You say tomatoes…

Freezing fingers, icy cheeks, sun-warmed backs, and the scent of wattle in the air. Spring is coming, and we are busily getting ready for it. Our baby seedlings which we’ve nursed like attentive new mothers through the depths of winter are starting to grow and flourish, and so too are the weeds.

Weeds are just useful (often edible and medicinal) plants growing were we don’t really want them, right?! After much shovel-leaning deliberation, we have come to consider the profusion of winter ‘weeds’ growing in our yet-to-be-cultivated garden beds as a proxy green manure crop. No, not weed devils, a green nightmare, or the bane of our existence, but our friends! We didn’t really intend to grow them but they have actually done a sterling job of holding the soil together, providing habitat to soil life, and storing nutrients in their leaves and roots. Their days, however, ARE numbered!

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We have begun the massive task of digging our weedy green manure back into the beds, adding compost, and mulching them in preparation for a grand crop of summer tomatoes. What has spurred this flurry of activity? Well, a few weeks back we had an inspiring conversation with John Reid from Red Beard Bakery in Trentham. Every year in summer he and his crew bottle up masses of locally grown tomatoes into sauces, chutneys, and passata. These products they use over the non-tomatoey months at the bakery. At the heart of their business is an amazing ethic of care for where the food they serve comes from. This extends from the grain that is grown and ground locally to bake their bread to the dried fruit that is also grown locally that sweetens their fruit loaf. Supporting local growers and sourcing local produce is what they are about, and we have been lucky enough to be commissioned to grow 1/3 of the ton of tomatoes that John needs to supply his bottling mission.

For us this opportunity is amazing as it offers us the assurance that the crop we grow will be sold at a predetermined and reasonable price, and the risk is shared between us (the growers) and John (the buyer). It means we can start to predict how much space we need to dedicate to any particular crop, and it also helps us plan financially.

So, in preparation for our 333 kg (give or take a few) of tomatoes, we have started to prepare the beds where they will grow. We have begun to dig in our weedy green manure crop, and we have also been preparing and planting an intentional green manure crop to be dug-in in a few weeks before we plant out our tomatoes. The seeds are happily sprouting and feeding our soil as the days slowly warm and the soil is still moist.

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We have also been wrapping our heads around how we can possibly raise up the 200+ seedlings that we will need in time for spring transplanting. A solution to this was found over a cuppa around a kitchen table in Newstead. Richard and Chris are seasoned backyard growers with a hot house and a love of heirloom varieties of vegetables. They have agreed to raise the tomato seedlings for us ready for transplanting and are teaching us a thing or two as they do about their methods. So, stay tuned on our journey from green dream to red riot!

Richard & Chris - and our seeds!
Richard & Chris – and our seeds!

Cheers, Sas & Mel
Gung Hoe Growers

Hands up who’s on a committee? RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award, Week 22

 

I had to go to a breakfast committee meeting the other day. This committee is a group of powerful women who collectively and individually have a formidable skill set and a vast number of years of experience, and we find breakfast meetings an efficient way to get business done. Plus, one of our members is an excellent bread maker. We sat around a kitchen table eating home-made bread and jam and drinking cups of tea, while we nailed our strategic plan.  It was the perfect coming together of high level skills and excellent cooking! (Is there actually any better food in the world than warm home-made bread, real butter, and home-made blackberry jam? I think not.)

Being on committees seems to be one of the inevitable parts of rural life – school committees, kinder committees, sports clubs, community clubs, local festivals….if you ‘re interested in your local community and are the sort of person who gets involved in things, that’s where you end up. And mostly, they’re great.  You meet other locals with similar interests, you get things done, and it can even lead to romance – I met my husband Hugh on the primary school committee (clearly, not my first husband, but that’s a story for another day.)

But have you ever been on a bad one?

Bad committees can go bad in lots of ways –  long, boring meetings that stray completely from the agenda (if there was one) and reach no conclusion, personality clashes, or my personal least favourite, the person who comes to every meeting with ideas for what “you” (never “we”) should do, making it really clear they have no intention of lifting a finger!

I’ve just spent a week in Canberra doing the Australian Institute of Company Director’s Course, which is part of the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award prize (and in fact was one of the reasons I applied for the RWA). It’s a week-long course that covers not only the legal and financial side of being a company director, but also delves deeply into what “good governance” looks like. Turns out it’s all about sound structure and great relationships! Good boards are full of people with good interpersonal skills, and they spend time working ON the business of being a board as well as IN the business.

