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).

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.

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