We’re saying Yes!

This week in the patch we are saying YES! Yes to a diverse crop of rainbow cherry tomatoes freshly planted and trellised in our new patch. Yes to redirecting the kangaroo traffic around (rather than over) our newly planted seedlings. Yes to slow soaking rain that makes everything stand up in all its green glory. Yes to the madness of the spring summer season that is soaring ahead…and Yes to pulling out our third crop of garlic.

Lately the world out there has been getting crazy. The politics of our nation seem to be receding into a black hole of discrimination, game playing and crimes against humanity… sometimes you’ve just got to focus on the small wins you can make with your own hands, and be grateful. Yes.

Thanks to our lovely cheese-making friend Lydia for helping us out on a stinking hot day to plant hundreds of tomato seedlings. Thank you to Meg from CERES propagation for growing up all those healthy seedlings. We’ve had a few smashed by passing kangaroos, but hopefully now with our ingenious trellising and fencing (which includes our old undies ripped up and attached to the fence so the roos can see it!), the rest will survive. Thank you to Katie and Hugh for their continued support, creativity and generosity in creating our new farming alliance which gets more exciting by the day.

Next week we pull out our garlic. Stay tuned for our online shop where you can preorder your ½ or whole kg garlic plaits. We’re also madly planting out all our summer crops now that the soil has warmed up and we’ve got the irrigation system happening. But today, with this beautiful rain, it is time to spray our Biodynamic Preparation 500 (cow horn manure) and get the soil life buzzing!

 

Our organic farming group is coming together!

If you’ve been following us for a while you’ll know that we’re creating a very exciting new collaborative farming model on our farm—currently called the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance, or HOFA (we may change the name to something a bit more exciting down the track).

HOFA members hard at work, thinking!
HOFA members hard at work, thinking!

What started as a great idea (“Let’s invite a bunch of aspiring farmers to start their farming businesses on our farm!”) has turned into an incredibly complex and lengthy process—and we’re still just at the beginning!

For the sake of posterity (and to help anyone else thinking of doing the same thing on their own farm), we’ll summarise the steps we’ve taken so far:

How we found the farmers
This all started when we were approached by the Gung Hoe growers a few years ago (you can read that story here), and then as that relationship went well and we started to think more about the idea of adding more farmers to our farm, we started to talk about it—everywhere and all the time! It wasn’t long before we were approached by two more farmers interested in starting their own small enterprises—Tess and her micro-dairy, and Gilles and Sean from Maidenii vermouth.

Mel 'n Sas from Gung Hoe Growers starting their farming journey on our farm
Mel ‘n Sas from Gung Hoe Growers starting their farming journey on our farm

A talk with our accountant helped us to solidify our ideas, and we began the search for someone to join the alliance and lease the orchard. This was a months-long process that included sending out emails to all our contacts to tell them about the opportunity, press releases, setting up a webpage, doing a webinar, working with a PR person, more emails, posters, weekly stories in our e-newsletter, radio stories, and newspaper articles.

All that energy resulted in loads of interest (literally thousands of hits on the webpage), which led to three firm expressions of interest. We then sent out an information bundle and invited applications, and all three people applied.

Next came an application process which included interviews, asking for statements of intention, CVs and referees, as well as more casual get-togethers to give the applicants a chance to see the farm, ask questions, and meet the other HOFA members. At the end of an exhaustive process we chose Ant Wilson as our successful applicant, and he was pretty happy about being offered the chance to get his farming career started!

How we’ve funded it
Meanwhile, in the background, a lot of time and energy has gone into sourcing funding. Here’s a summary:

  • Regional Development Victoria saw a story about us in the local paper, contacted us and arranged a meeting on the farm, where they told us about the Food Source Victoria grants and invited us to put in an Expression of Interest
  • We put in the EOI and were asked to apply for a Planning Grant
  • We applied for the Planning Grant to do a Business Development Grant, with Clare Fountain from Sorted4Business as our consultant. After a wait of several months we found out we were successful.
  • We applied for Farming Together (federal) funding, and were approved and allocated 3 hours of free expert consulting services. We’ve used this as part of the business development plan and it’s been fantastic to have access to consultants who “get” what we’re trying to do and can provide useful advice.
  • We’ve just put in an EOI for the next stage of Farming Together funding to do the next stage of the business development (deciding the legal structure, individual business plans for each farmer, feasibility of value-adding, etc.). We’re waiting to hear back whether we need to put in a formal application.
  • Regional Development Victoria have invited us to apply for the next stage of the Food Source funding, a Growth Grant. We’re currently working on this application.
  • We’ve also decided to apply for a Landcare ‘Farm Smart Small Farms’ grant because it’s perfectly aligned with what we’re trying to achieve with our radical new collaboration, and are currently working on this application.

