How do you share a farm?

Things have been changing around here (honestly, when are they ever not?) as we pin down the nuts and bolts of how this new farm sharing arrangement will work.

“D” day, when all our lessees officially started their new farming businesses (or in the case of the Gung Hoe Growers, renewed their lease) was 1 July, and while we’ve started building the new infrastructure that the new enterprises will need (funded by Regional Development Victoria), getting the leases in place with each enterprise has proven to be more detailed than we anticipated, so the leases haven’t actually been signed yet.

We reckon that’s a good thing. Each conversation has raised more points we hadn’t considered—about water, fences, sharing resources, who’s liable for what, who pays for infrastructure, the list goes on—and so we’ve had to get more legal advice on some points, and conversations are ongoing.

But we think it’s good to do the detailed thinking about these issues now, so everyone’s as clear as possible about what we’re all signing up for. We also reckon that getting strong leases and understandings in place now will pave the way to bring new enterprises into the co-op a bit more easily.

Meanwhile, Hugh and I have had to adjust to this new way of “being” on our farm. It’s a big transition from it being “our” farm where we got to decide everything, to remembering that it’s now a shared space where we have to consult with everyone else before we make decisions.

At the same time, we’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that we’re not really orchardists any more. I had to fill out my occupation on a form today, and had no idea what to put down—if I’m not an organic orchardist, what the hell am I? (I settled on “organic fruit-growing educator”—snappy, huh?).

Having just been to this year’s ANOO (Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) conference, we felt a bit like frauds at the beginning, but then we realised that we’ve retained management of our recently planted heritage apple orchard until it’s in production, so technically we ARE still orchardists.

The conference was a great treat as usual—both as a learning and a social experience—and we came back raving to the rest of the co-op of the importance of having a peer group of like-minded people facing the same issues with production, small business, and marketing as you. To a certain extent the co-op members will form that peer group for each other, but they’ll each face different issues and so will also get a lot of value out of connections with other similar organic growers.

The whole process has been full-on and has taken WAY more time and energy than we anticipated, but it hasn’t all been hard and there’s an amazing upside to sharing the farm. Every day, we get to watch and share as these wonderful and inspiring young people go about doing their farming businesses, innovating, sharing new ideas, dealing with issues as they come up and constantly learning.

I swear we’re feeling younger just having them around, and every now and then we sit back, take stock, and get glimpses of the future, and then we feel incredibly proud and hopeful about what we’re creating here in this beautiful little shared farm space.

The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!

When farmers get help, magic happens…

We had the pleasure this week of speaking at a conference in Canberra about being part of the Farming Together (federal) funding program designed to encourage collaboration between farming groups.
We were speaking about setting up the co-op here on the farm, and our “succession + growth” model generated a lot of interest, because there’s a lot of farmers in the same situation as us, i.e., thinking about retirement or at least wanting to step back, but not wanting to sell the farm or stop it being productive.
Previous generations solved this problem by handing the farm down to the kids, and 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation family farms are not uncommon. But things are rapidly changing and it’s no longer a given that the next generation will come home on the farm. So, we’re hopeful that the model we’re creating will be of use to lots of other people.
The sort of innovation that we’re demonstrating here was very much the tone of the conference. We came away feeling totally inspired by the other farming groups we heard from, and brought lots of new ideas back to Harcourt with us. Here’s some of the highlights:
  • Braidwood Garlic Growers Co-op, who are helping more than 30 members make a living from their very small holdings by learning and marketing together.
  • King Island Beef Producers Benchmarking Group, who told the story of taking a field trip to another group of farmers who were already experienced in benchmarking, and being amazed to find they had totally overcome their fear of sharing their financial and production information with each other! They went on to develop the list of shared values (in the photo) that has led to increased profitability for the whole group.
  • The berry growers co-op (who are way bigger than we’ll ever be, but still had great ideas to learn from), who presented the financial analysis showing the value of investing in crop-protecting infrastructure.
We’re not in the business of being the mouthpiece for government, but this was a really good program. In just 1 year they fostered 224 co-ops, worked with 750 groups, and helped more than 28,500 primary producers.
Inspiring stuff, but behind the numbers is the fact that this program worked really well for us, the farmers.  We got into the program after an initial assessment (by phone) and were assigned a business consultant, and after that it was their job to understand what we needed and apply for the funding to deliver it. We got great service and the professional advice we needed to develop our co-op with a minimum of our time taken up with bureaucracy, leaving us time to actually work on our idea.
In accordance with the unfathomable way that government sometimes works, this effective, bloody good-value program didn’t get funded in the last budget, so we’d like to give a big thanks to the Farming Together team and the team of consultants who helped us, especially the indomitable Clare Fountain.