Giving birth is just the beginning

As our group of enthusiastic new farmers comes together and we breathe life into HOFA (the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance ), I was reminded this week that giving birth to this brand new model of farming—the thing we’ve been planning for, working towards and anticipating keenly for many months now—is just the beginning.

Like having a baby, it’s all too easy when starting a new project to focus solely on having a successful birth, which is kind of analagous to the planning process we’ve been going through together to bring our idea to fruition.

What many people fail to anticipate is that it’s after the birth when shit gets real. Suddenly, you have a baby, and a whole new world of learning abruptly begins, one that has much higher stakes because other lives are involved, and are depending on you to get it right!

What reminded me was having a long chat with an old friend last weekend. We worked together in a big community project; she helped to get it off the ground, and I joined just a couple of years later. We were both involved for many years, and together witnessed the growth, tantrums, milestones, break-ups and—finally—evolution into the stable and grown-up organisation it is today.

I  observed at the time how similar an organisation is to a child; we had to carefully steer it through the early stages, tore our hair out during those difficult teenage years, and then watched with pride as it finally grew beyond needing us at all.

Unfortunately many new projects don’t survive to adulthood, but stumble and fail, often within 5 years of starting. The main reasons for lack of success are

  • poor communication
  • relationships failing
  • lack of financial viability
  • lack of capital
  • not being flexible and able to change and evolve
  • burnout
  • inexperience

In our planning process we’re doing our best to avoid all these pitfalls by establishing great systems, processes and group dynamics, but experience tells us that the real work is done by actually getting started, and then hanging in there for the next 18 or so years.

New farm resident Roberta will also be giving birth in coming months, and in turn paving the way for a brand new enterprise on the farm.

Cows don’t do a lot of planning for giving birth, or probably give much thought to what happens afterwards. They don’t have meetings, do visioning sessions, or write business plans, they just automatically know what to do, and get on with it.

Laying great foundations for the birth is a great start – but come 1 July, we’re going to have to start just getting on with it.

New Blood in the Orchard

A couple of years ago I gave up being “busy”. It was when I was doing the project for the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award and had a lot on my plate – you can read about it here.

Here’s what I had to say at the time about being busy…

“My theory is that “busy” is a code word that l (and lots of other people) use when what we really mean is overworked, stressed, under-supported, tired, financially burdened, worried, over-committed, important, in demand, or worthy of your sympathy! For me, busy had become my not-so-subtle way of saying to people (a) look how popular and ‘in demand’ I am; (b) isn’t the life of a farmer hard; (c) don’t expect me to take on anything else; and (d) look at me, I’m superwoman! None of which is actually true.”

Well, old habits die hard! Lately I’ve heard myself not only talking about being busy, but slipping back into the old mindset as well.

It comes with the territory of a fruit season; most farmers with seasonal crops have to cope with the sometimes extreme workloads imposed by harvest (as opposed to dairy farmers, for example, who have a more steady work pace all year).

Harvest is definitely crunch time. It’s arguably the most important part of our farming calendar, because if we don’t get this part of the process right – where we convert produce to money – the rest of it is kind of pointless, unless you’re content for your farm to just be an expensive hobby (and we’re not!).

At this time of year our workload is imposed on us, not just by the demands of picking and storing produce at peak condition, but also packing and selling it, and maintaining all the systems and processes to make everything run smoothly. We’ve been recording our work hours lately, and are averaging 60 hours per week! It’s easy to feel that it’s out of our control – but of course, that’s not true.

Yes, during the peak of the fruit season there is no extra time to have regular business meetings or down time without sacrificing fruit to do so, but as the season starts to slow down into a more manageable pace, it’s easier to find the time to start reflecting on the season and noticing what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and where we could introduce more efficiencies. It’s also when we usually remember that we chose not only this lifestyle, but also every aspect of our business.

As we prepare to hand over the orchard to our intern Ant on 1 July, we’re very conscious of the need to teach him as much as we can about the fruit business, as quickly as possible. But we’re also hoping that his new energy will bring a different perspective to the orchard and lead to new initiatives, new ways of doing business and new efficiencies we’ve never thought of.

We could easily have made different choices: grow fewer varieties to shorten our harvest season, simplify our marketing, use chemicals to reduce our workload, expand the size of the orchard, or even grow different crops. We could even choose day jobs where we work 9 to 5, go home in the evening and leave work behind!

But none of those choices would have matched our values or made us feel good about our careers, and where would be the fun in that?

Phew, it’s the fruit season!


This season we are having one of the busiest, most productive fruit seasons we’ve had in years, and people keep asking us why….

The truth is, we’re not sure! It doesn’t come down to a single factor, but a perfect mix of everything going right, for once—and you don’t hear farmers say that very often! (I was going to write ‘perfect storm’, but despite the fact that we’ve had two major storms this year, we’ve escaped with no major damage.)

Considering that our new intern Ant joined us at the beginning of December (you can follow his new Facebook Page here), the fact that December and January have been among our busiest ever has been both good and bad.

Picking apricots in the summer sun

It’s been a bit of a trial by fire for him—getting thrown immediately into the 6-day a week, 10-hour a day kind of craziness that is the fruit season—but on the other hand, at least he’s seen it at its peak, so he’ll know what to expect next year. If he’d started his fruit-growing journey in a quiet year (like we had last year) he wouldn’t have known what hit him next season!

Beautiful mixed boxes of this year’s fabulous fruit bounty

Though a big part of this year’s success is just luck with the weather, it’s also partly the culmination of many years of hard work. We’ve had a replanting program for the last few years and many of those trees are finally coming into full production, we’ve been steadily working on improving the health of our soil, and we’ve been building up the on-farm biodiversity that’s so important to keeping pests and diseases in check.

Plus, we managed to get all the spring sprays on at just the right times, which is so important for preventing key diseases that can be devastating.

Hugh being proud of his nectarines!

It’s incredibly satisfying knowing that we’re bequeathing a healthy, productive orchard to Ant when he takes over next year, and fingers crossed that he has an even BIGGER season in 2019!