Fresh start

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

A U-turn — in all senses of the word — led former Perth couple Karl and Sharon Rost to their Albany tree change. Karl describes it as fate now, but at the time it was simply a missed turn-off.

On holidays in Albany and off to do a spot of horse riding, the couple were driving on Two Peoples Bay Road when they overshot the entrance to the local riding school.

“I drove into this driveway to turn around and it had a private sale sign up,” Karl said. “When Sharon went horse riding, I rang the guy. Three months later, we were here. We hadn’t planned to move. We could have pulled into any driveway, but we ended up here.”

The duo had never seen a marron before, but taking over a 35 hectare property devoted to the freshwater crustacean did not deter them.

“We saw a bit of potential here and thought it was a lovely spot,” Karl said. “We liked the whole idea of marron, and away we went from there.”

Karl had been mulling over the idea of a café for some time, and so with the marron farm providing the perfect backdrop, work began on converting the rundown farmhouse into an eatery. “It took about a year and a half to get it looking pretty,” Karl said.

Sharon took on the role as cook, presenting food with a strong focus on fresh, local produce.

The couple then expanded their cafe to include a small petting farm with guinea pigs and rabbits, which were their kids’ pets. They then added an aviary, along with chickens, ducks, donkeys, ponies, emus and a friendly pig.

“It took about a year to build the aviary, and we’ve got 20 or 30 different bird species now,” Karl said.

“We have our farm set up so people can interact with the animals.”

And that includes being able to hand-feed the hundreds of birds that call the enormous aviary home.

“A lot of our visitors haven’t had that sort of contact with birds and animals before. As we do more things, we’ll lean towards that, getting people in with animals,” Karl said.

Dingoes are also part of the menagerie, after Sharon fell head over heels with puppies displayed at the Albany show.

The bird and animal park has since become an integral part of the couple’s business, but their mainstays are the café and the marron and yabbies they produce.

Using the motto ‘fresh is best’, marron are only cooked as ordered. “Everything is held live. We don’t prepare any marron beforehand, so it’s all cooked fresh,” Karl said.

“Marron start in the dams and we catch our own as well as using another local grower who lives nearby.

“They’re held in the purging tank for a few days before we use them in the cafe to make sure they don’t taste muddy. We hold anywhere between 20kg and 80kg of marron and yabbies at a time.”

The purging tanks are incorporated into an aquaponics system, which produces fresh vegetables and herbs for the café.

The couple have been experimenting with aquaponics for almost five years and previously grew eating fish in tanks, which have since been stocked with koi.

“There’s no soil involved. We used expanded clay, which is all circulated around and goes through the plant filters,” Karl said.

“We feed whatever we need to feed, and then the waste from the fish, marron and yabbies is used as fertiliser for the plants.

“We’ve got another system that runs off the two ponds in the aviary and we’re getting a bit more serious about it now.

“We’re trying to get to the point where we’re self-sufficient for the cafe with what we can grow with the aquaponics.”

But it has been a learning curve.

“If you do something wrong, especially if you’ve got marron and trout, things can die fairly quickly and it can be expensive and heartbreaking,” Karl said.

“Through winter, you can get away with a bit more, but during summer when you get the odd hot day it makes it a lot harder.

“As the water temperature rises, you start getting problems with the nutrients and that sort of thing in the water, but we’re gradually getting there.”

Swapping the bright lights of the city for the soothing, green hills of Albany has been a complete lifestyle change for the family, with Karl formerly working away in the mining industry and Sharon a stay-at-home mother to four.

However, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is a full-time job, but the quality of life here is beautiful,” Karl said. “You’ve got to enjoy something like this to do it, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to keep it up.”

And if Karl has any advice to those hoping to make a living off their block, it’s simply to persist.

“Nothing happens overnight and you’ve got to work really hard at it,” he said. “It’s a big investment in energy, time and money.

“We thought we’d go to the country for a bit of the quiet life, but in fact we’ve been very busy.”

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