Is Grow Great Fruit Growing?

This time last year I had just MC’d an event and panel discussion  at an event in Castlemaine where David Holmgren introduced his new book “Retrosuburbia: the downshifters guide to a resilient future″ (you can read the blog here, or check out the Retrosuburbia website here.

Ant and Mel represented HOFC (the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op) at the networking event before the Retrosuburbia launch
Ant and Mel represented HOFC (the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op) at the networking event before the Retrosuburbia launch

A big part of David’s vision for a resilient and sustainable future is seeing household food growing become part of everyday life – which aligns strongly with our mission to get everyone growing their own fruit – so we were delighted that he included our range of ebooks (which are free for members of our Grow Great Fruit program) in his book.

The cover of Retrosuburbia
The cover of Retrosuburbia

At the time we noted that growing our Grow Great Fruit coaching business was one of the motivations for establishing the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, to free us from the day-to-day business of farming.

Some of the ideas we were tossing about at the time included:

  • Taking the GGF program to other countries;
  • Providing more services for members;
  • Returning to running workshops;
  • Taking workshops online to make them more accessible;
  • Providing scholarships;
  • Working with small-scale or start-up farmers to help increase profitability and sustainability;
  • Working with community groups.

So, 12 months on, how are we doing? Have we made any progress at all?

Well, yes – but not as much as we had hoped, mainly because everything always takes longer than you think it’s going to!

This has been true for pretty much every aspect of life for the last year, like adjusting to not being farmers (harder than we expected), the infrastructure project we’ve been building for the Co-op (consumed a lot more time and resources than we optimistically hoped), and the fact that our previous commitments seemed to suddenly expand to take up more space in our lives. Many times we’ve wondered how we ever had time to farm at all!

Despite all that we’ve made some good progress, so here’s our report card for the last 12 months:

  • Went on a 5 week study tour to America to check out whether the Grow Great Fruit program is a good fit over there (and came back feeling pretty confident that it is);
  • Grew the membership of the program by 30%;
  • Increased services to members (e.g. more one-on-one consulting calls);
  • Created “on-demand” webinars to increase accessibility and convenience;
  • Changed the format of our Weekly Fruit Tips newsletter to provide more meaningful free content every week;
  • Trialed an online workshop for small-scale farmers.

We’ve got a long way to go, and still feel like what we’re doing is just a drop in the ocean compared to what’s possible.

But what’s great is that we’re more interested and excited than ever about helping home fruit-growing enthusiasts to turn their passion into reliable crops.

We still have lots of plans in the pipeline – so the next 12 months should be just as exciting as the last!

Looking forward to the next 12 months
Looking forward to the next 12 months

How to set up a farming co-op

We’ve signed the leases! It took 3 months of negotiation and not a little angst, but all 4 founding members of the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op now have a lease at the farm. (In fact the leases all started on 1 July, it just took another 3 months to work out the details and get the paperwork signed!).

All the leases are for 3 years, with the option to extend them for 2 more 3 year terms (i.e., 9 years altogether). They can also opt out at any 3 year mark, so it gives them a chance to try it out without making a huge commitment.

Next step is setting up the co-op, which is the part of our big plan that should help each business to save time and money by working together.

We’ve started a “Business Ninjas” program to help members run lean, profitable businesses and financially “future-proof” themselves, but also to come up with a cunning plan to protect us all against the many risky things that can—and do—happen to farmers.

The other main project underway is the RDV-funded project to provide the infrastructure our farmers need, which is now rapidly taking shape—the containers have been found and bought, the concrete footings were poured this week, and we hope to take delivery of the containers in the next week or so.

There’s loads of interest in what we’re doing—we’ve already had a number of people wanting to visit and talk to us about what we’re doing, which is so great and definitely part of the point of what we’re trying to set up.

