Our organic farming group is coming together!

If you’ve been following us for a while you’ll know that we’re creating a very exciting new collaborative farming model on our farm—currently called the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance, or HOFA (we may change the name to something a bit more exciting down the track).

HOFA members hard at work, thinking!
HOFA members hard at work, thinking!

What started as a great idea (“Let’s invite a bunch of aspiring farmers to start their farming businesses on our farm!”) has turned into an incredibly complex and lengthy process—and we’re still just at the beginning!

For the sake of posterity (and to help anyone else thinking of doing the same thing on their own farm), we’ll summarise the steps we’ve taken so far:

How we found the farmers
This all started when we were approached by the Gung Hoe growers a few years ago (you can read that story here), and then as that relationship went well and we started to think more about the idea of adding more farmers to our farm, we started to talk about it—everywhere and all the time! It wasn’t long before we were approached by two more farmers interested in starting their own small enterprises—Tess and her micro-dairy, and Gilles and Sean from Maidenii vermouth.

Mel 'n Sas from Gung Hoe Growers starting their farming journey on our farm
Mel ‘n Sas from Gung Hoe Growers starting their farming journey on our farm

A talk with our accountant helped us to solidify our ideas, and we began the search for someone to join the alliance and lease the orchard. This was a months-long process that included sending out emails to all our contacts to tell them about the opportunity, press releases, setting up a webpage, doing a webinar, working with a PR person, more emails, posters, weekly stories in our e-newsletter, radio stories, and newspaper articles.

All that energy resulted in loads of interest (literally thousands of hits on the webpage), which led to three firm expressions of interest. We then sent out an information bundle and invited applications, and all three people applied.

Next came an application process which included interviews, asking for statements of intention, CVs and referees, as well as more casual get-togethers to give the applicants a chance to see the farm, ask questions, and meet the other HOFA members. At the end of an exhaustive process we chose Ant Wilson as our successful applicant, and he was pretty happy about being offered the chance to get his farming career started!

How we’ve funded it
Meanwhile, in the background, a lot of time and energy has gone into sourcing funding. Here’s a summary:

  • Regional Development Victoria saw a story about us in the local paper, contacted us and arranged a meeting on the farm, where they told us about the Food Source Victoria grants and invited us to put in an Expression of Interest
  • We put in the EOI and were asked to apply for a Planning Grant
  • We applied for the Planning Grant to do a Business Development Grant, with Clare Fountain from Sorted4Business as our consultant. After a wait of several months we found out we were successful.
  • We applied for Farming Together (federal) funding, and were approved and allocated 3 hours of free expert consulting services. We’ve used this as part of the business development plan and it’s been fantastic to have access to consultants who “get” what we’re trying to do and can provide useful advice.
  • We’ve just put in an EOI for the next stage of Farming Together funding to do the next stage of the business development (deciding the legal structure, individual business plans for each farmer, feasibility of value-adding, etc.). We’re waiting to hear back whether we need to put in a formal application.
  • Regional Development Victoria have invited us to apply for the next stage of the Food Source funding, a Growth Grant. We’re currently working on this application.
  • We’ve also decided to apply for a Landcare ‘Farm Smart Small Farms’ grant because it’s perfectly aligned with what we’re trying to achieve with our radical new collaboration, and are currently working on this application.

Working out the nuts and bolts
Working through the business development plan with Clare has been a brilliant, structured way of figuring out the details of how this will work (though we’re still in the early stages and feel like we still have more questions than answers).  Starting only with our successful experience with Gung Hoe, our optimism and a blank canvas, first we had to figure out what the model would look like.

Another day, another white board
Another day, another white board

Along the way we’ve considered everything—insurance, legal structures, dispute resolution, how to attribute fair lease payments to very different farm businesses, sharing equipment, whether we have enough land and water, and, most importantly, whether the whole thing will be economically viable! Even though sometimes it seems overly risk averse to be trying to anticipate every little thing that might go wrong, we’re sticking to the idea that the more planning and thinking we do now, the more smoothly things will go later.

This model is so new (we haven’t found the same model anywhere else in the world) that many of the things we want to do are challenging the existing paradigm. For example, we want to get the whole farm certified under one certification number (because we’re all on the same farm and intricately involved with each other’s business, and it’s much cheaper), even though each enterprise is a separate business. NASAA has indicated they’re happy to talk about it, but it will no doubt involve a lengthy negotiation process. We’ve also started having similar conversations with the Victorian Farmers Market Association, our local council, and insurance companies. Everyone’s been helpful and enthusiastic about our idea, but the whole process is incredibly time consuming.

We’re currently deep in the throes of (i) finishing the business development plan, (ii) working on the details of the lease arrangements (which we’ll then get legal advice on), and (iii) applying for more funding! Next we’ll need to work out the legal structure of the collective entity, which will no doubt be another big conversation weighing up the pros and cons of co-ops versus companies (having first learned what the bloody hell they are and how they differ to one another!).

Some days we look at each other and wonder if we’re overcomplicating our lives, and in fact creating a monster out of what started as a simple idea, but then we remind ourselves that we’re going through all of this to birth this strange new idea—that a bunch of landless organic farmers can come together on a patch of dirt owned by someone else and all harmoniously make a living side by side. So on we go!