Working out the nuts and bolts
Working through the business development plan with Clare has been a brilliant, structured way of figuring out the details of how this will work (though we’re still in the early stages and feel like we still have more questions than answers).  Starting only with our successful experience with Gung Hoe, our optimism and a blank canvas, first we had to figure out what the model would look like.

Another day, another white board
Another day, another white board

Along the way we’ve considered everything—insurance, legal structures, dispute resolution, how to attribute fair lease payments to very different farm businesses, sharing equipment, whether we have enough land and water, and, most importantly, whether the whole thing will be economically viable! Even though sometimes it seems overly risk averse to be trying to anticipate every little thing that might go wrong, we’re sticking to the idea that the more planning and thinking we do now, the more smoothly things will go later.

This model is so new (we haven’t found the same model anywhere else in the world) that many of the things we want to do are challenging the existing paradigm. For example, we want to get the whole farm certified under one certification number (because we’re all on the same farm and intricately involved with each other’s business, and it’s much cheaper), even though each enterprise is a separate business. NASAA has indicated they’re happy to talk about it, but it will no doubt involve a lengthy negotiation process. We’ve also started having similar conversations with the Victorian Farmers Market Association, our local council, and insurance companies. Everyone’s been helpful and enthusiastic about our idea, but the whole process is incredibly time consuming.

We’re currently deep in the throes of (i) finishing the business development plan, (ii) working on the details of the lease arrangements (which we’ll then get legal advice on), and (iii) applying for more funding! Next we’ll need to work out the legal structure of the collective entity, which will no doubt be another big conversation weighing up the pros and cons of co-ops versus companies (having first learned what the bloody hell they are and how they differ to one another!).

Some days we look at each other and wonder if we’re overcomplicating our lives, and in fact creating a monster out of what started as a simple idea, but then we remind ourselves that we’re going through all of this to birth this strange new idea—that a bunch of landless organic farmers can come together on a patch of dirt owned by someone else and all harmoniously make a living side by side. So on we go!

Surely on the other side of all these funding applications, all these meetings and all this bloody hard thinking, life will become simple again.

Summer is a’coming…

Hi all, and a pinch and a punch for the new month – we can hardly believe it!  I (mel) keep thinking we will stop having enough produce, but as the season has/is turning all the beauties keep swinging. Finally we picked broad beans in abundance and the sugar snap peas (named Frank) are delicious and sweet, and the green garlic is delicious, and our eyes are bulging at the onions swelling in the ground.
It’s nice really, cos everywhere else we look we see the plants bolted and flowering and all the jobs that we haven’t done yet staring us (beautifully colourful and buzzing with bees, mind you) in the face! We need to pull it all out (maybe this should have happened earlier, but its a hard line when its still pickable…) and bed prep for summer!!
Our main attentions are picking for our peeps on Wednesdays and then setting up the new patch. Hugh and Sas nutted out the irrigation this week – huzzah! and next week will see Sas and me weeding and bed prepping and laying irrigation for said new patch (it is real, I can assure you!).
We’ve been doing a fair bit of interviews and things lately and you’ll see some of our words coming out in the next issue of the ‘oak’ magazine, looking at rural women in business. It’s funny, and I guess flattering for us that people want to hear our stories. I’m looking forward to it, as it’s in print and there is no online version, I kinda dig that stuff.
We’ve also had the treat of talking about collaborating with Castlemaine tea ‘sun on leaf’ with some edible flowers and herbs that we grow…this week Hannah took some cornflowers to trial for her Earl Grey mix…(delicious by the way, look her up).
And in the meantime, Sas and I are warming ourselves up for long hot days…even though it feels like they’re not coming – by Jove I’m sure they will. The okra and zucchinis have popped their heads up in the hot house so we know it’s a comin…eeeek!
Have a restful and joyous weekend folks
Mel