Christmas parties with a difference

I’ve been to three outstanding Christmas parties in the last couple of weeks, all of which were beautiful examples of what Christmas can be about.

Two were for the boards I sit on—Maldon and District Financial Services Ltd, or MDFSL (a not-for-profit company which runs the Maldon and District Community Bank branch of the Bendigo Bank), and Melbourne Farmers Markets  or MFM (another not-for-profit company which runs farmers markets in Melbourne).

I love being on these boards. It’s satisfying to be part of organisations that do meaningful work in the community and achieve really solid on-the-ground results that are in line with my values.

For example, MDFSL strengthen the local community by funding all sorts of different projects (to the tune of almost $3 million dollars so far), and MFM are radically improving the food system by providing an accessible marketplace for small-scale farmers (like us) to get retail prices by directly connecting with customers.

I’m also grateful for the pathway that led to being on boards that came from winning the RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards in 2015. Without that chance, I would probably never have considered stepping up into leadership roles like this. It’s led to huge personal growth, I’ve had inspiring mentors, and have learned heaps.

Both Christmas parties were absolutely delightful, and much more like getting together with a group of treasured friends than going to a company event.  There was no excessive gift giving, and in fact no commercial focus at all.

Both involved really delicious and thoughtful food; in one case one of the board members cooked us an incredible Sri Lankan feast; in the other the laden feast table featured a wide variety of locally grown delicacies, bought direct from farmers, and prepared with skill and love.

Both evenings were full of interesting, meaningful and thoughtful conversations, and in each case it really felt like I got to know lots of people a bit deeper, and even met partners of people I’ve worked with for years.

Katie, Mary, Merv, Hugh, Sas, Mel, Marty, Elle, Cara, Ant, Tess and Lydia at the dam

The third party was definitely the simplest, and probably the best. This is our first Christmas together as the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, and we celebrated picnic-style on the farm.

Despite how incredibly busy everyone is, the whole co-op (plus friends) took time out one evening this week to relax and share a meal on the banks of the dam to celebrate.

The slightly cool weather didn’t stop most co-op members (and the dogs) from having a swim, and of course the food was abundant and completely delicious!

Again, the food was delicious and super local, because most of it came from the farm!  The conversations were fun, warm and interesting, and the bevvies were delicious and plentiful. Most of all though, it felt fantastic to stop work, sit for a moment, and just BE together. It felt like our community is becoming a family on the farm—a farmily.

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?

Inspiring young entrepreneurs

katie-vce-business-forum-latrobe-270x480Two things happened this week to make me feel inspired, enthused and excited about business.

latrobe-business-forum-katie-3The first was being asked to be the keynote speaker at the La Trobe Uni VCE Business Forum in Bendigo, presenting to Year 11 business students. Part of my presentation was about our two businesses (Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, our organic orchard, and Grow Great Fruit, our online business), and about the project I ran as the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award winner for Victoria in 2015, but it was also a great opportunity to share stories of some really inspirational young entrepreneurs that we’re connected with.

17360834_10154169480657167_517128767_nYou’ve no doubt heard of the lovely Gung Hoe Growers, who run a market garden on our farm (and in fact share the writing of this blog with us).  It was a joy to share their story of how (and why) they got started, their successes and failures, and to pass on their sage advice to the budding entrepreneurs in the audience, especially the advice not to be afraid to start even if you don’t know everything, and that you can do a LOT more than you think you can.

latrobe-business-forum-katie7

 

But it was also fun to share the story of some other young businesspeople such as Grace, who at the tender age of 20 started her own fashion label called “Bedroom The Label”. One year later she’s graduated out of the bedroom (where she literally started the business) into a studio in Collingwood (Melbourne), has taken on an intern, and has recently scored her first overseas orders. You can follow Grace’s meteoric progress through her Instagram account here.

latrobe-business-forum-katie8I also shared Allie’s story, who is in the throes of starting his own tattoo business called “Stick With It Tattoo”. As Allie’s mum, I wasn’t hugely impressed when he bought a tattoo machine on eBay and started practising on himself, but a couple of years later I’m incredibly proud to see him enrol in a business course, negotiate the regulations required to open his own tattoo studio, and open his first business! You can follow his progress on Instagram here.

It was also pretty amazing to find myself being asked to present the keynote address at a business forum, but I can trace that directly back to having won the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award for Victoria in 2015, which gave me (amongst many other things) the experience and confidence to be able to take on this kind of challenge.

Which leads me to the other great thing that happened this week, which was attending the awards ceremony for this year’s Rural Women’s Award recipient on Wednesday this week.

rwa-kirsten-abernethy-cath-jenkins-480x269This year’s winner is Kirsten Abernethy (that’s her on the right in the photo), who has planned a fabulous project to help women in the fishing industry to find their voice. Of course there was a field of incredible finalists as well, including Cath Jenkins (on the left). I very much look forward to watching Kirsten’s progress, and the professional and personal development that I know from experience will come from her involvement with the awards.

rwa-alumni-lunch-2017-480x269Just one of the many ongoing gifts from being involved in the RIRDC Awards is being part of the alumni, so it was lots of fun to head to the alumni lunch after the awards and catch up with old friends, meet new people, and leave re-inspired to continue to grow in my business and personal life, and to make the most of every opportunity that comes my way.

Katie