A new farming co-op emerges…

Hi there,

Hope this finds you well. As I sit writing this I feel a bit beaten and calm (i.e. tired and grateful for the shreds of rain falling at present) it has felt like a big month here for me.

When Sas and I dug up new ground for our first 30 metres of garlic 4 years ago here in Harcourt we didn’t really have a plan. We just wanted to grow and try our hands on this dream we both had igniting us forward… Four years on and we’re still such grasshoppers! But becoming more and more at peace with this fact. One of the reasons I fell in love with farming was the fact that I was working with nature. I had no other choice – it is far more powerful than me and thanks to climate change is becoming more and more unpredictable. Something about this really humbled me and I felt like I was respectfully working with something much greater than me. In the last 4 years this has made me feel more broken than I think I realised, but this oncoming season both Sas and I seem to be more accepting of the fact that there’s always one pest that will cause havoc and at least one of our crops will fail…

I know that we would never have dreamed that down the track we would be part of a dynamic, system changing small farming co-operative. This last week has both heartened me and given me insight to the reality that even though we aren’t doing anything new (we’re just living in the past really, haha) we are pushing current systems, ideologies and having the opportunity to really work to our values from the ground up (yes, pun intended. I rarely understand them, let alone use them!). We are not alone in this movement, I know this for a fact, and it’s comforting talking to others near and far who are also actioning the very same ideals and beliefs.

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, the relatively recent arrivals of Ant (Tellurian Fruit Gardens) and Tess (Sellars Farmhouse Creamery) and a formal partnership in the nursery (Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery) has formed a supportive farming community on this very land. I’m constantly learning new things about fruit trees, grafting, cows, pasture, innovative energy systems…the list goes on. It’s great.

Last weekend we had our official launch into the world as a formal collective – the ‘Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op’ — in the form of a farm open day.  To me it was big on several levels, not to mention the fact that we are all treading new ground with the co-operative model we are starting here. It’s like we’re unveiling ourselves to the world not knowing how it’s really going to work out!

And how special it was to be showered with such support from the community. We had some volunteers help us out on the day who normally either work or trade time for produce lend a hand serving, welcoming, MC-ing, washing dishes and cleaning the packing shed so it was decent enough to serve scones out of. We are indebted to you guys—thank you (Cohen, Lucy, Grace, Oli, Cara, Marty, Paris, Danny, Dan)!  And then all the people near and far who celebrated with us stepping into the unknown.

Merv (Katie’s Dad) gave a really special speech highlighting his history as an orchardist in this area and how he’s seen it change from a lot of small family owned and operated farms to mainly large company farms…I think we all felt pretty chuffed to be called part of Merv’s new family (as he said in his speech).

On the open day all the separate enterprises that make up the collective gave a little rundown on what they do…on the Gung Hoe tour it was so heartening to see people engaging with how we grow and why we grow, so many questions that showed us just how interested people are.

We in Gung Hoe land rarely get a chance to explain the values that underpin why we have taken on this endeavour and why we want it to succeed.  Having the open day on Sunday and then a more informal Industry Day on Monday gave us just that opportunity. The industry day was about us opening the opportunity to have chefs, caterers, restaurant owners, retail owners, etc. come out to the farm and see where the produce they are purchasing comes from, how it’s grown and why, and build the connection further beyond a weekly drop-off g’day.

When Monday actually happened and they rocked up in their rad cars with home-made cakes, families and some staff, we realised the power of connection and relationships. We had a short walk around the patch and spoke about our techniques and how we are building the soil slowly but surely, and why the lettuce is so crisp, and how many varieties of leafy things go into the salad mix, and here’s some freshly picked broad beans we can eat over morning tea.

We also had insight into how it works for them working with us, using our produce to create meals. How hard it is sometimes to work for someone else when it means you have to set aside some of your passion. A large chunk of our conversations were about food systems and how Sas and I are passionate about feeding our local community with truly nutrient-rich produce (because the soil is getting better, it means the plants are also better for you) and building skills so young people can grow up knowing they can have power by growing their own food and knowing where it comes from, that farming can be a viable and enjoyable career path.

