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?

Frocking up in Canberra…

katie black frock-386x628

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – week 24

We’re off to Canberra next week, and we’ll be all frocked up and ready to meet politicians of every persuasion at the Gala Dinner at Parliament House on Wednesday night. Hugh’s collected his tuxedo, I’ve bought new heels and have the evening dress in train…now I just have to sort out a new lipstick, and we’re all set!

Why so much glamour and glitz? It’s the announcement of the national winner of the 2015 Rural Women’s Awards, and as the Victorian state winner, I’m in the running! I’ve met all the other state finalists when RIRDC sent us all to Canberra recently to do the Company Director’s Course (as part of our award prize), and so I can confidently tell you that this year’s national award is in safe hands whoever wins. What a fabulous bunch of women! All leaders in their communities, running exciting projects and achieving great things in their careers, while at the same time being the most down-to-earth, ordinary bunch of school mums you’d ever find yourself working next to in the school canteen.

We’ve decided amongst ourselves (the other RIRDC state finalists that is, not Hugh and I) that it would be in RIRDC’s best interests to just split the award between all 7 of us, because there’s nothing to pick between us and we’d all make fabulous ambassadors for them over the next 12 months. Of course, awards being what they are that’s not going to happen, but it is great to genuinely feel that I’ll be equally delighted whoever wins.

This year has been so full of engagements since winning the Victorian award in March that I feel like I’ve got a pretty good sense of how exciting it will be if I should be so lucky as to win the national and, on the other hand, I’m aware now of how much time it takes to do a good job and get the most out of every opportunity, so I also think I’ll be perfectly happy just looking forward to a normally full year crowded with farm life and existing projects if I don’t win!

So think of us on Wednesday (and keep your fingers crossed for me that I don’t trip over my unaccustomed high heels in public and make a complete dill of myself) and we’ll let you know what happens!

The last fortnight I’ve:

  • Presented the keynote address at the Beechworth “Connecting Rural Business Women” 2015 conference
  • Given a talk to the Castlemaine U3A group
  • Filmed a segment to enable me to take part in an Agribusiness summit that I wasn’t able to attend in person
  • Organised the farm so we can be in Canberra for most of next week and be confident everything will be ok in our absence!
  • Accepted an offer to speak at the “Chicks in the Sticks” event in November (very excited about this one!)
  • Attended a meeting with Melbourne Farmers Markets in Melbourne to get some feedback on my project, as I’ve started thinking about how I will write my report and turn the project into a useful piece of research that will be usable by other farmers markets.
  • Started writing the assignment for the Company Director’s Course (3,000 words!)
  • Been working with a landscape designer on plans for the new Farm Shop we are planning to open for the coming season

My project, called “Growing Communities Around Farmers Markets” has been made possible by the RIRDC Rural Women’s Awards.