PRECARIOUSLY balancing on the top of a ladder, Gamila MacRury pauses midway through picking olives.
It is harvest time – she hopes to ferment more than 2000 kilos this season – and her ringing phone is a distraction.
It is a call from the North East Farmer, and, tucking the phone into her shoulder, Gamila begins to talk – recounting her story, picking olives as she goes.
“You need to buy land in the country, that was the advice my mother always gave,” Gamila explains.
“‘You’ll see another two recessions in your life’ – so I took her word, and here I am; on annual leave from one job to harvest for another.”
Gamila is responsible for developing the first ever saffron-in-alcohol extract in Australia – a product she hopes to export to the world.
But back in the beginning – she explains this without pausing for breath, the sound of olives gently dropping into her bucket – Gamila found a 12-acre plot in Beechworth.
Inspecting it on a Saturday, she owned the block by the following Wednesday.
That was nine years ago.
Since then, she has planted 600 olive trees and developed a saffron crop – sown, grown, divided and re-planted each year – from an initial 800 corms (bulbs) to 50,000.
“It’s been a long road – last year was my first real commercial success; so yes, it has been hard,” she said.
Gamila is refreshingly honest when it comes to re-counting her farming journey.
Although she is always up-beat, talking about the beautiful High Country haven she has found and the realisation of a dream, she is also realistic about the situation.
“I had no real knowledge about growing saffron when I bought this place,” she explains.
“If I had my time over, I’d think long and hard about doing it the same.”
What Gamila is talking about is the back-breaking work of producing saffron for the domestic market.
Touted as the next fad-food some years ago, a flood of hobby producers resulted in an oversupply – and Gamila was left wondering if her 50,000 plants would ever make it to the table.
“The really hard thing is actually selling saffron,” she said.
“You’re competing with imports that are $6-18 per gram, and that’s going against my product which is about $240 a gram.”
Six months ago, Gamila pioneered her own solution.
“Saffron is a flavour enhancer, not just a colorant,” she said.
“I’ve developed an extract – pre-extracted from strands and put into a high alcohol solution to lock the wonderful aroma in.”
In the bottle, saffron essence appeals to a broader range of buyers.
“It gives them the biggest bang for their saffron buck,” Gamila said.
It has been, she explained, a game changer.
“I was wondering what I was going to do – there were days when I just couldn’t see the effort resulting in a reward.
“I love the crop, but I needed to be realistic.”
In just six short months, Gamila is now so confident she can see herself being a saffron buyer as well as a producer.
She might even give up her day job.
“I’m a computer system engineer by trade – I work five days a week in Melbourne,” she said.
“The Hume is my friend.”
After launching the extract, Gamila was visited by chefs from MoVida – Australia’s premier Spanish restaurant.
Filming a foodies segment as part of the High Country Harvest, all were impressed with the essence ease and taste.
Now, Gamila is hoping her extract will find itself in restaurants across the country, and maybe even the world.
“I can see light at the end of the tunnel, which is a bit of a relief,” she said.
Still picking olives, 10 minutes into the conversation, Gamila shifts her weight from one foot to the other – the creaking ladder evidence of the movement.
“I look around, right now, and it’s amazing how much I’ve done,” she says, temporarily dropping the phone to survey the landscape.
“But I can also see that 12 acres is not much land, even for intensive horticulture.
“I locked myself into needing to find a market that was niche driven and expensive – I don’t regret it, but I can see the problems.”
Along with saffron, Gamila also grows table olives.
“I planted olives specifically with the intention of producing traditional wild fermented olives for the table,” she said.
“Where planting saffron gives you a reward in six weeks, olives take six years to start fruiting and 10 years to mature – which means that by 2019 I should have just about got my head around this whole farming gig.”
Between the two crops, and a 40-hour week in Melbourne, life is hectic – but the results are beginning to speak for themselves.
Before hanging up the phone, Gamila talks about the rest of her day – of needing to pick another 100 kilos of olives, of the weeding that must be done, the plants that must be watered and the fences that must be checked.
“It only took me a week to commit to this farm – I’ve got a lifetime to perfect it – it’s about enjoying the journey along the way.”
If you would like more information on Gamila, her business or where you can purchase her saffron extract, go to www.gamila.com.au.