How to set up a farming co-op

We’ve signed the leases! It took 3 months of negotiation and not a little angst, but all 4 founding members of the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op now have a lease at the farm. (In fact the leases all started on 1 July, it just took another 3 months to work out the details and get the paperwork signed!).

All the leases are for 3 years, with the option to extend them for 2 more 3 year terms (i.e., 9 years altogether). They can also opt out at any 3 year mark, so it gives them a chance to try it out without making a huge commitment.

Next step is setting up the co-op, which is the part of our big plan that should help each business to save time and money by working together.

We’ve started a “Business Ninjas” program to help members run lean, profitable businesses and financially “future-proof” themselves, but also to come up with a cunning plan to protect us all against the many risky things that can—and do—happen to farmers.

The other main project underway is the RDV-funded project to provide the infrastructure our farmers need, which is now rapidly taking shape—the containers have been found and bought, the concrete footings were poured this week, and we hope to take delivery of the containers in the next week or so.

There’s loads of interest in what we’re doing—we’ve already had a number of people wanting to visit and talk to us about what we’re doing, which is so great and definitely part of the point of what we’re trying to set up.

We don’t know much yet (including whether this experiment will actually work), but we’re happy to share our experience so far.  And we certainly understand why people might be interested in this model, because there are just SO many potential benefits:

  • A succession plan for older farmers like us who want to step away from active farming, but don’t want to sell up and want their farms to stay in production.
  • A productivity plan for farms—our model aims to ‘stack’ as many compatible enterprises onto the same farm as possible (similar to the Joel Salatin model, but each enterprise is run as a separate business).  Multi-enterprise farms are more resilient, and can produce more food and make more money, but unless you have a large and enthusiastic family it’s beyond the capacity of most farmers to do more than a couple of things well. This way each enterprise gets the passion, dedication and time it needs to become as good as it can be, and it also creates a livelihood for many more families.
  • An affordable and supported pathway into farming for young farmers, many of whom don’t have sufficient capital to buy land, or experience to start their own business. This model gives them access to land without taking a massive financial risk, while at the same time giving them business support to help fast-track their business skills.
  • Mitigating climate change by increasing the amount of farmland being farmed organically, which puts more carbon into the soil.
  • Increasing the amount of locally grown food that’s accessible straight from the farm for local families.
  • Creating a supportive peer group for the young farmers, where they provide emotional and practical support for each other, plus lots of opportunities to collaborate to help improve each other’s businesses.
  • A chance to share our knowledge and expertise with the younger generation of farmers.

While we’re really happy to share what we’re learning, time means money, and though we’d love to drink tea and chat all day we’ve also got work to do! So we’re thinking about the best way we can share our model without it taking too much of our time—stay tuned on that one, we’ll let you know when we’ve developed our cunning plan.

Meanwhile, it must be time for another party, so we’re holding our official launch and farm open day on Sunday October 28.  Things get started at 10 a.m. with morning tea, then the farm tour will kick off at 11 a.m. where you can see and hear about

  • Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery
  • Sellar Farmhouse Dairy
  • Tellurian Fruit Gardens
  • Gung Hoe Growers market garden
  • Grow Great Fruit education program
  • Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens heritage apple orchard
  • the infrastructure hub we’re building

It’s a free event, but if you’re coming please register here so we have an idea of the numbers. You’ll be able to buy scones, cake and drinks for morning tea, and soup and bread for lunch, and will also be invited to make a donation to help us with running costs (suggested donation $10). Please DON’T bring your dog (unless it’s on a lead and/or can stay in the car) or ANY fresh fruit or vegetables onto the farm (because we’re on fruit fly lockdown).

A good grafting knife…

Whenever it’s time to do some budding or grafting, I marvel at Merv’s knife. With more than 50 years of grafting, budding and careful sharpening under its blade, it is truly a testament to the crafting of Merv’s art. There isn’t much left of the blade after all these years of sharpening, but over time it’s been sculpted into the perfect grafting knife. The blade curves almost into a hook and before every grafting session it gets sharpened.

The sharpening stone is another testament to all of Merv’s hard work. It too has been worn down drastically on the favoured sharpening edge, and after every sharpen, it gets lovingly wrapped back up in a cloth until next time.

This week we started grafting onto some of our cherry root stocks. The sap is moving sufficiently in the trees to help the grafts ‘take’ (fingers crossed) and we have a short window of opportunity to test out our grafting skills. If we stuff up and the grafts don’t take, we will get a  second shot at the end of summer, when we can try ‘budding’ onto any rootstock where the graft failed. Phew!

 

Grafting can be a little nerve wracking, especially with a freshly sharpened knife from the hand of Merv. Slicing thin bits of wood into just the right shape, cutting little tongues into the wood and then matching them up with the slice you’ve made on the root stock perfectly….well lets just say I need another 50 years of practice until I’ll be any chop! Speaking of chop, and that sharp knife… Merv and I both sliced off various parts of our hands within the first 5 grafts. A good reminder to be careful when  grafting!

On other things nursery, Merv and Katie pinned down horizontally our apple and cherry rootstocks in the ‘stool bed’. The new shoots on the trees will start to grow straight up and as they do we will fill in the soil around them in the trench. That’s the theory anyway!

Happy spring folks!

Sas

It doesn’t cost anything to give it a go!

Buds are starting to swell and seeds are beginning to germinate…a call to action in the heritage fruit tree nursery. Merv has been busy preparing the soil in the new nursery patch. Katie has been busy selling the last of the beautiful fruit trees that we grew before they come out of their winter sleep and need to be planted in the ground properly again. But now that our saved apple, quince, pear and peach seeds are starting to shoot, its all hands on deck.

This week we planted our cherry rootstock and acquired some compact apple rootstock varieties to experiment with. Along with grafting the cherries in September and budding the apples we’re hoping to experiment with creating a ‘stool bed’. Katie and I haven’t ever done a stool bed so we’re excited to learn this technique from Merv. A stool bed (from my limited understanding) is a way of trench layering a ‘mother plant’ in order to grow multiple root stock trees from a small number of ‘mothers’. This is important for cherry rootstock, which don’t grow readily from seed, and special varieties of rootstock, which you want to multiply true to type.


The plum cuttings are starting to ‘heel up’ (grow a heel/scab over them from which the roots will sprout) which means we’ll plant them out soon . The apple, peach and quince seeds are sprouting so we’ve begun to plant them out in rows. These we will grow up over summer and ‘bud’ in February with a number of different varieties for sale the following year.

We have also been cutting back the trees we budded last February, to the bud union. These trees (see pic) with different colored pipe cleaners are the plum rootstock we budded multiple varieties of plum and apricot onto. Another experiment, which so far seems to be going well…as long as we can keep track of which branch has which variety budded onto it!!

Soon it will be time to sow our green manure crop in the resting nursery patches and sow some more citrus seed in the hot house (yet another experiment). Most of the rootstock we grow, except for our experiments with cherries, citrus and small apple rootstock, we have grown ourselves. We either collect seed or take cuttings to create them, and like Merv always marvels, “it doesn’t cost you anything”! There is a lot of time and care that then goes into turning that seedling into a good fruiting tree, but Merv’s right, it doesn’t cost you anything to give it a go!