Solitude and a reset…

Well its been an interesting fortnight, that’s for sure! How is everyone out there? The season has definitely started to turn—I see fat buds waiting for their chance to burst and the golden blush of the first wattles across the land. I (Mel) have been away in NSW, in a little bush shack. I had the company of two dogs—Scallywag and a kelpie named Pickle—an arrangement of chooks, bellbirds, bower birds, whip birds, wombats, poetry, the beach and a hearty fireplace. Oh! and my new favourite tipple—Maidenii Vermouth.

This year has still had its ripples from the years that came before it and I knew I needed Mel solo time. I was surrounded by green and lush and life, as well as slow, quiet, and a chance to really rest and give myself some time  (I’m aware this opportunity is a big privilege and precious and view it as such). I also had moments of exploration to nearby towns for op-shops and coffee and record hunting, discovering old friends and new. I sat with solitude and ate it up, and have taken away learnings, not the least being how important it is to care for yourself and even one step further—give yourself love (might sound hippy-dippy, but it’s straight down the line true!).

This poem penned by Judith Wright (Aussie lady yiew!) was the stand out to me of how the seasons around us change, but also how the seasons in ourselves change in their own, right, and beautiful time. As with nature, it is within us…I hope you can take a moment and read the words of The Cedars.

On the way back to Victoria I had an unfortunate meeting with a corner, wet roads, and some trees. It wasn’t a good experience and we’re (Scally and me) totally lucky we’re all ok. The towtruck guy amongst others said I “shoulda bought a lottery ticket” that day… So arriving home shaken and sore, we hit the ground running with the Harcourt Alliance vision day (not as flouncy as it sounds i promise you. We worked hard!) and it was bloody amazing and reassuring how each individual around that table was thinking along the same lines as their neighbour and as it continued the whole way round. An alliance of farmers and primary producers standing tall and strong. It was awesome.

And so I’m left here, at the end of another week (but what does Friday mean really….not much for those of our ilk) with a feeling of almost a reset. It’s weird, and I’m not holding my breath, but coming back and working in the dirt, surrounded by the possibility and people involved both here in Harcourt, but all over Australia, I have a renewed sense of gratitude that growing food is what I get to do. It’s bloody hard work, and we’re not there yet (who is though!) but for now, this is absolutely the best.

May your buds burst at just the right time (even if it doesn’t seem like it to you—trust them, they know better than us).

Mel x

Gung Hoe Growers
69 Danns Rd Harcourt

Farmers on holiday…

What do farmers do on holiday (when they take them)…!? Visit other farms of course! After two years of heads down bums up, Mel and I decided it was time to pull our heads out and visit some rock star farmers that we’ve heard about and connected with via the various social media pages for market gardeners. What tools do they use? How do they plant and harvest their salad mix? Do they use poly tunnels, what kind of irrigation, how do they work out how to price their veggies, who do they sell to? Direct sown or seedlings, are their beds really as weed free as their Instagram would have you think …? So many questions had we!

Gung Hoe is at a stage where we have grown our growing area to a size that means we have to get a whole lot smarter and more efficient with how we do things. There are so many that have gone before us, made mistakes and had brilliant successes, and the beautiful thing about the small-scale market gardening community in Australia is that everyone is so open about sharing their learning and tips…shoulders of giants and all that.

So we hit the road. iPods charged and questions at the ready. First stop was Erin at RAD Growers in Albury. She grows on 1.5 acres of land in a climate similar(ish) to us and sells most of her produce via weekly mixed boxes to the local community, also supplying yummy stuff to restaurants. Erin has her business smarts sorted and is unapologetic about the quality of her produce and the price it should return. She has been farming about the same amount of time as us and has worked incredibly hard to make her farm beautifully productive and diverse in that time, despite massive floods that saw her canoeing over her submerged crops!

Half a day’s drive up the road we stopped in to see Emily and Michael at Bright side produce in Captains Flat (near Canberra). These guys are getting seriously close to the tree line (at least that’s how it felt with frozen dams, snow gums and a standard morning temperature of -10!) These guys, same as us, are growing on ¼ acre but in such a different climate…two weeks frost free a year! Even so they manage to make a living growing and selling their mountain fresh produce and eggs to the local and Canberra communities and restaurants. We had such a nice time hanging out with them in their quiet mountain home, picking each other’s brains and eating soup. Running backwards in the dark with Mel and Michael down a steep, rocky hill in front of a slightly out of control chook mobile while Ninja the dog ran in circles under our feet trying to round up the chooks was an exciting moment.