It was inspiring for both parties to meet on the land and talk food with each other. I have great respect for chefs who understand great produce and use it in their culinary art. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about it has to be all fancy and stuff – not at all.  It’s more about seeing them use their passion and skill in the way they cook the food; they are letting the produce speak for itself, and comments like, “it’s the first time I’ve seen staff eat more salad than chips” and “I thought I’d have to blanch the peas, but there’s no need – they’re so sweet!”

Massive ups to Brunno, Ben, Jason and Tim for empowering actions and conversations, and the piccies 😉

So, in short (sorry this has been a rather long ramble), although it can feel vulnerable opening up yourself, values, work to the world, it is our launching into the greater sphere…strengthening relationships with each other to strengthen and make our imprint on the current food system a lasting one.

Thanks for following us in this journey.  Peace out!
Mel

Introducing Marty and Cara – our awesome vollies!

Earlier this year we received a somewhat straightforward email from a guy called Sven. I may be showing my ignorance here but my first impression was that his English was very good. We arranged a time that would work for us for him to come out for a few hours; he was true to his word, turned up, helped us cart cow poo down to prep beds and then planted broad beans and peas. Somehow throughout those few hours we figured out his name was Marty, not Sven. He seemed nice enough and I was interested to hear about how he ended up in this part of the world and why he wanted to spend time with us. He turned up the next week, and the next and said his partner Cara was also keen to come give a few hours…the rest is history. These two came along “right when we were both feeling totally exhausted and lifted our spirits.” (Sas quote).

Having these two on the farm has given Sas and me so much laughter, joy and what feels like new energy. At least one of them comes every week (along with Cohen) and its a true transfer of time, knowledge, skills, food (we share lunch and morning tea), smiles, bad jokes and education. We learn lots from them too, true story. They have shown us that people do CARE, want to LEARN, are MOTIVATED and that there is HOPE. Though I think the biggest thing actually is that they have become good friends. We share a lot in common (maybe not hat styles) and love hearing their opinions, experiences and points of view.

I hope that they never underestimate what richness they give us all by being a part of what is happening out here in Harcourt and simply by being their own true selves; no casual feat and something I wholeheartedly admire.

Marty asked us if they could do our next blog entry, so of course we said yes please!! So here it is. I may have shed a tear or two…

Grow well, Mel (and Sas) xx

Marty:
The ute drives down the driveway, dust and gravel flying up in the rear view mirror. Morning is beautiful in this part of the country. The sun slowly shines through the gums and wattles, lifting the frost and leaving a gentle mist. You may be asking, who are you? And why should we care? My name’s Marty. I moved from Footscray at the end of last year to live in a van and learn to live more connected to nature and people. My partner and I got rid of nearly everything we own and jammed whatever we had left into our ute, waving goodbye to city life. This has been a year of learning and transition for both of us.

We spent a few months in Metcalfe helping out at a Market Garden. Once that fizzled out, I offered to start helping out Gung Hoe Growers as part of a non-monetary exchange for food. I have an arrangement where I help for a few hours a week and they give me a generous box of veggies. My intention was to learn about what these lovely people are all about. It would be somewhat strange to explain just how much I love them all.

So I will just focus on how this whole experience has affected my life. I have received knowledge about growing food, understanding the land, responding to the environment. I have made new friendships with genuinely like minded people. I have a rejuvenated hope for the future of a world dealing with climate change. I have found a meaningful grass-roots revolt against oppressive food systems that are ruining the planet and people. I have found a network of creative musicians, beatniks, poets, artists and friggen’ legends. This farm is so much more than just a way for me to spend my Tuesday mornings, it has made me feel at home.

