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.

Making delicious organic yummy things – value-adding for fun and profit!

What does “value-adding” make you think of? Sounds like something to do with economics, doesn’t it? But in farming terms, it’s used to describe any process where you turn raw product (like fruit) into something else (like juice).

The grader at The Wild Apple where juice apples are separated from high-grade eating apples, before being pressed for juice

It’s something we’ve always done at home for our own use, aiming to store as much fresh produce as we can over summer, to eat in winter.

And despite dabbling in value-adding on a commercial scale, we’ve never managed to do it on any scale. To do that would take a real commitment and quite a bit of time, investment in equipment and training, and all the other things involved in launching new products like market testing, labelling, sourcing and logistics.

But the idea still excites us, and remains one of the great untapped potential directions that we (or someone else) could take our farm business. It was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference we went to in South Australia. Nearly every other grower was value-adding, and in every case it was making a big difference to their bottom line.

Super delicious mixed dried stone fruit from O’Reilly’s organic orchard, first dried then frozen for longer storage

Here’s just some of the things other organic orchardists are making/doing that are inspiring us:

  • Juice – some growers are making and pasteurising their own juice, some are selling it fresh and unpasteurised, and some are sending fruit to processors who do the whole process for them;
  • Dried fruit – we saw (and tasted) some beautiful examples of dried fruit (and vegies), and again, growers are processing in a variety of different ways. Some of cutting whole, unpeeled fruit with an automatic mandolin and then drying in a heat-controlled electric machine that rapidly dries fruit to a pre-set moisture level (see the picture of this very cool machine below); some are processing by hand and drying in the sun, and others have semi-automated fruit prep and solar drying systems;
  • Cider – most growers at the ANOO conference grow apples, and lots of them are experimenting with cider and it’s close cousin…
  • Apple cider vinegar – this product has so many uses that any grower that’s making it says they can’t produce enough for their markets (plus it also makes a great basis for a variety of fruit-based vinegars);
  • Frozen – some creative growers have found an excellent market in frozen fruit, using specific varieties known to be high in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and aiming squarely at the health food market. Clever!
  • Jams – apple jelly (with all manner of different flavourings like rosemary, or lavender), apricot jam, plum jam – you name it, someone’s making it (and it’s racing out the door at farmers markets);
  • Preserved/canned fruit – nobody at the ANOO conference is doing this commercially, but several have done trials and are interested in taking it further;
  • Apple pies/pastries – a couple of growers have expanded into the related area of turning fruit into pies and pastries. It’s more fiddly and requires a much higher skill level (you actually need to be able to cook!), but the returns are worth it.
Inside view of electric dehydrator

We’re resigned to the fact that we’re probably never going to start a value-adding business ourselves, but we’re very excited about the possibility of a new member of the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance that we’re setting up (either leases the orchard from us, or someone else) taking up the challenge of developing this side of the business, which promises to not only provide LOTS more ways that we can feed local families with healthy organic food all year round, but also make a healthy difference to the bottom line of the business!

Small scale solar dryer

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.