Surely on the other side of all these funding applications, all these meetings and all this bloody hard thinking, life will become simple again.

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!

Organic farmers get thrown out of organic cafe!

Australian Network of Organic Orchardists ANOO conference
Rowdy organic orchardists tearing it up at this year’s ANOO conference

Yes, it’s true, this year’s Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference (yep, all of us) was asked to leave the cafe where we were holding our meetings (you can see from the photo what a rowdy bunch we are) after the management decided we were taking up too much room!  It was much funnier and less dramatic than it sounds, and actually one of the least interesting thing that happened over the 2-day gathering.

This was the third conference, and was held this year in the Adelaide Hills, where there are quite a few organic orchardists, mainly growing apples and cherries. The field trips are always a highlight of the conference – we always learn a lot through seeing other people’s orchards, asking questions and comparing notes. One of the biggest differences (in our eyes) is that they have vertical orchards (man, those hills are steep), but they’re completely used to it and don’t even seem to rate it as a challenge!

Kalangadoo Organics farm door stall
Chris and Michelle from Kalangadoo Organics showing us the simple stall they use for farm door sales

On the way over we stopped to visit Chris and Michelle at Kalangadoo Organics (you might have seen them last year on Gardening Australia), and had a fantastic tour of their property. They showed us how they’ve set up fencing to keep chickens in the orchards with their guard Maremmas, the clever farm-door sales stall they’ve built, and their fabulous arboretum, where they’ve been testing about 90 different apple varieties for black spot resistance for a number of years (we also brought home some wood from the most resistant varieties!). They’ve also leased some of their land to a young couple to start a market garden, so there’s a lot of similarities in our future plans as well; we had lots to talk about and they were very generous with their time.

ANOO has purposely been set up very informally with a completely flat structure, the organisation of each year’s conference shifting to a new area and person each year. Any certified orchardist is welcome, as long as they’re willing to share and participate. Most are apple growers, but quite a few also have stone fruit. Part of the conference is a round-table discussion about everyone’s season, their successes and failures, trials that have been implemented, new business ideas, and pest and disease management challenges. It’s probably the most valuable part of the event.

There was lots of interest in our organic farming alliance idea, with several other farms currently looking at or interested in similar ideas. It was surprising for example how many are either already using animals in their orchards or looking at doing it, like Matt and Coreen from Our Mates Farm who are experimenting with pigs, sheep and chickens in the orchard at their place in Geeveston (Tas.). The benefits for both health and fertility in the orchard, as well as providing extra income streams, seems to be clear, and it’s one of the things we’d love to see come out of our Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance. It was great that there was enough experience within the group to be able to discuss the relative merits of Shropshire sheep vs Wiltshire Horns, for example!

Dried organic fruit from O'Reilly's Orchard
Dried organic fruit from O’Reilly’s Orchard

Value-adding was another hot topic of discussion, and again most orchards are already value-adding or planning to do so. David O’Reilly from O’Reilly’s Orchards brought some of his dried fruit medley and dried tomotoes along for people to try, and they were delicious! He struggles to keep up with demand, which highlighted another theme—that demand for organic produce keeps outstripping supply.

Other people are making everything from juice of various descriptions (both pasteurised and non-pasteurised) to cider, apple pies, pastries and frozen fruit. There was lots of discussion about equipment, techniques, markets, packaging and prices – an absolute goldmine of ideas!

As well as sharing the considerable wisdom and experience within the group, we also heard from a few speakers, including the guys from NASAA who tried to clarify the very confusing picture of organic standards in Australia for us! One of the chemical companies who service the organic industry came along to tell us about some new certified organic products, which led to some really interesting discussions among the group about “input” organics vs “true” organics, for want of a better way of describing it. Most ANOO members are small to medium-sized growers who share a deep understanding and appreciation of active soil biology as the basis for their healthy orchards;  we value our weeds and think of them as an integral part of our ecosystem, so it was kind of weird to hear about a new organic herbicide – we were all left wondering who it was aimed at…

Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory
Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory

More in line with our philosophical approach to farming was the tour of the Neutrog factory, where they make a range of certified organic fertilisers from chicken waste. We were all impressed with the talk from their soil biologist which went beyond the basics of soil biology (which everyone was familiar with) deep into things like the regionality of different soil organisms. Even though certified organic fertilisers like this support biological farming, it still raised some interesting questions about the ethics of using waste products from factory-farmed chickens – so few decisions in farming are simple!

Another great joy was to spend time with Victoria, our intern from a couple of years ago, who lives in Adelaide. You may remember that since she was with us Victoria was diagnosed with and has been battling Lyme disease, and has had a pretty rough trot. She’s recently got onto a new treatment that seems to be making a real difference to her, so she was able to join us for a few sessions, where she immediately fitted right in, clearly demonstrating that she has the soul of a farmer!

Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year's ANOO conference
Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year’s ANOO conference

On the way home we were talking about the highlights and what we’d learned and it’s clear to us that the very best thing to come out of these gatherings is the gathering! Being part of a group, making new friends (especially friends who are as nerdy about fruit growing as us), and feeling like we’re not alone in this farming caper is absolute gold!