Cara:
Bumping down the driveway in the ute after a full morning working with the Gung Hoe gals, soil compacted under my fingernails and a sense of muscles I didn’t know existed, I feel elated! The sleepy cobwebs of the early start have cleared and I’m humbled by the generous, warm and tough as nails spirit of everyone at the farm.

Hauling wheelbarrows of soil and hay to prep new veggie beds, I laugh at my ridiculous incapability as Sas basically single-handedly carries weight that I cripple under! Wrestling with dock and mallow, I smile at Mel’s genuine excitement at spotting worms as we disturb the soil! Scally visits with sticks, coyly begging that we play her game. As the sun lifts up over the mountains, we squat in amongst a row of over-run brassicas, carefully picking out weeds, feeling the plants sigh with relief at their new-found growing room, the delicious smell of damp soil and foliage. We move down the row clearing the weeds like a conveyor belt, five of us working like a single body, 10 hands sharing the load, squatting, shifting down, squatting, buzzing with talk of music, art, food… I meditate on our connection to the ground, to our food, to each other. Being out at the farm is nourishing in more ways than I can describe.

In the ute on the way home, Marty and I banter on excitedly about what the co-op are doing and how good we feel being there! I’ve discovered this year that growing food is an epic feat! It’s not a job you half-heartedly walk in and out of, and take leave when you please. Working alongside the co-op has highlighted for me that there needs to be a shared investment in local food. My pessimistic view that our current food system is not sustainable is countered by an optimistic belief in the action and commitment of the folks at Harcourt.

Gung Hoe Growers

69 Danns Rd Harcourt

How do you share a farm?

Things have been changing around here (honestly, when are they ever not?) as we pin down the nuts and bolts of how this new farm sharing arrangement will work.

“D” day, when all our lessees officially started their new farming businesses (or in the case of the Gung Hoe Growers, renewed their lease) was 1 July, and while we’ve started building the new infrastructure that the new enterprises will need (funded by Regional Development Victoria), getting the leases in place with each enterprise has proven to be more detailed than we anticipated, so the leases haven’t actually been signed yet.

We reckon that’s a good thing. Each conversation has raised more points we hadn’t considered—about water, fences, sharing resources, who’s liable for what, who pays for infrastructure, the list goes on—and so we’ve had to get more legal advice on some points, and conversations are ongoing.

But we think it’s good to do the detailed thinking about these issues now, so everyone’s as clear as possible about what we’re all signing up for. We also reckon that getting strong leases and understandings in place now will pave the way to bring new enterprises into the co-op a bit more easily.

Meanwhile, Hugh and I have had to adjust to this new way of “being” on our farm. It’s a big transition from it being “our” farm where we got to decide everything, to remembering that it’s now a shared space where we have to consult with everyone else before we make decisions.

At the same time, we’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that we’re not really orchardists any more. I had to fill out my occupation on a form today, and had no idea what to put down—if I’m not an organic orchardist, what the hell am I? (I settled on “organic fruit-growing educator”—snappy, huh?).

Having just been to this year’s ANOO (Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) conference, we felt a bit like frauds at the beginning, but then we realised that we’ve retained management of our recently planted heritage apple orchard until it’s in production, so technically we ARE still orchardists.

The conference was a great treat as usual—both as a learning and a social experience—and we came back raving to the rest of the co-op of the importance of having a peer group of like-minded people facing the same issues with production, small business, and marketing as you. To a certain extent the co-op members will form that peer group for each other, but they’ll each face different issues and so will also get a lot of value out of connections with other similar organic growers.

The whole process has been full-on and has taken WAY more time and energy than we anticipated, but it hasn’t all been hard and there’s an amazing upside to sharing the farm. Every day, we get to watch and share as these wonderful and inspiring young people go about doing their farming businesses, innovating, sharing new ideas, dealing with issues as they come up and constantly learning.

I swear we’re feeling younger just having them around, and every now and then we sit back, take stock, and get glimpses of the future, and then we feel incredibly proud and hopeful about what we’re creating here in this beautiful little shared farm space.