Farmers on holiday…

What do farmers do on holiday (when they take them)…!? Visit other farms of course! After two years of heads down bums up, Mel and I decided it was time to pull our heads out and visit some rock star farmers that we’ve heard about and connected with via the various social media pages for market gardeners. What tools do they use? How do they plant and harvest their salad mix? Do they use poly tunnels, what kind of irrigation, how do they work out how to price their veggies, who do they sell to? Direct sown or seedlings, are their beds really as weed free as their Instagram would have you think …? So many questions had we!

Gung Hoe is at a stage where we have grown our growing area to a size that means we have to get a whole lot smarter and more efficient with how we do things. There are so many that have gone before us, made mistakes and had brilliant successes, and the beautiful thing about the small-scale market gardening community in Australia is that everyone is so open about sharing their learning and tips…shoulders of giants and all that.

So we hit the road. iPods charged and questions at the ready. First stop was Erin at RAD Growers in Albury. She grows on 1.5 acres of land in a climate similar(ish) to us and sells most of her produce via weekly mixed boxes to the local community, also supplying yummy stuff to restaurants. Erin has her business smarts sorted and is unapologetic about the quality of her produce and the price it should return. She has been farming about the same amount of time as us and has worked incredibly hard to make her farm beautifully productive and diverse in that time, despite massive floods that saw her canoeing over her submerged crops!

Half a day’s drive up the road we stopped in to see Emily and Michael at Bright side produce in Captains Flat (near Canberra). These guys are getting seriously close to the tree line (at least that’s how it felt with frozen dams, snow gums and a standard morning temperature of -10!) These guys, same as us, are growing on ¼ acre but in such a different climate…two weeks frost free a year! Even so they manage to make a living growing and selling their mountain fresh produce and eggs to the local and Canberra communities and restaurants. We had such a nice time hanging out with them in their quiet mountain home, picking each other’s brains and eating soup. Running backwards in the dark with Mel and Michael down a steep, rocky hill in front of a slightly out of control chook mobile while Ninja the dog ran in circles under our feet trying to round up the chooks was an exciting moment.

 

Last stop was with Lizzie Clay at Baw Baw organics in Piedmont. What a woman.  The daughter of a market gardener, she has been growing organically on her property for 30 years. While the rain bucketed down outside, Lizzie offered us so much wisdom, encouragement and insight from her amazing and diverse experience. We hardly left her kitchen table for the 24 hours that we were there! This is a woman who thinks big but knows the power of planting a single seed, always learning, always pushing the boundaries and finding new ways of doing things that also benefit the wider community and the land on which she grows.

Our roady has left us with lots to process and some clear ideas for our next steps and how we can shift things up a gear (scuse the pun).  We were so grateful and humbled by the generosity of our fellow farmers, offering so much of their time, knowledge and patience amidst their busy days. Thanks dudes, its so nourishing to know there are others out there doing what we’re doing, thinking about the same things and finding creative solutions to the challenges of growing good food for local communities.

Grow well

Sas and Mel

Gung Hoe Growers

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.

Deep Winter…and connections

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destiny of all.  It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community because without proper care for it we can have no life. — Wendell Berry

I’ve just come back from a small-farmers’ gathering called ‘Deep Winter Agrarians’ that this year was held in Bangalow, NSW.  Small farmers, meaning small scale relative to what most people consider ‘normal’ farming.  By no means was it a small gathering—there was 250–300 people in attendance every day!  Friday saw us touring 5 local farms/growing spaces, all quite different markets, styles of farming and some examples of various leasing systems.

Saturday saw us meet in a beautiful early 1900s hall nestled next to the Bangalow Showground, eating local honeycomb and politely lingering around the kitchen for coffee. We began with a Welcome to Country from the local mob. It was really amazing and set the tone for a lot of conversations over the rest of the weekend. We were not only led through the ‘official’ welcome to country, but then were taken through a guided reflective, spiritual-like connection to country that was genuine and genuinely welcoming.

