How to set up a farming co-op

We’ve signed the leases! It took 3 months of negotiation and not a little angst, but all 4 founding members of the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op now have a lease at the farm. (In fact the leases all started on 1 July, it just took another 3 months to work out the details and get the paperwork signed!).

All the leases are for 3 years, with the option to extend them for 2 more 3 year terms (i.e., 9 years altogether). They can also opt out at any 3 year mark, so it gives them a chance to try it out without making a huge commitment.

Next step is setting up the co-op, which is the part of our big plan that should help each business to save time and money by working together.

We’ve started a “Business Ninjas” program to help members run lean, profitable businesses and financially “future-proof” themselves, but also to come up with a cunning plan to protect us all against the many risky things that can—and do—happen to farmers.

The other main project underway is the RDV-funded project to provide the infrastructure our farmers need, which is now rapidly taking shape—the containers have been found and bought, the concrete footings were poured this week, and we hope to take delivery of the containers in the next week or so.

There’s loads of interest in what we’re doing—we’ve already had a number of people wanting to visit and talk to us about what we’re doing, which is so great and definitely part of the point of what we’re trying to set up.

We don’t know much yet (including whether this experiment will actually work), but we’re happy to share our experience so far.  And we certainly understand why people might be interested in this model, because there are just SO many potential benefits:

  • A succession plan for older farmers like us who want to step away from active farming, but don’t want to sell up and want their farms to stay in production.
  • A productivity plan for farms—our model aims to ‘stack’ as many compatible enterprises onto the same farm as possible (similar to the Joel Salatin model, but each enterprise is run as a separate business).  Multi-enterprise farms are more resilient, and can produce more food and make more money, but unless you have a large and enthusiastic family it’s beyond the capacity of most farmers to do more than a couple of things well. This way each enterprise gets the passion, dedication and time it needs to become as good as it can be, and it also creates a livelihood for many more families.
  • An affordable and supported pathway into farming for young farmers, many of whom don’t have sufficient capital to buy land, or experience to start their own business. This model gives them access to land without taking a massive financial risk, while at the same time giving them business support to help fast-track their business skills.
  • Mitigating climate change by increasing the amount of farmland being farmed organically, which puts more carbon into the soil.
  • Increasing the amount of locally grown food that’s accessible straight from the farm for local families.
  • Creating a supportive peer group for the young farmers, where they provide emotional and practical support for each other, plus lots of opportunities to collaborate to help improve each other’s businesses.
  • A chance to share our knowledge and expertise with the younger generation of farmers.

While we’re really happy to share what we’re learning, time means money, and though we’d love to drink tea and chat all day we’ve also got work to do! So we’re thinking about the best way we can share our model without it taking too much of our time—stay tuned on that one, we’ll let you know when we’ve developed our cunning plan.

Meanwhile, it must be time for another party, so we’re holding our official launch and farm open day on Sunday October 28.  Things get started at 10 a.m. with morning tea, then the farm tour will kick off at 11 a.m. where you can see and hear about

  • Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery
  • Sellar Farmhouse Dairy
  • Tellurian Fruit Gardens
  • Gung Hoe Growers market garden
  • Grow Great Fruit education program
  • Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens heritage apple orchard
  • the infrastructure hub we’re building

It’s a free event, but if you’re coming please register here so we have an idea of the numbers. You’ll be able to buy scones, cake and drinks for morning tea, and soup and bread for lunch, and will also be invited to make a donation to help us with running costs (suggested donation $10). Please DON’T bring your dog (unless it’s on a lead and/or can stay in the car) or ANY fresh fruit or vegetables onto the farm (because we’re on fruit fly lockdown).

What Will We Do Next?

As the reality of life post-orcharding looms large, Hugh and I spending a few days off the farm and starting to think about what comes next for us.

You’d think we’d have thought about this long ago, before we put this whole train of events in motion – and we did – but it was just theory back then, and now it’s about to become reality.

On 1 July, the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (HOFA) will come into being, and we’ll sign the orchard lease over to Ant. He’ll officially become responsible for growing the fruit.

In fact, we’ll still be helping him, not just in an abstract mentoring capacity, but hands-on, in the orchard and packing shed, at least for his first year of operation.

Our role in HOFA will be property managers, which means we’ll be overseeing the job of building new infrastructure (like staff room, toilet facilities, etc.), applying for and managing grants, and making sure everything runs smoothly so the important people – the farmers – can get on with their jobs.

I’ll also still be getting my hands dirty running the Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery with Sas (of Gung Hoe Growers fame), under the watchful eye of my dad Merv.

Add to that Hugh’s part-time editing job for the Asian Development Bank, and our various community service roles, and the week suddenly looks very full. In fact I suspect we’ll be wondering how on earth we had time for farming at all!

That sounds like a week’s worth of work, doesn’t it? Oh hang on, the main reason we wanted to put our succession plan in place was so that we could concentrate more on the teaching side of our business. Where are we going to fit that in?

Grow Great Fruit (our online organic fruit growing home-study program) is too useful to the world to stay small any longer. We always said our mission was to teach the whole world how to successfully grow their own organic fruit, and the time has come (well, maybe not the whole world, but we want to extend our reach much further).

So you can expect to see GGF grow in coming months, and you needn’t worry about whether we’ll have enough to occupy us!

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.