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?

Frocking up in Canberra…

katie black frock-386x628

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – week 24

We’re off to Canberra next week, and we’ll be all frocked up and ready to meet politicians of every persuasion at the Gala Dinner at Parliament House on Wednesday night. Hugh’s collected his tuxedo, I’ve bought new heels and have the evening dress in train…now I just have to sort out a new lipstick, and we’re all set!

Why so much glamour and glitz? It’s the announcement of the national winner of the 2015 Rural Women’s Awards, and as the Victorian state winner, I’m in the running! I’ve met all the other state finalists when RIRDC sent us all to Canberra recently to do the Company Director’s Course (as part of our award prize), and so I can confidently tell you that this year’s national award is in safe hands whoever wins. What a fabulous bunch of women! All leaders in their communities, running exciting projects and achieving great things in their careers, while at the same time being the most down-to-earth, ordinary bunch of school mums you’d ever find yourself working next to in the school canteen.

We’ve decided amongst ourselves (the other RIRDC state finalists that is, not Hugh and I) that it would be in RIRDC’s best interests to just split the award between all 7 of us, because there’s nothing to pick between us and we’d all make fabulous ambassadors for them over the next 12 months. Of course, awards being what they are that’s not going to happen, but it is great to genuinely feel that I’ll be equally delighted whoever wins.

This year has been so full of engagements since winning the Victorian award in March that I feel like I’ve got a pretty good sense of how exciting it will be if I should be so lucky as to win the national and, on the other hand, I’m aware now of how much time it takes to do a good job and get the most out of every opportunity, so I also think I’ll be perfectly happy just looking forward to a normally full year crowded with farm life and existing projects if I don’t win!

So think of us on Wednesday (and keep your fingers crossed for me that I don’t trip over my unaccustomed high heels in public and make a complete dill of myself) and we’ll let you know what happens!

The last fortnight I’ve:

  • Presented the keynote address at the Beechworth “Connecting Rural Business Women” 2015 conference
  • Given a talk to the Castlemaine U3A group
  • Filmed a segment to enable me to take part in an Agribusiness summit that I wasn’t able to attend in person
  • Organised the farm so we can be in Canberra for most of next week and be confident everything will be ok in our absence!
  • Accepted an offer to speak at the “Chicks in the Sticks” event in November (very excited about this one!)
  • Attended a meeting with Melbourne Farmers Markets in Melbourne to get some feedback on my project, as I’ve started thinking about how I will write my report and turn the project into a useful piece of research that will be usable by other farmers markets.
  • Started writing the assignment for the Company Director’s Course (3,000 words!)
  • Been working with a landscape designer on plans for the new Farm Shop we are planning to open for the coming season

My project, called “Growing Communities Around Farmers Markets” has been made possible by the RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards.

Victorian Rural Woman of the Year – My Journey

Week 1…

A week has gone by since winning the award, and it feels like a month! The first few days themselves each seemed a week, but now I’ve had a few days’ holiday (pre-booked before the Awards ceremony), and am feeling full of energy and enthusiasm to get started on my project.

There have also been quite a few more media interviews, like this one in the Bendigo Advertiser, and a few others which I’ve included at the end of the Blog.

katie rwa bendigo advertiser

However the one I’m most excited about is an interview I had today with the The Core, the tiny newspaper in our little town of Harcourt, circulation 600—but that’s 600 locals, many of whom have known me since I was a kid! As I was writing this I had a phone call from the mother of a girl I went to Harcourt kindergarten and primary school with, congratulating me. It’s made me very aware that winning this award is not just a thrill for the me, but has also sent a ripple of pride through my family, friends and community – which is both a real honour, and a big responsibility. I’m very aware that I’d better do a good job with my project, because there are lots of people watching! As  it says on the RIRDC website, the Award is an amazing opportunity to further your leadership development, make a tangible difference and inspire others, so I’d better get to it…

So, to the project. I spent most of Saturday at our stall at Wesley Hill market explaining to people that this is a project-based Award. While the recipient needs to be established in their industry and have good leadership potential, they are then expected to use the Award bursary of $10,000 to implement a project. My project is about helping small and medium-sized farmers to get more control over the way they sell their produce, by building strong communities around them, and around the farmers markets they attend, using social media.

In part, I want to help farmers tell their stories – our experience on our farm is that consumers are really keen to connect with where their food comes from and how it’s produced, and social media is a very easy and effective tool to provide that connection. Telling the stories helps people feel connected to the farmers and builds a committed customer base, as long as it’s backed up with fantastic produce, of course! I also want to get farmers and farmers markets working together more closely to help build stronger communities around each farmers market. It’s a pretty simple idea, but one that I think has lots of potential to increase demand for local produce and farmers markets.

I’ve started work on my project plan and trying to organise all my ‘good ideas’ into an achievable plan. I figure that by putting a bit of energy into planning, I’ll probably achieve a lot more and save myself time in the long run, so Hugh is helping me out by looking into project planning software. I don’t have much experience with running projects of this scale, but I’m sure I don’t need to re-invent the wheel, and there is no doubt some brilliant software that will guide me in the planning process. I also have my business adviser’s voice in my head reminding me to set S.M.A.R.T. goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-bound – thanks Clare!

The natural way I approach new projects (and my whole life, actually) is to talk to people. On committees and community groups I’m always part of a team, and I find the bringing together of skills, ideas and energy around a table is what gets most projects up and running, and keeps them on track. A few years ago I gave myself the gift of deciding to be involved in community groups and committees that are aligned with my values, and not to over-commit (though I also subscribe to the philosophy that you’re a long time dead, so you might as well make good use of the time you’ve got)! It’s paid off, as these days I LOVE all the groups I’m involved with, and really enjoy using my time, skills and energy with them to achieve things.

However this project is different. Rather than being part of a community group with a common purpose, I’m solely responsible for this one!

So, I figure my best strategy is to build a mentor group around me, so I still get to be part of a team of people I love working with. In a way it’s a big ask, expecting people to get involved in my project when I’m the recipient of the Award, but I’ve already had some really fantastic offers of help, which I will definitely be following up in the days and weeks to come.  I’m also encouraged that at the alumni lunch after the Awards ceremony last week, RIRDC expressed their enthusiasm for the concept of providing Award recipients with some mentoring assistance – so that’s my first lead to follow up.

The mentor/mentee relationship is an interesting one. At the alumni lunch, one of the previous Award winners made the point that mentoring is a skill that needs to be learned, and just because someone’s been in a leadership role doesn’t mean they necessarily have the skills or capacity to mentor someone else. Also, what does it really mean when someone offers to help? And what sort of help will I need to pull this off? All of these questions require more thought, and hopefully lots of discussions over cups of tea with lots of lovely women!

In the meantime, we’re getting ready for the free Grow Great Fruit workshop we’re presenting on Sunday morning at 10.15 am at the Sustainable Food and Wine Fair, part of the Whitehorse Sustainable Living Week Festival in Box Hill, Melbourne. Costa’s going to be there too….we’re excited!!!


Many thanks to RIRDC for their fantastic support of Australian rural women by making these Awards possible.


As a postscript, I’ll be using this blog to keep track of some of the media interviews I’ve had, because it helps to share the experience, and is a great collection of photos that will help me to remember this year!

The Weekly Times

FarmOnline: The Land

Premier’s Department press release

Stock and Land online

ABC Local radio, mornings with Fiona Parker

The Core

Main FM – the Breakfast Club