The joy of growing your own fruit trees

Katie in front of what’s going to become the Harcourt heritage fruit tree nursery

As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.

Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.

Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.

Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!

Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?

Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.

We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.

But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!

We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.

A successful bud on one of our experimental citrus trees

He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.

Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!

Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.

The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.

From little things…

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.

Three reasons to get your farm certified organic (and four reasons not to)

Organic certification audit taking place
Hugh showing the NASAA inspector around the farm during our certified organic audit

We’ve just had our annual organic certification visit from NASAA, our certifying body. We’ve written before about the process of being audited here, and our journey to organic certification here, here and here.

Is it worth being certified? It’s a relatively big cost for a small business (it cost us $950 this year, plus a levy on our produce over $40,000), but the actual amount you pay depends on the certifier you choose, and the type of certification program you enrol for – there are some designed for very small producers, or for exporters, for example.

Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan - thanks RDV and Maree Edwards
Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan – thanks RDV and Maree Edwards!

It’s a hot topic for us at the moment as we start the business planning process for the new Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance we’re setting up on the farm. Organic is in the name, but all the enterprises on the farm will be running their own business, so it will be their own decision to make. Plus, each business is so different that they have different considerations in their own “pros and cons” list, but here’s the ones on our mind as we start to figure out how to handle this issue:

 PROS

  1. It gives our consumers confidence that everything produced on the farm is grown according to Australian Organic Standards. Some people argue that because the organic certification system is flawed, it’s not worth bothering with, and that it’s enough just for producers to say they’re following the standards. We disagree! Certification may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got at the moment. We’re mates with lots of other small farmers who have chosen not to get certified for a whole range of reasons that suit their business, and we respect their decisions. But we’ve also stood next to other growers at farmers markets who claim they’re ‘organic’ just because they’re not using insecticides, for example, but they’re still merrily using Roundup to kill their weeds, because if the chemical’s not getting on the fruit it doesn’t count, right? WRONG!
  2. It gives us access to markets that demand certification for organic produce, like the wholesale market in Melbourne. For micro-businesses that can sell practically all their produce to people they know, this isn’t an issue, but if you’re producing enough that you need to sell into markets that can handle larger quantities (and realistically, most farms have to be this big to make a decent living), then organic certification is a definite advantage.
  3. Alliance members on the farm will be able to collaborate freely. If not all the enterprises in our alliance are certified, we’ll have to be very fussy about keeping our businesses separate, to make sure we’re meeting the Organic Standards. For example because the orchard is certified organic, we can’t put non-certified animals in the orchard without following a documented quarantine procedure first, even if the animals have been managed organically on the same farm. This might seem like bureaucratic craziness, but the point of the Organic Standards is to protect the integrity of the organic system, so there’s really strict rules about bringing non-organic elements into it, which we totally support. We can’t expect an organic auditor to take our word for it that other alliance members are ridgy-didge.

CONS

  1. It’s more expensive. Yep, it is, but one of the reasons we’re setting up the alliance is to look at ways for reducing costs, sharing resources and keeping overheads as low as possible for small farming businesses, so we’ll be looking at ways of sharing the costs of certification as well.
  2. It’s bureaucratic. Yep, it is, because that’s what you have to do to demonstrate that you understand and are complying with EVERY part of the Organic Standards.
  3. It takes more time. Yep, it does, but only to get your documentation systems set up to allow for easy reporting and traceability (which is good business practice anyway), and 1/2 a day each year for the audit, which is a great opportunity to spend time with someone who’s experienced at looking at lots of different organic farms. It’s definitely not part of an auditor’s role to give farming advice, but they’ll often make useful suggestions for solving farming problems.
  4. It can make the end product more expensive. Yes, it can. If there’s an insufficient supply of organic feed for animals, for example, it’s going to cost more than the conventional equivalent. This is one of the ‘hidden costs’ that can make organics more expensive in general, and highlights the fact that we don’t have enough organic producers at every level of farming!

Part of forming an alliance here on the farm is that issues like this will have to be discussed, thrashed out within the group and decided on collectively – which should be fun, actually. Part of the brave new farming world we’re trying to create is a model for how small enterprises can share land and resources together and work side-by-side to make all our businesses more successful, and working out issues like this together is going to be part of the journey.