 

Last stop was with Lizzie Clay at Baw Baw organics in Piedmont. What a woman.  The daughter of a market gardener, she has been growing organically on her property for 30 years. While the rain bucketed down outside, Lizzie offered us so much wisdom, encouragement and insight from her amazing and diverse experience. We hardly left her kitchen table for the 24 hours that we were there! This is a woman who thinks big but knows the power of planting a single seed, always learning, always pushing the boundaries and finding new ways of doing things that also benefit the wider community and the land on which she grows.

Our roady has left us with lots to process and some clear ideas for our next steps and how we can shift things up a gear (scuse the pun).  We were so grateful and humbled by the generosity of our fellow farmers, offering so much of their time, knowledge and patience amidst their busy days. Thanks dudes, its so nourishing to know there are others out there doing what we’re doing, thinking about the same things and finding creative solutions to the challenges of growing good food for local communities.

Grow well

Sas and Mel

Gung Hoe Growers

Three reasons to get your farm certified organic (and four reasons not to)

Organic certification audit taking place
Hugh showing the NASAA inspector around the farm during our certified organic audit

We’ve just had our annual organic certification visit from NASAA, our certifying body. We’ve written before about the process of being audited here, and our journey to organic certification here, here and here.

Is it worth being certified? It’s a relatively big cost for a small business (it cost us $950 this year, plus a levy on our produce over $40,000), but the actual amount you pay depends on the certifier you choose, and the type of certification program you enrol for – there are some designed for very small producers, or for exporters, for example.

Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan - thanks RDV and Maree Edwards
Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan – thanks RDV and Maree Edwards!

It’s a hot topic for us at the moment as we start the business planning process for the new Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance we’re setting up on the farm. Organic is in the name, but all the enterprises on the farm will be running their own business, so it will be their own decision to make. Plus, each business is so different that they have different considerations in their own “pros and cons” list, but here’s the ones on our mind as we start to figure out how to handle this issue:

 PROS

  1. It gives our consumers confidence that everything produced on the farm is grown according to Australian Organic Standards. Some people argue that because the organic certification system is flawed, it’s not worth bothering with, and that it’s enough just for producers to say they’re following the standards. We disagree! Certification may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got at the moment. We’re mates with lots of other small farmers who have chosen not to get certified for a whole range of reasons that suit their business, and we respect their decisions. But we’ve also stood next to other growers at farmers markets who claim they’re ‘organic’ just because they’re not using insecticides, for example, but they’re still merrily using Roundup to kill their weeds, because if the chemical’s not getting on the fruit it doesn’t count, right? WRONG!
  2. It gives us access to markets that demand certification for organic produce, like the wholesale market in Melbourne. For micro-businesses that can sell practically all their produce to people they know, this isn’t an issue, but if you’re producing enough that you need to sell into markets that can handle larger quantities (and realistically, most farms have to be this big to make a decent living), then organic certification is a definite advantage.
  3. Alliance members on the farm will be able to collaborate freely. If not all the enterprises in our alliance are certified, we’ll have to be very fussy about keeping our businesses separate, to make sure we’re meeting the Organic Standards. For example because the orchard is certified organic, we can’t put non-certified animals in the orchard without following a documented quarantine procedure first, even if the animals have been managed organically on the same farm. This might seem like bureaucratic craziness, but the point of the Organic Standards is to protect the integrity of the organic system, so there’s really strict rules about bringing non-organic elements into it, which we totally support. We can’t expect an organic auditor to take our word for it that other alliance members are ridgy-didge.

CONS

  1. It’s more expensive. Yep, it is, but one of the reasons we’re setting up the alliance is to look at ways for reducing costs, sharing resources and keeping overheads as low as possible for small farming businesses, so we’ll be looking at ways of sharing the costs of certification as well.
  2. It’s bureaucratic. Yep, it is, because that’s what you have to do to demonstrate that you understand and are complying with EVERY part of the Organic Standards.
  3. It takes more time. Yep, it does, but only to get your documentation systems set up to allow for easy reporting and traceability (which is good business practice anyway), and 1/2 a day each year for the audit, which is a great opportunity to spend time with someone who’s experienced at looking at lots of different organic farms. It’s definitely not part of an auditor’s role to give farming advice, but they’ll often make useful suggestions for solving farming problems.
  4. It can make the end product more expensive. Yes, it can. If there’s an insufficient supply of organic feed for animals, for example, it’s going to cost more than the conventional equivalent. This is one of the ‘hidden costs’ that can make organics more expensive in general, and highlights the fact that we don’t have enough organic producers at every level of farming!

Part of forming an alliance here on the farm is that issues like this will have to be discussed, thrashed out within the group and decided on collectively – which should be fun, actually. Part of the brave new farming world we’re trying to create is a model for how small enterprises can share land and resources together and work side-by-side to make all our businesses more successful, and working out issues like this together is going to be part of the journey.