picturesque postcard” farm in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley. It has been a vision she has had since she and her husband Robert took over farm management as newlyweds 35 years ago.
For many years they had farmed as commodity suppliers to the supermarket chains, but they wanted to develop a business model that encompassed the whole supply chain from farm to consumer.
“The supermarkets became more and more demanding in what they wanted,” Ashbolt said. “They were cutting the prices paid to us, while the cost of growing was increasing. Also, they wanted us to use fungicides and pesticides. We decided that wasn’t the route we wanted to travel.”
Ashbolt then started thinking about what crops they could grow that best suited their particular soil and Tasmanian climate. Given Ashbolt’s existing biodynamic farming methods, which she trialled on her own giant vegetable patch, they looked for crops that could be grown naturally, and decided upon olives and elders.
“We wanted to build the soil health. We looked at tree crops or something that didn’t require annual tilling of the soil,” she said.
“We ended up choosing a modified organic system, dependent on lots of compost and rock minerals to re-build the depleted soil – and chose these two tree crops as they seem to fit really well in this regime.
“We already had elderflower trees on our property and I had been using them to make drinks for our kids. Our children proved it was very popular at Christmas time because they would give them as gifts to their friends. At birthday parties, we would be drunk out of almost our entire year’s supply. So I said, ‘If you can’t beat them why not join them!’,”
It was no coincidence that Ashbolt’s mother died from an asthma attack when she was very young, and that elders are a natural medicinal remedy traditionally used as a preventative against winter colds, as well as for respiratory problems, such as asthma. Ashbolt said she initially made the drinks mainly to protect her children from developing what could be an inherited illness.
For many years, Ashbolt’s elderberry and elderflower sparkling drinks have been sold throughout Tasmania and Victoria in restaurants, delis, and cafes. Both the flower and the berry are also available as concentrates which can be mixed with alcoholic, sparkling, or hot drinks at home. Ashbolt also supplies a number of customers in other states, and said she hopes to increase interstate sales considerably in the coming year.
While elder drinks are popular in Europe, they are usually carbonated; a cheaper process to make sparkling drinks, but the ones produced by Ashbolt Farm are bottle-fermented.
“This [technique] adds layers of complexity to the drinks and a less sweet finish, so they are often sought out as a sophisticated alternative to wine,” she said.
In making the comparison to wine, Ashbolt hopes to present an alternative option for Australia’s non-alcoholic beverage market, which is often saturated by cloying alternatives.
“Our customers appreciate the chance to have a sophisticated non-alcoholic beverage,” she said.
“They appreciate having an alternative choice, maybe because they’re pregnant, they’re the designated driver, or they’re at a business function. We want to see people drink it in a champagne flute, rather than a cordial glass, and say they enjoy the opportunity not to stand out as a non-drinker.”
Since cutting her ties with the supermarkets, Ashbolt is highly dependent on her shopfront at Hobart’s Salamanca Market to get the word out about the products.
“Salamanca was my introduction; it was my learning curve going from farming to value-adding,” she said.
“It’s a way of testing the product in the market, it’s a way of cash-flowing a new product in the market, and it has been the core basis for developing our value-added profile, as well as receiving feedback from customers.
“Also, people like to meet the producers and to understand the ethics of who they’re purchasing from and often have a genuine desire to connect with them.
“We’ve got an almost-cult following amongst our regular customers. Getting it out there to Tasmanians has been quite easy, but going interstate is a much more difficult task.”
Ashbolt hopes her determination will continue to drive the expansion of her business and see her farm as a fully sustainable operation.
“We love what we do, we adore what we do, but we need to plan for the future as well. Hopefully we can establish a business enterprise that is flexible and viable into the future, and that’s all I ever wanted to do and have done it through sheer persistence.”