Giving birth is just the beginning

As our group of enthusiastic new farmers comes together and we breathe life into HOFA (the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance ), I was reminded this week that giving birth to this brand new model of farming—the thing we’ve been planning for, working towards and anticipating keenly for many months now—is just the beginning.

Like having a baby, it’s all too easy when starting a new project to focus solely on having a successful birth, which is kind of analagous to the planning process we’ve been going through together to bring our idea to fruition.

What many people fail to anticipate is that it’s after the birth when shit gets real. Suddenly, you have a baby, and a whole new world of learning abruptly begins, one that has much higher stakes because other lives are involved, and are depending on you to get it right!

What reminded me was having a long chat with an old friend last weekend. We worked together in a big community project; she helped to get it off the ground, and I joined just a couple of years later. We were both involved for many years, and together witnessed the growth, tantrums, milestones, break-ups and—finally—evolution into the stable and grown-up organisation it is today.

I  observed at the time how similar an organisation is to a child; we had to carefully steer it through the early stages, tore our hair out during those difficult teenage years, and then watched with pride as it finally grew beyond needing us at all.

Unfortunately many new projects don’t survive to adulthood, but stumble and fail, often within 5 years of starting. The main reasons for lack of success are

  • poor communication
  • relationships failing
  • lack of financial viability
  • lack of capital
  • not being flexible and able to change and evolve
  • burnout
  • inexperience

In our planning process we’re doing our best to avoid all these pitfalls by establishing great systems, processes and group dynamics, but experience tells us that the real work is done by actually getting started, and then hanging in there for the next 18 or so years.

New farm resident Roberta will also be giving birth in coming months, and in turn paving the way for a brand new enterprise on the farm.

Cows don’t do a lot of planning for giving birth, or probably give much thought to what happens afterwards. They don’t have meetings, do visioning sessions, or write business plans, they just automatically know what to do, and get on with it.

Laying great foundations for the birth is a great start – but come 1 July, we’re going to have to start just getting on with it.

New Blood in the Orchard

A couple of years ago I gave up being “busy”. It was when I was doing the project for the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award and had a lot on my plate – you can read about it here.

Here’s what I had to say at the time about being busy…

“My theory is that “busy” is a code word that l (and lots of other people) use when what we really mean is overworked, stressed, under-supported, tired, financially burdened, worried, over-committed, important, in demand, or worthy of your sympathy! For me, busy had become my not-so-subtle way of saying to people (a) look how popular and ‘in demand’ I am; (b) isn’t the life of a farmer hard; (c) don’t expect me to take on anything else; and (d) look at me, I’m superwoman! None of which is actually true.”

Well, old habits die hard! Lately I’ve heard myself not only talking about being busy, but slipping back into the old mindset as well.

It comes with the territory of a fruit season; most farmers with seasonal crops have to cope with the sometimes extreme workloads imposed by harvest (as opposed to dairy farmers, for example, who have a more steady work pace all year).

Harvest is definitely crunch time. It’s arguably the most important part of our farming calendar, because if we don’t get this part of the process right – where we convert produce to money – the rest of it is kind of pointless, unless you’re content for your farm to just be an expensive hobby (and we’re not!).

At this time of year our workload is imposed on us, not just by the demands of picking and storing produce at peak condition, but also packing and selling it, and maintaining all the systems and processes to make everything run smoothly. We’ve been recording our work hours lately, and are averaging 60 hours per week! It’s easy to feel that it’s out of our control – but of course, that’s not true.

Yes, during the peak of the fruit season there is no extra time to have regular business meetings or down time without sacrificing fruit to do so, but as the season starts to slow down into a more manageable pace, it’s easier to find the time to start reflecting on the season and noticing what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and where we could introduce more efficiencies. It’s also when we usually remember that we chose not only this lifestyle, but also every aspect of our business.

As we prepare to hand over the orchard to our intern Ant on 1 July, we’re very conscious of the need to teach him as much as we can about the fruit business, as quickly as possible. But we’re also hoping that his new energy will bring a different perspective to the orchard and lead to new initiatives, new ways of doing business and new efficiencies we’ve never thought of.

We could easily have made different choices: grow fewer varieties to shorten our harvest season, simplify our marketing, use chemicals to reduce our workload, expand the size of the orchard, or even grow different crops. We could even choose day jobs where we work 9 to 5, go home in the evening and leave work behind!

But none of those choices would have matched our values or made us feel good about our careers, and where would be the fun in that?

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.