Farming Together in Harcourt

Hi Everyone,

We’re starting a new collaborative way of farming! At the moment it’s called the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (which is accurate, but too long – we need our younger and maybe more creative Alliance partners to come up something a bit shorter and punchier!).  Name notwithstanding, what’s it all about?

Well, it’s funny the places life takes you at times. All the business planning in the world can’t account for the magic that sometimes happens when an idea you’ve had brewing for a while collides with an offer someone makes to you, a random email that falls into your inbox, a conversation you have with a friend…and after a while, a whole new “thing” emerges that bears little or no resemblance to where you thought you were going.

We could claim credit for visionary strategic thinking in coming up with this idea, but actually it’s the culmination of lots of crazy dreams, little decisions, false starts, funny little conversations, half turns, and dead ends, and the contribution of lots and lots of people over the last couple of years. We reckon we’re on the right track though, because this new alliance idea solves lots of problems, answers lots of questions…and feels right!

We’re planning to set up an alliance of small organic farmers on our farm, all running different (but complementary) enterprises. We’re aiming to start with a market garden (already in place courtesy of the Gorgeous Gung Hoes), a micro-dairy (we’re in negotiations with someone at the moment), and the orchard. We’re also open to ideas for new enterprises.

So how did this all come about? There hasn’t been a single straight line, but it’s to do with a few problems we’ve been mulling over:

  1. We’re not getting any younger, and while we want to keep our orchard in production, we can see ourselves taking a less active role in the future (a common story among farmers our age).
  2. We know there’s room for the whole farm to be more productive than it is, but we don’t have the capacity to start new enterprises ourselves (see #1!).
  3. There’s lots of enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate people out there who want to run their own farming business, but the barriers (especially buying land) are prohibitive.
  4. Small-scale organic farming is risky, with the risk and expenses usually carried by a single family. We’ve often wondered whether there’s a better way we could farm that would share the risks and the expenses but also make better use of the resources.
  5. We’re keen to have more time to develop our online Grow Great Fruit teaching business, which we love doing and has been crammed into the cracks between fruit seasons for too long.

We know that lots of people and groups have been thinking about these problems, which boils down to a couple of questions: how do we keep productive organic farmland in production as farmers age and retire, and how do we create pathways into farming? The solution we’ve come up with is unique as far as we know (but we’d love to hear of anyone else doing the same thing—they may be able to save us making all sorts of teething mistakes!).

So, how do we put this into action? We could just keep running the orchard ourselves, but considering that one of the things on our mind has been our succession to retirement, it seems much more logical to create an opportunity for someone else to start their own fruit-growing business. We’ll be busy as lead Alliance partner, building and guiding the Alliance, in cooperation with the other Alliance members. And of course we’ll still be getting our hands dirty running our on-farm heritage tree nursery.

Starting today we’re seeking Expressions of Interest to find the right person (or people) to lease the orchard part of the farm. We’ve put 20 years of hard work into converting to organic production, rejuvenating old orchard blocks, working on soil health, and building infrastructure. Although any farm is always a work in progress, this offers a great opportunity for someone to take over an established organic orchard without having to start from scratch.

It’s going to suit someone (or a couple) with previous orchard experience, or at the very least substantial farming experience, as well as experience with organics. We’re offering mentoring, but not teaching someone with no farming experience.

Serendipitously, both state and federal governments have an appetite for funding collaborative farming projects at the moment, so we’ve applied for some funding to help us get started—more on that in the next blog.

There’s lots to thrash out to get this model to work, such as how many farmers is enough? What proportion of costs will each one contribute? What legal structure will we need? How do we create and maintain supportive, trusting relationships? How exactly do we share resources? What other products can we generate? What are the marketing opportunities?

No doubt all these things will be revealed as we embark on this ambitious, exciting and slightly terrifying journey.

Here we are back in September 2003!

Happy growing!

Hugh & Katie

(Please share this blog if you know anyone you think may be interested in the orchard lease opportunity.)

Choosing the right fruit tree

2003-oct-12-netting-81It’s that time of year again, when our minds turn to planting some new fruit trees. Winter is the right time for planting, when the trees are dormant and their roots are inactive, so they’re at less risk of being damaged by being lifted from the soil in the nursery where they grew, transported (bare-rooted), and then planted in their new home.

