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

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).

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