After being welcomed and taken to the level above tokenism, we split up into several groups of different workshops with topics such as land access and agreements, certification, and paddock to plate, chef, and consumer education. I went to the land access one and appreciated the amount of different models there are out there currently in Australia. However, land sharing/leasing is definitely becoming the norm, as access is becoming harder and harder, especially for small-scale farmers, let alone those of us who are just starting up. Frameworks for alliances/agreements—such as what we are about to embark upon out here in Harcourt—are definitely cutting edge, and as a whole movement we are all creating a new way of using land, together.

Being amidst that action is exciting and literally groundbreaking (yes, thats a pun!). There was an interesting conversation around the language used around people ‘owning’ land (surely no-one OWNS land, right?) and we were challenged to imagine how we can incorporate treaty and indigenous history past and present into our legal plans. It was really refreshing and forward visioning to think about how do we want land access to be possible in the future, what history the land holds for indigenous people, and actually asking the land what it wants to show us.  I really appreciated both the positive lens and the respectful mind that challenged and reminded us to seriously work with the land in a holistic way.

After a delicious lunch of amazing soup there was another round of workshop discussion groups and then getting ready for Saturday night’s feast! It was a beautiful combination of farmers, produce, and chefs working together to provide incredible food. I don’t normally get to eat out that well! It was a reminder that in this business you eat like kings. It was a relaxed social event of eating too much, pinning down those people you hadn’t had a chance to chat with earlier in the piece, and being kept warm by a massive bonfire into the wee hours.

So, what did I take away from the weekend, apart from feeling incredibly shy the first few days? Compared to 2 years ago when I first went, this year it was all farmers, and a few farmers’ friends rather than food outlets or policy changers. I’ve gathered a few good quotes that will stick in my brain for a while to be sure, such as “food yields community”.  The idea that building good soil builds community made me think especially about the alliance at Harcourt with lots of different ventures (veg, fruit, chickens, ducks, cows) all working together for the best outcome for the earth and the animals (the good soil bit) and how it will no doubt also build community.

I struggle to use the word community sometimes cos I feel it’s overused and wrongly used, but refreshingly this weekend it was a pleasant and exciting word again. I saw the overrepresentation of market gardeners and could see the boom from 2 years ago in our field.  My theory is that this is because veg has the easiest and quickest turn around of planting, money, and personal gratification, and way less red tape to go through. You can also do it on a very small scale. It was promising to see a few animal peeps there, edible flowers, cut flowers and grain farmers. It’s exciting as I feel they are the next ones to boom, which means our food system will become that much stronger.

One of the discussions was around different community-supported agriculture (CSA) models and distribution frameworks. It was a nice reminder to see for Sas and me how much our values underpin our decisions in regards to access and modes of selling, and that there is (of course) no one way that is ‘right’ as every climate, farmer, community, soil, and lifestyle is different.

The final morning saw us being led by a pear orchardist from Roberston, NSW in a little session called yoga for farmers, which can be practised in jeans, hehe. Pi Wei reminded us that we have to look at our body the way we look at the land—regeneratively.  She led us through some stretches and a few movements but the main thing she was teaching us was to check in with our body, read its landscape, and take care of it. After that session, Erika, who farms in the Blue Mountains, NSW remarked to me the new tool shed she’s building will now have a human tool bit to it, where you rebuild the body just the same as sharpening tools—love it!!  It is not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as understanding of our own inner wild natures fade. — Clarissa Pinkola Estes

It was a pleasure to keep the company of Tess, who is about to start her micro dairy here in Harcourt, and continue to be amazed at her amount of knowledge and depth of understanding of what she wants to do.

Coming together over Deep Winter introduced me and reintroduced me to people from all over Australia who I respect and admire in the same vein.  The core point of deep winter is to connect with other farmers during the depths of winter (when stuff can be tough), and warm the heart’s hearth, so to speak. It’s a gathering where we can learn from one another, realise we’re not alone, and continue to grow the revolution of small-scale farming to feed the land and our communities.

Thanks for listening! Mel x