Choosing the right variety is exciting, but always seems to be a challenge, both for first timers and experienced gardeners. And it is tricky, because you’re (usually) choosing varieties you’re not really familiar with, so you’re not sure of when they’ll ripen, whether they’ll suit your climate, if they’re going to ripen at the same time as a similar fruit you already have in the garden, or even whether you’ll like them.

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Which is one of the reasons that fruit tree gardens are such a pleasure, because each autumn you get to review how they performed during summer, whether you’re getting enough – and the right types – of fruit, and make new decisions to keep improving the garden every year. It’s a constant work in progress, and an endless source of delight. It’s easy to see why it becomes a life-long passion for lots of people.

We reckon the keys to creating food security in your own backyard come from creating a regular supply of fruit over the whole growing season (as opposed to periods of glut and scarcity), extending the harvest period as long as possible, and having as big a variety of fruit as possible.

autumn fruit bowl
autumn fruit bowl containing 7 different varieties

So an easy way to think about your garden review and start choosing your new varieties is to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How many months did I have fresh fruit available?
  2. Did I have glut periods where I had more fruit than I needed?
  3. Did I go through periods where I had to buy fruit because there was none ready in the garden?
  4.  Am I growing all my favourites?

Your answers will give you a great starting point for making some choices for this year’s trees – look for varieties that will extend the season either at the beginning or end, ripen at the times when you are having to buy fruit, or provide you with some of your favourites. You might have to do some clever thinking around creating microclimates if your climate doesn’t quite suit the ‘favourites’ that you’d like to plant.

Of course, planting more trees is not the only solution – a lot of problems can also be resolved by grafting to make an overproductive tree into a multigraft, for example. But that’s a story for another blog!

 

Walking on clouds

I feel like I start every blog with ‘it’s been a big week at the patch…’ but really, it has been a monumental one. Over the past few weeks we’ve been preparing for our next upscaling of production at the patch. Kenny (Sas’ dad) has generously spent a couple of days with us putting FiFi (the red Massey Ferguson tractor) to good use loosening the soil and spreading out a massive pile of old top soil that was in the middle of our new patch. We found (and successfully avoided) all the irrigation pipes and thanks to our recent soil test results were able to thoughtfully apply some organic inputs (dolomite and lime) to start to balance our pH and amend our specific nutrient deficiencies.

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A little while ago Darren, our lovely friend who spontaneously pops in from time to time, usually when we’re in the throes of a task that we would really love some extra hands to help with, said to us “Why don’t you get Dave Griffiths to form your new garden beds for you?”. Dave had recently formed up all the beds at Darren’s upcoming market garden and the pictures he showed us made our backs sing with joy.  Why hadn’t we thought of that before?

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We are so used to just knuckling down and grunting through the massive task of upscaling, and have spent (alongside many of our uncomplaining and wonderful friends) the last 2 years physically digging over and creating each new garden bed. The thought of doing this all over again to make our newest patch was daunting to say the least and it was like a lightbulb, no…fireworks, went off when Darren made that suggestion. Of course! When we started we had no cash to pay anyone to do the brawn with a machine, but now after a successful crowd funding campaign and productive summer, we can actually afford to pay someone for a few hours to do what would take us at least 12 months to do by hand!

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Meeting Dave has been wonderful. He’s a rare human who not only gets it, he does it! He understands deeply the lay of the land and the movements of moisture and nutrient through the soil. He knows how to treat soil gently and thoughtfully over time in order to increase its health and productivity rather than just going for the short-term fixes…and he has a Yeoman’s plough!

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Yeoman’s ploughs are rare as hens teeth and, as opposed to most ploughs and rippers which turn the soil over exposing and killing the fragile soil microbes whilst also creating compaction layers beneath the tines, Yeoman’s ploughs loosen and fluff up the soil at a much greater depth without turning it over whilst also breaking through the compaction layers that have been created within the soil in the past. They get oxygen into the soil and create a spaces within the soil that can absorb moisture much better.

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In a few hours Dave managed to rip our whole new patch with the  plough and form up all our new beds! Wow! Walking over the soil after he had ploughed I could really feel the difference. The soil under foot felt like a soft, fluffy, sponge…it was just like walking on clouds! The beds are long and gorgeous and run mostly on contour to slow the movement of water through the patch and hopefully increase the ability of the soil to absorb that water as it moves through the landscape.

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At the end of those few hours we all stood looking at a transformed space the same size as our existing patch, bare and ready for planning and planting. Its so exciting, and also quite overwhelming. Phew. Onwards.

Grow well

Sas and Mel