Winter warmth…

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As I step into the cold air and the icy wind I shiver and walk towards the patch.  Sas and I have been tag teaming lately with leaving town, and now she’s away.  I miss working with her and notice the difference from the power of two to one!  As I walk around observing whats growing, I am filled with admiration for the green things in the ground.  For example, the broad beans; it’s bloody cold and yet they are still growing roots and bursting leaves into the outer world.  I never tire of the energy which one single seed contains.  As I continue to walk around I see the sweetpea shoots becoming tiny tendrils and the snowpeas just poking through the earth looking for the sun.  It’s so exciting!

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They’re growing in a bed that a friend came out to help dig.  They will continue to grow up the fence that another friend helped us build.  The tools which I am about to use we bought thanks to an amazingly generous donation.  The land we are on has been made accessible to us by Katie and Hugh.  The garlic looks well weeded because another friend wanted to help, and I can rest easy knowing that the seedlings are safe from frost or hungry bugs in the glasshouse thanks to our friends at The Healing Well.
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I walk around acknowledging and feeling incredibly grateful for all the combined efforts that have got us here.  The support continues and even though its cold and slow, this is the time to take stock, and relish the season.  Winter can look grey and empty, but so many things are happening under the surface.
Like the seed in the soil, all the belief and enthusiasm and helping hands are giving us strong roots to pursue our dream.  Corny, I know, but completely true.  So thankyou. Thankyou.  Thankyou.
Now, I gotta go dig!!

The incredible power of knowing your purpose – RIRDC Rural Women’s Award Week 11

Do you know your life’s purpose?  It’s a big question for a workday morning, but interesting to ponder. I realised the other day that nearly everything I do in my work life is based around the same passion and interests, so I’m wondering..is this my life’s purpose?

The big realisation struck me this Monday when I helped to launch the Mount Alexander Local Produce Network (MALPN). It’s a new network for sustainable farmers in Mount Alexander Shire that grew out of the “Growing Local Food Economy Forum” that Council held waaaay back in 2012 (it takes a long time for these babies to gestate sometimes!).  The aim is to help connect farmers and others (e.g., retailers, restaurants, farmers markets, eaters – in fact anyone in the local food sector), to promote our rural sector, and to give local farmers a voice. It was a fantastic launch, and well attended, as you can see.

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Local farmers, future farmers, food retailers and eaters at the Mount Alexander Local Produce Network launch

I was asked to give the launch speech in my role as RIRDC Victorian Rural Woman of the Year, and in it I touched on my Award Project, which is all about empowering small family farms to have more control over their marketing.

Which got me to thinking about the other projects in my life. Funnily enough, I find the three other projects I’m really passionate about at the moment are all very closely related! The first is creating new pathways to farming on our farm (e.g. our new collaboration with the Gung Hoe Growers, and getting involved in the Organic Federation of Australia’s new farm intern program), the second is being involved with The Growing Abundance Project and supporting the establishment of a practical organic food growing course, and the third is my work on the board of Melbourne Farmers Markets, where the focus is all about improving the local food system by creating secure and profitable markets for small and medium-sized farmers! I’m detecting a definite theme…

What really brought it all together in my head was realising that all the small and local projects I’m involved in, and in fact our little farm, are part of a much bigger global movement.  In reality, we have a pretty small farm with only 6,000 fruit trees, and it’s easy to feel like we’re not a significant player in agriculture, but I’ve recently come across a 2013 United Nations report called “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late“, which drew on scientific papers about environment, climate change and food systems from all around the world to conclude that

“The world needs…a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based…industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

Then I discovered a heavily researched 2014 report from an organisation called GRAIN titled “Hungry for Land“, which reached the following conclusions:

1.  The vast majority of farms in the world today are small and getting smaller.
2.  Small farms are currently squeezed onto less than one-quarter of the world’s farmland.
3.  We are fast losing farms and farmers in many places, while big farms are getting bigger.
4.  Small farms continue to be the major food producers in the world.
5.  Small farms are overall more productive than big farms.
6.  Most small farmers are women.

 Isn’t that mind boggling? Though small farms take up less than one-quarter of the farming land in the world, we produce most of the food! We small farmers, particularly women, ARE important! Small and medium-sized sustainable family farms play a significant role in helping to feed the world, and I’m pretty sure my life’s mission is to help empower them!

It’s pretty special to find myself doing (mostly) what I love, in work that feels useful and purposeful. I haven’t quite got here in the “textbook” way of first setting the goal, and then working towards it. I’ve followed the more haphazard path of just getting involved in things that are really interesting, working with other inspiring passionate people, and being open to opportunities as they come up.  I guess that’s the incredible power of knowing your life’s purpose!

