Victoria’s recent floods have had an instant impact on some of Melbourne’s top restaurants, after boutique producer Somerset Heritage Produce lost all its spring crops and vital infrastructure when the Goulburn River broke its banks near Seymour last Thursday. 

Farmer Chloe Fox works directly with chefs at restaurants including Embla, Cumulus Inc, Bar Liberty, Capitano, Stokehouse, Smith & Daughters and Napier Quarter. She also attends farmers’ markets in Elwood, Brighton and Boroondara and supplies her local Mitchell Shire community with farm gate sales.

“We are normally on the banks of the Goulburn River but at the moment it would be safe to call us a part of the Goulburn River,” Fox wrote to customers. “The farm is completely submerged and we will lose most of our crops for the current season. We’ve also sustained a lot of damage to infrastructure.”

Aerial view of Somerset Heritage produce farm on the banks of the Goulburn River.
Aerial view of Somerset Heritage produce farm on the banks of the Goulburn River. Photo: Supplied

Good Food spoke to Fox on Wednesday, the first day she was able to walk rather than kayak around her 1.6 hectare farm. “It’s almost worse seeing it without the water because you can see the damage,” she says. “I’m walking over a bed of artichokes, I can see asparagus peeking up through the mud.

“We are hoping to save some perennials – the rhubarb patch, woody herbs and sorrel – but in terms of other crops like salad greens and herbs, nothing is going to survive. Our entire garlic crop is gone and that was looking really beautiful.”

Fox lives on the property and her house was partially flooded, too. “We have lost appliances but the house seems like a minor job compared to the farm,” she says.

We put life jackets on the goats and managed to get them into the kayaks. They have never been more affectionate.

Fences were swept away and the shipping container used as a coolstore shifted a couple of metres and became wedged on its cooling unit. “We also lost a 35-metre polytunnel and our pack shed needs repairs,” she says.

Fox was able to kayak 15 chickens to safety but had trouble saving her two goats. “We couldn’t get them onto the kayaks – the river was so strong at that point,” she says. “They survived the night and we kayaked over in the morning when the rain had stopped. We put life jackets on the goats and managed to get them into the kayaks. They have never been more affectionate.”

Casey Wall is executive chef of Capitano in Carlton North and Bar Liberty in Collingwood. “Chloe’s produce drives all our menus,” he says. “We base dishes on what she is producing.”

Wall outlines a recent pizza starring Somerset spring garlic: “We used the tops to make a green goddess base and then added trofie onions and pancetta. It’s so easy to make things when she grows such good produce.”

The loss of the entire oregano crop is a puzzle yet to be solved. “We buy hundreds of bunches and dry it to use year-round,” says Wall. “It’s a key ingredient for our Italian-American cooking style.”

The Capitano crew slowly dries the Somerset oregano beside the pizza oven over three days. “It’s a big loss. I don’t know how we come back from that,” says Wall. “But we’ll figure it out. If there’s anything we’ve learnt over the past two years it’s how to adapt.”

Fox understands the impact the loss of her crops will have. “The whole region is badly affected and it’s still unfolding. We might be flooded again in the coming days with more rain forecast,” she says. “I know there will be big gaps in food production in Victoria because of these floods.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up to support Somerset Heritage.