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).

The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!

Proactive active optimism

The concept of hope is too passive for farmers. We can hope that the weather will be perfect, that our soil has all the right nutrients to grow a healthy crop and that the kangaroos won’t jump on our tomato seedlings, but hope alone is not enough. We have to cultivate a proactive active kind of optimism, perhaps a foolhardy kind, one rooted in thoughtfulness, knowledge, a healthy dose of finger crossing and action.

This week we had beautiful (if a little abrupt and severe) rain to soak the ground. Along with that rain which came in horizontally through our shed window and after three hot and humid weeks, we have lost half of our garlic crop to rot (feel guts sink and tears fall at this point). It could have been much worse, and given the strength of the winds, all our tomato trellises are still standing. We’ll clock that as a win.

The hope of a farmer is in the tiny seed she plants, hoping that the beauty and strength within that tiny speck will be unlocked to grow and reach its full potential. We never know if it will, but we do all we can to help it along.

May your solstice and festive season be restful and full of beauty. May your new year be like a seed planted, full of hope and wonder waiting to be realised.

Grow well

Sas and Mel