This week I’ve

  • Been guest speaker at the Mount Alexander Local Produce Network Launch
  • Appeared in an article (and on the front cover!) of Australian Fruitgrower, the Australian Apple and Pear (APAL) magazine
  • Appeared in APAL’s YouTube video: “Using Social Media to sell Organic Apples”
  • Signed the contract with RIRDC to carry out my project – it’s official!
  • Been introduced online to all the other RIRDC Rural Women’s Award state winners – and looking forward to talking to everyone at our first teleconference next week.
  • Organised details for the trip to Canberra to attend the Company Director’s Course in August – can’t wait!

Thanks to RIRDC for their valuable support of the Rural Women’s Awards.

Here’s a great story about a farmer…

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – Week 5

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Planting the apricot orchard, 2004

Here’s a story about a farmer…

A young woman came home to the family farm in her thirties, because her dad was about to sell the farm, and she suddenly realised she wanted to be a farmer. After serving an apprenticeship with her dad, she and her husband then decided to convert the farm to organic production, and spent the next 5 years studying, changing the way they farmed and making lots of mistakes. The drought hit, and along with it came bird plagues, hail storms, disease outbreaks…but they kept absorbing the shocks, learning and adapting. Then the drought broke, with record-breaking floods, and it almost…almost…did them in. In the 10 years of the drought the number of farmers in their district had halved, as one after another succumbed to the combined pressures of drought and debt, and left the farm (none, mercifully, by taking their own lives). And they came very close to making the same decision…

But they didn’t. Instead they got some great advice and decided to stay, rebuild and expand. Most importantly, they learned the value of diversification to protect them in the future against the risks inherent in farming. While they decided they would keep farming, they also decided they needed another income stream that wasn’t dependent on the weather, and so, Grow Great Fruit was born.

That’s my story of course, with a hundred other little stories hidden in there as well…why we went organic, how we started an online business, what it’s like to work with your husband AND your father (that’s a story!!). Of course we’re not unique, every farming family in Australia would have their own stories to tell, and I think their time has come!

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Dad and Hugh, planting the new peach block, 2010

As my Award project unfolds, I’ve been connecting with the two pilot markets for this project – Castlemaine Farmers Market, and Coburg Farmers Market. I’ve had a look at which stallholders already use social media and I’m shocked to say – not many! I already had a sense of that, but hadn’t done the figures until now.  Only 30% have a presence on social media, and only about 10% are actively using it.

I wonder why?

My theory (which I’ll shortly have evidence for – or against!) is that one of the main barriers to farmers market stallholders using social media to connect with their customers, is that they don’t think their story is worth telling. As we know, millions of people are using social media to tell their stories daily – why aren’t farmers?

Some are, of course, and are doing a fantastic job. I follow several of them, and always find their their farming stories and their trials, tribulations and successes fascinating. And we know from our own experience that it’s easy to engage people with our story – simply by telling it! Since we started using social media for our business a couple of years ago, we’ve built up the community around us to almost 4,000 ‘likers’ on Facebook, almost 2,000 people on our newsletter mailing list, and 200 followers on Twitter.

And (surprisingly, maybe) it actually feels like a community, despite existing in internet-world. Some of them we know, but many more have chosen to ‘like’ us because they like what they see when we post stories. As they comment, ‘like’ our posts, or share them with their own networks we gradually get to know some of them, and this often leads to real-world encounters at the farm for an open day, at the market to buy fruit, or at one of our workshops, or they go on to join our Grow Great Fruit membership program.

It’s not that long ago that most families would have had some connection with a farm – an uncle, or grandfather, or a family friend. But in the last 50 or so years a lot of those connections have been lost, and now the majority of people that live in cities and large towns don’t have a farm they can easily visit, which means they’ve lost that vital connection to where their food comes from. Food production is just so intrinsic to our human nature that I think people are longing to reconnect with the land, and social media provide us with the perfect medium to re-establish those connections.

Persuaded? Great, but that was probably easy, because if you’re reading my blog, you’re already a social media user. My real challenge is to connect with farmers and other stallholders at the farmers markets to (a) persuade them it’s a good idea, (b) help them understand the benefits for themselves and their markets, and (c) teach them how to do it.  I think it’s possibly going to be a big challenge, but I can’t wait!

Many thanks to RIRDC for supporting rural women through the Rural Women’s Award.

This week I’ve been:

* finalising the survey of stallholders which will survey their existing social media use, and (hopefully) recruit them for the project
* meeting with Coburg Primary School, the community partner organisation for Coburg Farmers Market, who have a very special role to play in the project* working on goal setting and timelines
* scheduling 6 winter workshops for our farm business
* having a brief and beautiful holiday with my gorgeous husband
* interviewed by Apple and Pear Australia for Australian Fruitgrower magazine
* training two new pruners for our pruning crew (hooray!)
* accepting an invitation to the Regional Leaders Forum in Bendigo
* working on my application to be a speaker at the Connecting Rural Business Women conference