Conferences and Field Trips!

Hugh and Katie at the NASAA conference
A full house at this year’s NASAA Conference

One of the challenges for farmers is to find the time and resources for professional development. For most of us, there’s no defined career development pathway, so it’s something we have to figure out for ourselves.

First, find the conference, workshop or course that will give you quality information you need to help you grow and learn in the appropriate areas to match the direction you’re trying to grow your business.

Next, juggle your farm obligations to free up enough time both for travelling and attending the conference itself. This might involve finding (and paying) someone to do your work, working longer hours before and/or after the trip to make sure everything gets done, or resigning yourself to the fact that some jobs might not get done, or not at the right time.

Finally, check the budget to figure out how you can pay for the travel, accommodation and food, as well as the expense of the conference or workshop itself. Not many farmers have a budget allocation for professional development!

But over the years we’ve decided it’s really important to prioritise ongoing learning – in fact it’s something we made a commitment to many years ago, when we first did our Sustainability Plan.

Which is why we’ve left the farm today to come to the NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia – our organic certifier) conference, even though it’s spring, we totally don’t have time, and it means we’re leaving our thinners to do the work without us! As part of the conference we also hosted a field trip of NASAA delegates to our farm yesterday, which was another half-day of work we didn’t get done!

Dr Bruno Giboudeau presenting his fascinating Obsalim system for monitoring herd health
Dr Bruno Giboudeau presenting his fascinating Obsalim system for monitoring herd health at the NASAA Conference

But it’s so worth it! In our experience, whenever we make the effort to get off the farm, or to host a field trip for that matter, we always learn something, and many times we’ve come away from conferences or field trips with a piece of new information that has fundamentally changed the way we farm and do business. One of the speakers we’re really excited about at today’s conference is Dr Christine Jones, a soil ecologist and carbon hero of ours whose work we’ve been following for years.

But quite aside from new stuff we might learn, the best part – always – is the people we meet, the connections we make, and feeling like we’re part of a bigger community with common goals. Farming can be a solitary career, and getting together with our “tribe” – in this case other organic farmers – is refreshing, renewing, inspiring and totally worth the extra effort involved to get here!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Well, maybe not in the moment when you look back and realise that if you had done things a little differently, or with a little more forethought, you might have saved yourself a whole lotta work. But there’s always next time, right?

We’re sure there was a really good reason we got Dave with his tractor to form up the long beds in our new patch in winter. We just can’t really remember what the reasons were. Maybe we had more ambitious ideas about actually planting into them in winter, or sowing a green manure crop that we’d dig in in late winter to feed the soil ready for spring and summer crops. All good ideas in theory, but actually what has happened is that all those beautiful long clean rows, carefully prepared in June, have grown a bumper crop of beautiful weeds and now in preparation for our spring plantings we have to deal with them! In hindsight, now would be the perfect time to have our once-off visit from Dave with his machine to form up the new beds, turning the beautiful lush winter weeds into the soil, green manure style at the same time… ready for mulching and planting out in a few weeks for summer.

With our glass-half-full brains on, the weeds that have grown in the new beds are a perfect, diverse green manure crop, just waiting to feed our soil. But 630 square metres of land is a lot to dig by hand! Our new patch is also critically low in nitrogen (amongst other nutrients) and so the last two weeks has seen us shift 10 cubic meters of organic cow poo by wheelbarrow onto the new beds and spend 10 hours straight on a rotary hoe and 10 hours straight on a whipper-snipper to slash, turn, and tuck all those weeds and cow poo back into the soil. This time without the big tractor!

Using a rotary hoe is not our preferred method, as over time and with overuse it can create a compaction layer in the soil. But coupled with our deep broadforking every time we plant a new crop and encouragement of life in the soil, we figure we can get away with it, just this once!

Mel and I are fairly well spent after the last few weeks, but all the babies in the hot-house are coming along nicely and will need planting out soon. So, clearing out the last of our spring crops, feeding and mulching the beds ready to receive them is the focus of the next few weeks. The patch is gorgeous at the moment, flowers everywhere…even some very early sunflowers that sowed themselves in the paths at the end of last summer and survived the entire winter. Ripe tomatoes can’t be too far off…Love it.

All we ever do is have meetings

An alliance meeting in our kitchen
An alliance meeting in our kitchen

Setting up the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (we’re still waiting for someone to come up with a better name….) is exciting, fun, stimulating, inspiring and reinvigorating for us old farmers, but mostly, it’s a lot of meetings!

On the phone, by Skype, in person, at offices in the city, here on the farm—we have been talking to a lot of people about this project over the last few weeks.

Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!
Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!

We’ve been going through a thorough process of interviewing and getting to know each of the applicants for the orchard lease, as we’re keen to choose the person who will be the best fit for the opportunity. We’ve had multiple meetings with other alliance members as they start to work through the detail of setting up or expanding their businesses. We’ve had regular meetings with our business consultant, Clare, to work through the many layers of complexity involved with our business development plan, we’ve met with professionals to get advice on various aspects of our plans, and had meetings with the funding body to report on our progress and discuss next steps. We almost don’t have time to farm any more!

We’ve also had some welcome interest from the media about what we’re doing, and are now starting to get inquiries from other farmers and farming groups interested in doing something similar on their farms. As part of our mission here is to develop a replicable model that can be implemented all around the country, we’re happy to share our progress so far, but all this talking is keeping us from our fruit trees!

Spring is such a crucial time of year in the orchard, when it’s more important than any other time of year to keep our eye on the ball so we can anticipate and respond to the weather to protect the trees while they’re flowering and the fruit is setting. If we stuff up now, we pay for it for the rest of the season!

gala blossom

So we’re feeling a little distracted by nurturing two completely different ‘babies’ at the moment—this year’s fruit crop, and our fledgling alliance. Both promise great things and deserve our full attention, but we can’t wait until we’ve steered them through these early, risky stages and can stand back a bit and take a breath!