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?

One year later …

Around this time a year ago, I was just about ready to throw up.  I was full of nervous anticipation, and had written, and was rehearsing, the acceptance speech for the Rural Women’s Awards, “just in case” I was lucky enough to win. We stayed in Melbourne the night before the announcement, and I can remember being in our hotel room feeling absolutely sick and getting a pep talk from Hugh – he told me just to assume I’d already won, so that I’d be completely ready when my name was called.


Amazingly, he was right, and when my name was announced I reckon I fooled everyone into thinking I felt confident. Now, 52 weeks later, I’m writing my speech for the ceremony on April 14 where I’ll hand over to this year’s winner. So technically I’m only on the job for another couple of weeks, but it’s had such a lasting impact on my life that I’m not expecting things to change too much after the announcement.

hugh-katie-mayor-big-chequeFor a start, I’m very aware of the investment that RIRDC (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, who run the Rural Women’s Awards) have made in me, particularly by funding me to do the AICD (Australian Institute of Company Directors) course. I figured that seeing as how I passed the course, I’d better use it, and so I’ve just accepted a role on the board of the Maldon and District Community Bank. I know a sum total of nothing about the banking industry, but I know lots about community, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity for me to put my training to use, get some new skills, and learn about something completely outside my normal life.  Except it’s not, is it? Unless you live under a rock, banking and the financial sector actually has a big impact on us all – and what attracted me to the community bank model is that it was set up specifically to return the profits (made from OUR money) directly back to the community – banking with heart!(I sound like a slogan, I know, but I’m actually really excited to learn about it!)


So that’s one of the more concrete things to have come out of this year, plus the fact that as part of the RWA alumni, I am now part of a community of women who get asked their opinion about stuff, like at the recent Women in Agriculture Forum held by Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford, where past RWA winners were well represented along with lots of other rural women leaders and emerging leaders. There was a lot of discussion at the Forum about how hard it can be for women to find the confidence to step up and find their voice, and that’s one of the main differences I feel from this time 12 months ago. Directly after I won the award I suffered from a big dose of Imposter Syndrome, feeling terrified that someone might find out what a complete fraud I was!  That feeling still pops up at times (like when I find myself invited to Parliament House, for example!), but I can now recognise it and put it back in its box where it belongs, so I can get on with the business at hand.

Of course running my project has also been a big part of this year, and I’ve learnt lots about both project management and about the topic (using social media to connect farmers at farmers markets directly to their customers). It’s yielded some interesting results and is still ongoing. Two of my big passions are farmers markets and farmers using social media to improve their marketing, and the chance to work on a big project around it was why I applied for the award in the first place.

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What else? Along the way I’ve also had lots of opportunities to inflict my fledgling public speaking skills on unsuspecting audiences, I’ve been to numerous conferences and forums, and I’ve made some really great contacts and friends, particularly with the other RWA state winners.


But I think the most important part of the whole experience has been an internal one (inevitably). It’s hard to articulate, but I think I feel different now because I’ve been treated like a leader all year, by everyone I’ve come into contact with as part of the award, from the wonderful people at RIRDC and the Dept of Economic Development (who help run the award) to the Minister of Agriculture.  They’ve all seemed to assume that not only did I deserve to win the award, but that I’d have the skills and qualities I needed to manage everything that was asked of me along the way – and that’s been a very powerful and transformative process.

And do you know what? I think they were right!

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award

My project, called “Farmers Markets Building Communities” has been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Rural Women’s Awards.

How (and why) to buy local food

still vegies in autumn in sheltered microclimate


Sas Mel Gung Hoe Mitch plum-250x140

We don’t buy much fruit (no surprises there), and now that we have the wonderful Gung Hoe market garden on the farm, as well as the vegies that my Dad grows in our on-farm tree nursery plus the produce from our new Farm Shop Garden, we also don’t have to buy many vegies any more. The freezers are full of lamb (from my sister’s farm), duck and pork from our neighbours, and rabbit from our own farm (where they’re a bloody pest!).



Hugh has recently taken up smoking (in a good way!) and built a smoker, so we’re enjoying our own home-cured and smoked bacon (using meat from the pork-growing neighbour). Eggs, honey, cheese, milk and olive oil all come from local farms via our own farm shop and the farmers market, and we harvest our own olives, almonds and citrus from the garden. Our pantry is full of home-made preserves, and we’ve just started learning how to make our own vinegar.


bacon laura home made


In short, there’s not much food we have to buy that travels any great distance – coffee, tea, sugar and grains mainly. These days, we struggle to spend more than $100 a week on groceries, while eating an almost exclusively local, organic diet – not because we’re particularly faddist about our food, but because we make it a priority to grow as much of our own food as we can, and to access what we can’t grow as locally as possible. We’re also devoted to shopping at farmers markets!

Then we go into the supermarket (to buy toilet paper), see the aisles full of processed food, much of it imported, and remember with a sinking heart that most people still buy most of their food there. Most of the food in supermarkets has taken massive amounts of fossil fuel to grow, process and transport . In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver estimates that if every US citizen ate just one meal a week of local and organic food, the US could reduce itsoil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil per week. Australia is not the US of course, but our supermarket shelves look very similar!

I recently heard a representative from Coles saying that “Coles is in the business of giving people what they want”, by which she meant that if customers want cherries in June, Coles will give them cherries in June, even if they have to import them from California (or wherever) to do so.  While they’re no doubt providing fantastic customer service, are supermarkets actually doing us a disservice by disconnecting us so completely from the seasonality that is intrinsic to food production?

As farmers who sell directly to the people who eat our food, we feel like a big part of what we do is replace the knowledge about food and seasonality that has been lost just in the last generation or two. It’s one of the reasons we sell all of our fruit by named variety, so that our customers see that each variety comes and goes quite quickly, within just a few weeks usually. You might be able to buy peaches for months, but you can only buy O’Henry peaches for a couple of weeks.


We figure this is a subtle way to reconnect people with what “local food” actually means, and that by being connected with it they’ll value it.  It’s incredibly important to support your local farmers, and by “support” we mean seek out and buy from. It not only reduces the amount of fossil fuels that are used to produce your food, but it also keeps farmland in production and helps rural communities stay alive. The best food – for us, for the planet and for our communities – is the food we grow where we live.  It’s one of the (many) reasons we love and support accredited farmers markets, because they’ve taken the hard work out of trying to figure out what “local” means. As long as you’re buying at an accredited market, you can be sure the food you’ll be eating is both local, and seasonal.

When I started the Farmers Markets Building Communities project at the beginning of my year as RIRDC Victorian Rural Woman of the Year, I somewhat naively expressed my dream of seeing a weekly farmers market in every community, and of them becoming the place where most people routinely go to do their shopping. In my dream, everyone remembers that you can’t eat cherries in June, and they buy pears instead. We’re clearly not there yet, but boy do we need to be!

Cheers, Katie

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award – week 49

As my year as the Victorian Rural Women’s Award winner starts to wind down my commitments have been fewer, but many opportunities continue to open up for me, as I’m sure they will continue to do for years to come as a result of my experiences this year.  In the last few weeks I have:

  • Been invited to participate in the Women in Agriculture Forum hosted by the Victorian Minister for Agriculture
  • Participated in a forum held by the Australian Futures Project about how to make Victoria’s food system more sustainable
  • Been on the panel to select the 2016 RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award winner
  • Been offered a new board position

My project, called “Farmers Markets Building Communities” has been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Rural Women’s Awards.