RetroSuburbia…and a new future

I had the privilege last night of MC’ing an event and panel discussion  at an event in Castlemaine where David Holmgren introduced his new book “Retrosuburbia: the downshifters guide to a resilient future″. (If you want to know more about it you can check out the website or the Facebook page).

David Holmgren giving his very entertaining “Aussie Street” presentation at the Retrosuburbia event in Castlemaine

David is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept in the 1970s, along with Bill Mollison. Since then he’s written a number of books, developed three properties and taught permaculture around the world.

RetroSuburbia is a manual for how to use permaculture thinking to create home-based solutions for a sustainable future by applying the idea of retrofitting our homes, gardens, and behaviours. David and his partner Su’s property “Melliodora” is an inspirational example of how living a sustainable lifestyle can really work as a realistic and attractive alternative to what David calls “dependent consumerism” (if you’ve never been there, I can recommend going on one of their tours).

A big part of David’s vision for a resilient and sustainable future is seeing household food growing become part of everyday life, and so we were rapt to find that our range of ebooks have been included in the book as one of the ways people can improve their fruit-growing skills (the books are included for free as part of our Grow Great Fruit program).

Wanting to spend more time teaching is one of the main reasons we’re not running the orchard any more. Ever since we started the Grow Great Fruit business in 2013, it’s been squeezed into the cracks in our farming life—and to be honest, there haven’t been many!

While we purposely chose to set up GGF as an online business so that we could reach as many people as possible, over the years we’ve found the part that we find most satisfying is the contact with people—but we haven’t had time to do much of it.

Ant and Mel represented HOFC (the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op) at the networking event before the Retrosuburbia launch

So, now that Ant has taken over the orchard (and rebranded it Tellurian Fruit Gardens), we’re very much looking forward to getting stuck into our mission of teaching as many people as possible how to be self-sufficient with their fruit growing.

We’ve got lots of ideas about how to reach more people, make the program more accessible, and increase its effectiveness. We’re not sure yet exactly what will change (yes, Hugh, we do have to do another strategic planning session…), but some of the ideas we’ve been playing with include:

  • Going global—we’ve developed a northern hemisphere version of the program and briefly tested the US market, but had to pull back due to lack of time to commit to the project;
  • Expanding and improving services for members with more masterclasses, case studies, videos and a vastly expanded Fruit Tree Database;
  • Running workshops in different places such as members’ properties or community gardens;
  • Turning our workshops into an interactive online format to make them accessible to people who can’t physically get to a workshop.

One of the things we’re really interested in is working with people and groups that will get the most benefit out of increased food security. While we love working with our current members in Australia, we’re aware that most of them—like us—already enjoy pretty good food security and economic prosperity, particularly when looked at in a global context.

We feel like it’s time to use our position of privilege to help create food security for people to whom it can make a genuine difference, so we’ll also be looking at things like:

  • Scholarships for low-income people;
  • Working with small-scale or start-up farmers in Australia or overseas to help them increase profitability and sustainability within their fruit growing businesses;
  • Working with community groups.

So we’re looking at an as-yet-unknown but exciting future, and can’t wait to get started on the next stage of our journey as organic fruit growers. There’s just that strategic planning session to organise first!

It doesn’t cost anything to give it a go!

Buds are starting to swell and seeds are beginning to germinate…a call to action in the heritage fruit tree nursery. Merv has been busy preparing the soil in the new nursery patch. Katie has been busy selling the last of the beautiful fruit trees that we grew before they come out of their winter sleep and need to be planted in the ground properly again. But now that our saved apple, quince, pear and peach seeds are starting to shoot, its all hands on deck.

This week we planted our cherry rootstock and acquired some compact apple rootstock varieties to experiment with. Along with grafting the cherries in September and budding the apples we’re hoping to experiment with creating a ‘stool bed’. Katie and I haven’t ever done a stool bed so we’re excited to learn this technique from Merv. A stool bed (from my limited understanding) is a way of trench layering a ‘mother plant’ in order to grow multiple root stock trees from a small number of ‘mothers’. This is important for cherry rootstock, which don’t grow readily from seed, and special varieties of rootstock, which you want to multiply true to type.


The plum cuttings are starting to ‘heel up’ (grow a heel/scab over them from which the roots will sprout) which means we’ll plant them out soon . The apple, peach and quince seeds are sprouting so we’ve begun to plant them out in rows. These we will grow up over summer and ‘bud’ in February with a number of different varieties for sale the following year.

We have also been cutting back the trees we budded last February, to the bud union. These trees (see pic) with different colored pipe cleaners are the plum rootstock we budded multiple varieties of plum and apricot onto. Another experiment, which so far seems to be going well…as long as we can keep track of which branch has which variety budded onto it!!

Soon it will be time to sow our green manure crop in the resting nursery patches and sow some more citrus seed in the hot house (yet another experiment). Most of the rootstock we grow, except for our experiments with cherries, citrus and small apple rootstock, we have grown ourselves. We either collect seed or take cuttings to create them, and like Merv always marvels, “it doesn’t cost you anything”! There is a lot of time and care that then goes into turning that seedling into a good fruiting tree, but Merv’s right, it doesn’t cost you anything to give it a go!

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.