We don’t know much yet (including whether this experiment will actually work), but we’re happy to share our experience so far.  And we certainly understand why people might be interested in this model, because there are just SO many potential benefits:

  • A succession plan for older farmers like us who want to step away from active farming, but don’t want to sell up and want their farms to stay in production.
  • A productivity plan for farms—our model aims to ‘stack’ as many compatible enterprises onto the same farm as possible (similar to the Joel Salatin model, but each enterprise is run as a separate business).  Multi-enterprise farms are more resilient, and can produce more food and make more money, but unless you have a large and enthusiastic family it’s beyond the capacity of most farmers to do more than a couple of things well. This way each enterprise gets the passion, dedication and time it needs to become as good as it can be, and it also creates a livelihood for many more families.
  • An affordable and supported pathway into farming for young farmers, many of whom don’t have sufficient capital to buy land, or experience to start their own business. This model gives them access to land without taking a massive financial risk, while at the same time giving them business support to help fast-track their business skills.
  • Mitigating climate change by increasing the amount of farmland being farmed organically, which puts more carbon into the soil.
  • Increasing the amount of locally grown food that’s accessible straight from the farm for local families.
  • Creating a supportive peer group for the young farmers, where they provide emotional and practical support for each other, plus lots of opportunities to collaborate to help improve each other’s businesses.
  • A chance to share our knowledge and expertise with the younger generation of farmers.

While we’re really happy to share what we’re learning, time means money, and though we’d love to drink tea and chat all day we’ve also got work to do! So we’re thinking about the best way we can share our model without it taking too much of our time—stay tuned on that one, we’ll let you know when we’ve developed our cunning plan.

Meanwhile, it must be time for another party, so we’re holding our official launch and farm open day on Sunday October 28.  Things get started at 10 a.m. with morning tea, then the farm tour will kick off at 11 a.m. where you can see and hear about

  • Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery
  • Sellar Farmhouse Dairy
  • Tellurian Fruit Gardens
  • Gung Hoe Growers market garden
  • Grow Great Fruit education program
  • Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens heritage apple orchard
  • the infrastructure hub we’re building

It’s a free event, but if you’re coming please register here so we have an idea of the numbers. You’ll be able to buy scones, cake and drinks for morning tea, and soup and bread for lunch, and will also be invited to make a donation to help us with running costs (suggested donation $10). Please DON’T bring your dog (unless it’s on a lead and/or can stay in the car) or ANY fresh fruit or vegetables onto the farm (because we’re on fruit fly lockdown).

What Will We Do Next?

As the reality of life post-orcharding looms large, Hugh and I spending a few days off the farm and starting to think about what comes next for us.

You’d think we’d have thought about this long ago, before we put this whole train of events in motion – and we did – but it was just theory back then, and now it’s about to become reality.

On 1 July, the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (HOFA) will come into being, and we’ll sign the orchard lease over to Ant. He’ll officially become responsible for growing the fruit.

In fact, we’ll still be helping him, not just in an abstract mentoring capacity, but hands-on, in the orchard and packing shed, at least for his first year of operation.

Our role in HOFA will be property managers, which means we’ll be overseeing the job of building new infrastructure (like staff room, toilet facilities, etc.), applying for and managing grants, and making sure everything runs smoothly so the important people – the farmers – can get on with their jobs.

I’ll also still be getting my hands dirty running the Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery with Sas (of Gung Hoe Growers fame), under the watchful eye of my dad Merv.

Add to that Hugh’s part-time editing job for the Asian Development Bank, and our various community service roles, and the week suddenly looks very full. In fact I suspect we’ll be wondering how on earth we had time for farming at all!

That sounds like a week’s worth of work, doesn’t it? Oh hang on, the main reason we wanted to put our succession plan in place was so that we could concentrate more on the teaching side of our business. Where are we going to fit that in?

Grow Great Fruit (our online organic fruit growing home-study program) is too useful to the world to stay small any longer. We always said our mission was to teach the whole world how to successfully grow their own organic fruit, and the time has come (well, maybe not the whole world, but we want to extend our reach much further).

So you can expect to see GGF grow in coming months, and you needn’t worry about whether we’ll have enough to occupy us!