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.

What Do You Call a Gathering of Organic Orchardists?

A couple of weeks ago we got to do something we hardly ever do – hang out with a bunch of other organic apple growers.

ANOO Chris Ellery presentation-480x359
Chris Ellery from the Soil Foodweb Institute giving a presentation about soil biology

It may seem strange that this is a rare and unusual event, but it’s the result of a couple of slightly unfortunate circumstances. The first is that even though there are at least 40 of us Australia-wide (no-one knows what the actual number is), we’re scattered all around the country and few of us are lucky enough to live within coo-ee of each other.

The second reason is because of the generally unconnected nature of the organics industry. With more than 6 different certifying organisations, there’s no central register of who’s certified and who’s not. Each certifying body regulates the whole gamut of organic farmers and processors, from apple growers through to beef producers and organic skin care manufacturers, so they don’t function as a connector for producers within industries.

National organic mark
The new organic seal

And then there’s the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) which is the umbrella organisation for the whole industry and plays a great advocacy role for the industry, for example finally achieving a national mark or logo (that’s it on the left) which can be used by any certified producer regardless of who they’re certified with. Overseas experience has shown that introducing this type of unifying symbol should go a long way to achieving better consumer awareness for organics across the entire sector, so start watching out for it on your organic produce!

But membership of the OFA is voluntary, and so this organisation doesn’t function to connect producers within specific industries.

ANOO orchard walk-480x359
Field trip to our place

Hugh and I have long bemoaned our lack of a peer group, which might seem strange when we live and grow fruit in Harcourt, the “apple centre of Victoria”. We’ve long been members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers’ Association, and in fact I was secretary for more than a decade. While obviously we have much in common with conventional growers, we also have many differences. The very basis of our growing systems – the soil – is handled quite differently between the two systems, as are pest and disease control, weed control, and even irrigation. The two paradigms can be so different that we sometimes feel we speak a different language.

So it was really a treat to find ourselves finally in a room with 10 other organic growers, who all essentially have the same issues, challenges, problems and understandings as us.

It’s long been on my “to do” list to try to organise this type of event; I even got as far as starting to compile a list of other organic fruit growers a few years ago, but that’s as far as it went.

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Michelle McColl, Tim Neilson and Hugh on a field trip to our farm

Luckily the very dynamic Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics (she and husband Chris were recently featured with their organic orchard on ‘Gardening Australia’) beat me to it last year. She took the initiative of finding and contacting as many organic apple growers as she could find and organising a get together in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. Luckily, we were on the list and were invited to the event.

It was fantastic! Michelle had the foresight to organise a facilitator for the growers’ round-table discussions, and to put a few topics on the table to get the ball rolling, which meant that discussion was lively, frank and very useful as growers shared their problems, solutions, tips and resources.

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Compost tea demonstration in a very cold barn!

Field trips to 3 organic orchards were also illuminating – there’s nothing quite as interesting as actually seeing and experiencing what other people are doing. Another highlight was the conference dinner at a restaurant in Salamanca Place in Hobart. All in all Hugh and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we offered to host this year’s conference in Harcourt.

Following a similar format worked well, the only addition being two really interesting and relevant speakers who gave presentations on soil biology and insect and bird interactions in organic orchards.

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Mount Alexander Shire Council Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford giving the conference welcome

We were really pleased that our local Mount Alexander Shire is taking an active interest in the potential for growth of the local organics industry, and Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford gave a great welcome and opening address for the conference. It was also fantastic that a few local orchardists accepted the offer to attend the session on soil biology, a topic with relevance to anyone growing anything!

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Some of the fantastic value-added product that growers brought to share

Two jam-packed days of talking, sharing ideas and experience, eating, field trips, cider tasting, getting to know each other – and lots more talking – left us feeling refreshed, revitalised and very grateful to be part of a new group of people who are not only professional colleagues, but also rapidly becoming friends.