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.

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.

The Patch in Winter

As I write this I’m listening to MainFM (Castlemaine’s local radio 94.9FM) – josh Meadows’ show – ‘it’s a jangle out there’, scally wag (the dog) is snoring beside me and I’m warming up some milk atop the wood fire stove top ready to whisk into cocoa… I’m really happy to be writing the blog this week (I forgot it was my turn last week and Katie saved my butt!) as I’ve been pondering lots of things lately.  This always happens when the seasons allow us to slow down a notch.  It’s just the way – shorter days mean less work hours for the likes of us (hurray!), and when there’s weeding to be done you have space to listen to all the thoughts that have been whizzing around that you haven’t had a chance to say hello to yet.

Even though the mornings are colder and I hesitate under the covers for longer than I should, there’s a warmness that is glowing out at Harcourt this last little while.  If we get there before the sun peeps its fingers over the mountains we get to watch the sunrise with Tess too, as shes there before us now milking her cow.  So we can have a cuppa and start the day all together.  Sooner or later Ant, or Katie or Hugh will arrive up to the shed and do what they need to do (packing has almost finished) then the whir of the pruning machine will slowly come into your ears from down in the apricots – Lucy is tackling the trees with pruning full of skill and love.  The dogs are a little gang now and will run around in their mucky ways (they all enjoy eating calf poo, together, gross).  If it’s a Tuesday, we will have had a cuppa with Cohen who rides out before school starts for a few hours of farm time. (legend!). Then a lil bit later, after a more reasonable get out of bed time, Marty and Cara and whoever else is joining us for half a day of volunteer time arrive ready to dive in to what jobs we’re working on that day.

Sas and I have always stood by our decision to not chase people after they’ve said they want to come out to the patch.  We know people want to, but lives are busy, and we are always here – that doesn’t change!  So if people want to come then they can.  Marty, Cara and Cohen have brought so much to our farming day.  They are the perfect example of why we don’t chase people.  They are interested and keen and it’s their own motivation that keeps them coming  (and we give ’em food too, maybe that’s it!).  The longer they stay, the more they learn.  It’s a beautiful and fair exchange.  It’s also been an eye opener to me (Katie always says it and I brush her off) that I DO know stuff and that there are definitely reasons why Sas and I do what we do.  It’s been good getting back into the head space of being clear with instructions and having jobs for us all to do.  The energy and enthusiasm they bring is truly heart warming to us and to Gung Hoe in general.  One of Sas and I’s intentions with Harcourt is that it is eventually a working educational space…having these guys out in the fields with us is like having a very informal window into our dream.

And wait, I haven’t even gotten to lunch! Sharing food is becoming a more regular occurence now, always on a Tuesday, someone cooks a big pot of something and we all bring things to chip in so we can sit down and hang out over a delicious feast (mostly grown at H’arcourt yay!).  Its funny how such a simple act can bring so much relief and rest and reassurance of your fellow human kind (i,e. laughter – we must laugh people!)

Anyone who knows me will know how much I value shared meals and big feasts and little picnics and basically bringing people together over a shared experience of food.  I know this warms Sassa’s heart too, so seeing it become a wee tradition out here is the best.

And because food comes from the earth and that is what essentially we are committing to restoring, this quote is very apt, and I love Wendell, so any chance really…

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

 – Wendell Berry

WIth the collective out here in Harcourt we are tackling some big things.  Big policy things.  Framework things.  Idea things.  And I can get a little overwhelmed sometimes feeling like it’s all a bit big!  And then put on top of that we are still trying to figure out this small-business thing, plus the balance of it with our own individual selves and lives.  Ha, it generally brings me to tears.  Not in a bad way just a whelmed way.  But having shared cuppas; people sharing the care of the land with us and learning how to then go and take care of their own little patch down the way; and eating together makes it all feel manageable again, and real.

And as I cower under the blankets in the mornings, I’m thinking more and more: how lucky I am.  When I get up I get to drive through the bush where I live which I love, past our swimming hole, the res, as see the fog gently lifting to kiss the rising light, go on back roads through vineyards where cows are grazing, ending up at our little place in this big world.  Where as Cohen says, thanks to the mount we see two sunrises each day.  Pretty great office.

And where the little people, like us, like those who currently join us and have already joined us (Tess and Ant and more to come I’m sure!).  We are creating our own adventures of learning and living in a conscious way.  As Emily Says from Brightside Produce just outside of Canberra: “Like many small business owners we’re not there yet. We have hairy moments where we hold our breath and hope the card doesn’t decline and where we dig deep into our creativity to jump the seemingly unending stream of hurdles.  This life is not romantic (who needs that shit?) but it is a deeply satisfying adventure and the only way I feel I can be in the world. During the winter I think about all of this…”

Finally, I’ll leave you with another quote that I saw from Chirons Gardens (an orchard in Robertson, NSW).  Pi didn’t say it, but she shared it and it tugged on me something strong.

Hope that you’re cosy and whatever adventure – career or personal – you’re currently on, you have your wide eyes on and are able to dive in.

Cheers Mel (and Sas)

“As farmers, we’d do well to lose the paradigm of ‘feeding the world’. If I feed my family, friends and community, I consider my job done…”