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.

All we ever do is have meetings

An alliance meeting in our kitchen
An alliance meeting in our kitchen

Setting up the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (we’re still waiting for someone to come up with a better name….) is exciting, fun, stimulating, inspiring and reinvigorating for us old farmers, but mostly, it’s a lot of meetings!

On the phone, by Skype, in person, at offices in the city, here on the farm—we have been talking to a lot of people about this project over the last few weeks.

Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!
Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!

We’ve been going through a thorough process of interviewing and getting to know each of the applicants for the orchard lease, as we’re keen to choose the person who will be the best fit for the opportunity. We’ve had multiple meetings with other alliance members as they start to work through the detail of setting up or expanding their businesses. We’ve had regular meetings with our business consultant, Clare, to work through the many layers of complexity involved with our business development plan, we’ve met with professionals to get advice on various aspects of our plans, and had meetings with the funding body to report on our progress and discuss next steps. We almost don’t have time to farm any more!

We’ve also had some welcome interest from the media about what we’re doing, and are now starting to get inquiries from other farmers and farming groups interested in doing something similar on their farms. As part of our mission here is to develop a replicable model that can be implemented all around the country, we’re happy to share our progress so far, but all this talking is keeping us from our fruit trees!

Spring is such a crucial time of year in the orchard, when it’s more important than any other time of year to keep our eye on the ball so we can anticipate and respond to the weather to protect the trees while they’re flowering and the fruit is setting. If we stuff up now, we pay for it for the rest of the season!

gala blossom

So we’re feeling a little distracted by nurturing two completely different ‘babies’ at the moment—this year’s fruit crop, and our fledgling alliance. Both promise great things and deserve our full attention, but we can’t wait until we’ve steered them through these early, risky stages and can stand back a bit and take a breath!

Making delicious organic yummy things – value-adding for fun and profit!

What does “value-adding” make you think of? Sounds like something to do with economics, doesn’t it? But in farming terms, it’s used to describe any process where you turn raw product (like fruit) into something else (like juice).

The grader at The Wild Apple where juice apples are separated from high-grade eating apples, before being pressed for juice

It’s something we’ve always done at home for our own use, aiming to store as much fresh produce as we can over summer, to eat in winter.

And despite dabbling in value-adding on a commercial scale, we’ve never managed to do it on any scale. To do that would take a real commitment and quite a bit of time, investment in equipment and training, and all the other things involved in launching new products like market testing, labelling, sourcing and logistics.

But the idea still excites us, and remains one of the great untapped potential directions that we (or someone else) could take our farm business. It was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference we went to in South Australia. Nearly every other grower was value-adding, and in every case it was making a big difference to their bottom line.

Super delicious mixed dried stone fruit from O’Reilly’s organic orchard, first dried then frozen for longer storage

Here’s just some of the things other organic orchardists are making/doing that are inspiring us:

  • Juice – some growers are making and pasteurising their own juice, some are selling it fresh and unpasteurised, and some are sending fruit to processors who do the whole process for them;
  • Dried fruit – we saw (and tasted) some beautiful examples of dried fruit (and vegies), and again, growers are processing in a variety of different ways. Some of cutting whole, unpeeled fruit with an automatic mandolin and then drying in a heat-controlled electric machine that rapidly dries fruit to a pre-set moisture level (see the picture of this very cool machine below); some are processing by hand and drying in the sun, and others have semi-automated fruit prep and solar drying systems;
  • Cider – most growers at the ANOO conference grow apples, and lots of them are experimenting with cider and it’s close cousin…
  • Apple cider vinegar – this product has so many uses that any grower that’s making it says they can’t produce enough for their markets (plus it also makes a great basis for a variety of fruit-based vinegars);
  • Frozen – some creative growers have found an excellent market in frozen fruit, using specific varieties known to be high in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and aiming squarely at the health food market. Clever!
  • Jams – apple jelly (with all manner of different flavourings like rosemary, or lavender), apricot jam, plum jam – you name it, someone’s making it (and it’s racing out the door at farmers markets);
  • Preserved/canned fruit – nobody at the ANOO conference is doing this commercially, but several have done trials and are interested in taking it further;
  • Apple pies/pastries – a couple of growers have expanded into the related area of turning fruit into pies and pastries. It’s more fiddly and requires a much higher skill level (you actually need to be able to cook!), but the returns are worth it.
Inside view of electric dehydrator

We’re resigned to the fact that we’re probably never going to start a value-adding business ourselves, but we’re very excited about the possibility of a new member of the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance that we’re setting up (either leases the orchard from us, or someone else) taking up the challenge of developing this side of the business, which promises to not only provide LOTS more ways that we can feed local families with healthy organic food all year round, but also make a healthy difference to the bottom line of the business!

Small scale solar dryer