Needless to say, I absolutely loved it, and spent the week thinking about how to use my new skills on the not-for-profit board and various committees I’m involved with, though it was clear the course is also intended for those intending to take up higher level board positions as well.  I was a little shocked when on the plane flying home afterwards I was flicking through the Qantas in-flight mag being slightly startled by the number of ads for BMWs and expensive jewellery  (I’m normally more of a budget airline girl) and noticed a story about high level executive business courses – and there was the AICD course I’d just done!

So it turns out that the skills you need to run a top 20 company are pretty much exactly the same skills you need to run the kindergarten committee, and they are exactly the skills you need to turn those “bad” committees into high-functioning, fun and effective groups. Just make sure you recruit someone who knows how to bake bread.

 


The last few weeks have been busy with media and speaking engagements:

  • Went to Canberra for a week and met and become friends with all the other RWA state finalists
  • Attended the Company Director’s Course
  • Given three “Facebook for Farmers Markets” workshops and one webinar to stallholders for my project
  • Been interviewed by the RIRDC panel for the national winner of the Rural Women’s Award
  • Prepared my keynote address for the upcoming Connecting Rural Business Women conference in Beechworth this weekend
  • Appeared in the Weekly Times (in the Focus magazine)
  • Accepted an invitation to be part of the judging panel for the Rural Ambassador Award (an initiative of Victorian Agricultural Shows)
  • Accepted an invitation to speak at the NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia – our organic certifying body) AGM in Canberra
  • Accepted an invitation to speak at the launch of the North Central CMA’s Sustainable Agriculture Strategy
  • Accepted an invitation to speak at the local U3A meeting
  • Hosted the local Permaculture Design Certificate group at the farm

My project, called “Growing Communities Around Farmers Markets” has been made possible by the RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards.

Winter Woodstock

Winter is a time on many farms when production slows down and although there is still plenty to be done and spring to be prepared for, there is a chance to breathe out and gather your energy for the coming seasons.

A few months ago a seed of an idea was planted. The idea was to take advantage of this mid-winter slow down and get together with a few like-minded food growers and people working in various ways to create alternatives to the industrial agriculture system. The seed quickly germinated  and culminated in an incredible gathering last weekend of around 150 of these movers, shakers, world changers, and trendsetters coming together to  share ideas, networks, knowledge, and experience.

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We were honoured to be invited to the gathering and as it was hosted by Jonai Farm in Eganstown, we didn’t have to travel a fraction of the distance that many of the others did. There was an incredible mix of growers and advocates from all states and territories except the Northern Territory. What totally blew us away was the presence of not only a large number of young farmers like us who are just starting out but also, of the new farmers, the large proportion that are women!

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We got to meet and share ideas, mistakes, resources, and solidarity with this great crew of farmers, both old and new.  It was so inspiring to sit and hear stories from the breadth of wisdom and experience in a room full of people who have been doing this stuff for much longer than us. It gave us an opportunity to meet face to face and make real connections with people who are busily doing amazing things in their spheres but may not often have the time to speak more widely about their work.

One of the inspirational discussions had was around changing the language that is used to describe farmers. Often the words ‘struggling’ and ‘farmer’ go hand in hand, and another common misconception communicated is that farmers aren’t the sharpest tools in the box. The discussion was around how we change that language to focus on how we are ‘prosperous famers’; not just in monetary sense and by thinking outside the box in terms of how we grow our food sustainably and viably.  Highlighted too was the actual diversity of intelligences it takes to run a successful and regenerative farm; sensitivity and understanding of land and ecology, marketing, communication, managing people, managing a business, accounting, weather reading, teaching, lobying…and much more!

We have come away from the weekend inspired to keep in contact with our new farming friends, visiting each other’s farms when possible and learning together as we create this new (old) way of growing food and communities. We also now have direct connections with some of the elders of the movement who are passionate about ‘growing the growers’ and helping newbies like us to learn from their experience.  It’s so special to spend time with these ‘elders’ as they don’t often stop long enough to ‘talk the talk’ coz they’re too busy ‘walking the walk’ – and that’s what we’re about too!

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A definite highlight was the incredible edible spread of handmade and hand grown cheeses, breads, cakes, biscuits, salads and hearty dishes at the bring-a-plate meals …the food and the heartfelt yarns shared over a steaming bowl of soup. Thanks Jonai Farm for hosting us all and for all the passionate earthy folk who travelled from far and wide to share their stories and experiences.

Cheers,

Sas and Mel
Gung Hoe Growers