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.

Ngatha (food) for my soul

For the last 8 years I’ve had the rare and special privilege of visiting a remote community in northeast Arnhem Land called Mapuru, and getting to know the community there. As my body readjusts from daily tops of 34° to the central Victorian winter frosts again, I take a moment to reflect on my limited understanding of the relationship to food and place that I have experienced in the community there.

When we talk about ‘local food’ in the cities and hipster circles, it’s like it’s a new concept, something funky and edgy and somehow morally righteous. But we are seriously behind the times! If we want to learn about truly local and sustainable food in this country, then we need to learn from the indigenous people of our country who hold 60,000 years of existing experience, research, management and knowledge of local food.

The majority of the food we grow in Australia today is food of another land and climate. We’ve adapted them to grow here and suit the exotic tastes of our ancestors’ original homelands, but there is a huge diversity of food plants that already grow here and are native to Australian soils and climates that have been cultivated and eaten for thousands of years.

I can’t speak for my ancestors’ relationship to plants, growing and food because I am so many generations removed from them and that land, but my sense is that in modern times our relationship to food and the growing of it has become fairly superficial. Its about mass production and selling, about nutritional values and calorie counts, markets, transport and storage….

Over the years as I’ve been tip-toeing through the mangroves, sitting by the estuaries and walking through the forests around Mapuru, my adopted mothers, aunties, sisters, children and cousins up there have shown me and patiently tried to teach me another way of relating to each other and to Country. For them there is no separation between distinctions of plants, animals, places and people. Everything is connected in a vast and intricate web of kinship and relationship. An example of this is walking through the pandanus forest with my sister, axe in hand, bare feet stepping quietly and gently over the dried spiky leaves on the ground and her telling me gently how I am related to that place: “This place, you call it waku (son/daughter); that gunga (pandanus tree), you call it mari (grandmother); that green ant, you call it dhuway (husband); and that dog, he’s your ngapipi (uncle).”

After 8 years of getting to know my generous, patient and good humoured adopted family in Mapuru, the kinship system is something I am only just scratching the surface of understanding. It is so vast, all-encompassing and deep that we really have nothing to compare it to or understand it by in our Balanda (western) brains. But what I do understand is that it immediately connects every person to every other person and every other creature and thing on the planet. That connection is one of kinship and with each particular kinship relationship comes certain responsibilities and ways of caring for that family member. This includes the food that is eaten and the way it is cared for, cultivated and shared. It has ensured that over 60,000 years the land has been intricately cared for as a mother, sister, aunty, brother, grandfather, and uncle and in turn it has provided food and shelter to countless generations.

If I started calling carrots my grandmother and cabbages my child, most people around here would think that I was a sandwich short of a picnic, but I think there is some fundamental wisdom here for us to learn from. If we could even begin to just treat one thing—the soil—with the nurture we would give our own child….imagine.

Sas

Gung Hoe Growers
69 Danns Rd Harcourt

An autumn reflection on the summer that wasn’t…

Hi there,

Hope this finds you well out in the world. It’s officially the first week of autumn, but the garden looks like its finally hitting its summer stride…hmmm.

unnamed-5-5I’m very aware that I’m very green (young) in this business of growing food on a productive scale in order to feed the community that surrounds our ‘patch’. And this odd season has definitely got me thinking about it all, again, in a slightly different way. Reflecting this morning on the moment that made me truly wanna do this, I remembered that the feeling of not being able to control the elements was something that I relished. I loved that we had to work with it all, if you fought and resisted it or even worse tried to control it, you would be waging war with something that would never work.

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Ultimately, I still hold this value deep down, but I do have to laugh at myself looking at the moment now. It’s easy to soak up all the extremes when you don’t have to pay rent with tomatoes that were meant to come on 7 weeks ago. I’ve struggled this crazy season, and if people have asked I’ve told them, “It’s a slow season, I want summer to arrive!” I shocked myself by feeling a tiny bit of anger towards the joy people were having towards the mild summer. No, I thought! You don’t understand! We need it to be hot! (I’m not asking for a drought, please don’t misunderstand me!!) Another reaction people had was to look at me as if I was dumb…”Well, that’s farming, isn’t it?” and then they’d walk on their way. I was left standing there wanting to keep talking, but we did everything right, we were on time, we spent a lot of money on the good inputs, the good mulch, the irrigation, the seedlings, dedicated more time to be at the patch…

Haha! unnamed-3-3

Another part of the moment I mentioned before that solidified my desire to keep growing (pun intended) my knowledge, resilience and skills around productively growing food WITH the land is that I cannot deny how much it teaches us about ourselves. Seriously, this whole weather thing has made me look, once again, at how I deal with expectations, control, disappointment, bouncing back, coping techniques, taking a breath (lots actually) and being content with my true place in the world.  It teaches me so much.

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I’m at peace now with the season that was, and kinda wasn’t, and have accepted that these extremes, I think, will just become more and more commonplace. Unfortunately. My job is to learn how to produce food within that reality.

So, happy autumn, and may you listen to the natures around you.

Mel.