All we ever do is have meetings

An alliance meeting in our kitchen
An alliance meeting in our kitchen

Setting up the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (we’re still waiting for someone to come up with a better name….) is exciting, fun, stimulating, inspiring and reinvigorating for us old farmers, but mostly, it’s a lot of meetings!

On the phone, by Skype, in person, at offices in the city, here on the farm—we have been talking to a lot of people about this project over the last few weeks.

Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!
Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!

We’ve been going through a thorough process of interviewing and getting to know each of the applicants for the orchard lease, as we’re keen to choose the person who will be the best fit for the opportunity. We’ve had multiple meetings with other alliance members as they start to work through the detail of setting up or expanding their businesses. We’ve had regular meetings with our business consultant, Clare, to work through the many layers of complexity involved with our business development plan, we’ve met with professionals to get advice on various aspects of our plans, and had meetings with the funding body to report on our progress and discuss next steps. We almost don’t have time to farm any more!

We’ve also had some welcome interest from the media about what we’re doing, and are now starting to get inquiries from other farmers and farming groups interested in doing something similar on their farms. As part of our mission here is to develop a replicable model that can be implemented all around the country, we’re happy to share our progress so far, but all this talking is keeping us from our fruit trees!

Spring is such a crucial time of year in the orchard, when it’s more important than any other time of year to keep our eye on the ball so we can anticipate and respond to the weather to protect the trees while they’re flowering and the fruit is setting. If we stuff up now, we pay for it for the rest of the season!

gala blossom

So we’re feeling a little distracted by nurturing two completely different ‘babies’ at the moment—this year’s fruit crop, and our fledgling alliance. Both promise great things and deserve our full attention, but we can’t wait until we’ve steered them through these early, risky stages and can stand back a bit and take a breath!

Wannabe an organic farmer?

Since we started sharing our farm with the Gung Hoe Growers and their market garden, we’ve suspected that there’s a groundswell of people out there who would love to do what we’re doing – running slightly too small (by commercial standards) organic farms for profit or love.

ggf-facebook-pageSo to test our theory, recently we wrote a post on our Facebook page inviting comments from people who want to be organic farmers or live a self-sustaining lifestyle, asking what’s stopping them? What are the biggest barriers that get in the way of people realising their goals and ‘living the dream’?

Well, what a massive response! We got an outpouring from many people who expressed in equal measure their passion and desire to be growing their own food, along with the frustration and disappointment of how hard it can be to make it work.

Here’s just a selection of what people had to say about…

unnamed-1…their dreams and aspirations:

  • to become semi self-sufficient and trade with others nearby
  • just for home use…I would like to be able to supply family
  • I want to set up an organic/permaculture veggie garden and orchard integrating traditional fruit and vegies as well as bush tucker foods
  • I want to start my own organic market garden, buying land and a house somewhere cheaper, I think I know what I need and have the funds to do it, I just need help with a business plan and would love a mentor. I know what to do, just need support. I love growing organic vegies!
  • It’s a dream to one day have a patch that we can live off sustainably
  • implementing food garden and chooks, animals
  • I want to make a living out of my farm – but I don’t know how

img3494…the biggest challenges and barriers:

  • lack of infrastructure
  • lack of machinery
  • lack of TIME
  • having to work full time to pay for the farm
  • knowing what you want to get out of it
  • knowing what you need to do to get the best return from your soil type
  • understanding how to use organic principles
  • the skills to be water wise and knowing how to improve an old, outdated, inefficient irrigation system
  • weed control
  • pest control
  • compost making
  • setting up networks for support and marketing
  • planning and working with what is there with progression plan
  • structure, fencing, water

…the questions people need answered:

  • what can we produce what there is a demand for?
  • how do we know if there will be a market for what we want to grow?
  • how to develop a small farm into a profit-generating enterprise?
  • how do I engage neighbours in productive conversation re spray drift and chemicals in waterways?
  • how do I improve soil as quickly as possible?

…and the wishlist of what people want or need to help them realise their dreams:

  • I need a business plan and a mentor
  • being able to read the wisdom of weeds
  • the money to buy the farm
  • designing farm layout (keyline principles)
  • I need a basic design

Wow. Basically, these guys wrote our life story. We have shared these dreams, asked those questions and felt frustration at all those barriers.

But when we look back over the last 20 years, we’re also incredibly lucky that the pathway that this farm has taken us on has answered so many of those questions. We’ve done courses, read books, had mentors, employed business consultants, done farm planning, done market research, established marketing supply chains and networks, learned to value and understand our weeds, and learned the wisdom of continuously working on improving our soil.

Not that we would ever claim to ‘know it all’ – far from it! After all this time, we’re still learning and evolving. But what we do have is many years of experience, lots of runs on the board, and the successful experiment of Mel and Sas starting a micro-farm at our place, which has opened our eyes to a whole new way of farming, where we can use our land, resources and experience to provide a pathway for a new generation of farmers and food growers.

And judging by the recent outpouring on Facebook, this is just the beginning!blog-2015-08-27-1

About us…

We’re in the middle of overhauling our website (yes, again!) and have just updated our ‘about us’ page. Which got us to thinking that a lot of the stuff on that page – what motivates us, our backgrounds, the training we’ve done over many years, and the actual jobs we do on the farm – are probably things we don’t talk about very much!

So today, we bring you “About Us” – everything you didn’t even realise you wanted to know about Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, and us! Hope you enjoy it…

* * * * * * * *

WeHugh and Katie Finlay draw on over 15 years’ experience as orchardists at our farm, Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, to bring you the Grow Great Fruit Program, the farm-proven system for home fruit growers.

The farm

Since we came home to the farm in 1998, we’ve seen some pretty wild conditions—from drought to flood and everything in between—so we have learnt HEAPS about growing fruit in a wide variety of conditions.

Nestled at the foot of Mt Alexander in Harcourt, our farm is planted like an old fashioned “garden” (the early name for an orchard) with small plantings of more than 90 varieties, providing an extended season of fresh fruit off the tree for almost 6 months.

With a combination of careful planning, looking after the trees well, appropriate storage, and a range of preserving techniques, our farm is a working demonstration of how to keep your family supplied with delicious organic fruit all year round.

We use organic growing methods – and teach them – not only because it’s better for everyone’s health, but because we’re acutely aware of how fast the climate is changing, and we want our farm to be part of the solution, not part of the problem! (read below to find out more about our Sustainability Plan).

The family

As well as our background in farming, and experience running our own farm, we regularly do more training to learn new stuff—we reckon it’s important to stay up-to-date and keep increasing our skills, so we can keep adapting quickly!

Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens is a family-run business, and we also value the 50 years-plus of fruit growing experience from Merv (Katie’s Dad), even though he’s retired since we branched out on our own (pun intended) and took the farm in the new direction of organic certification and biological farming methods. (“Retirement” means these days Merv only runs the tree nursery for the farm, does a bit of pruning, grows all the farm vegies and generally watches our backs. Oh, and he runs his own farm – that’s a farmer’s retirement!).

Our experience and training

Hugh’s farming experience started on a cattle station in Western Australia (which he ended up managing), followed by a stint as a supervisor on a broadacre wheat farm in Saudi Arabia. Travelling around the world for fun turned into 16 years as a writer and editor for Lonely Planet, an exotic lifestyle he eventually gave up to return to his farming roots and settle down in Harcourt.

Since coming back to the land, the training Hugh’s done has significantly steered MAFG towards its current path of organics and biological management:

  • “Monitor and manage soils” and “Pest, disease and weed management” units of the Diploma of Agriculture in Organic Farming, Organic Agriculture Association/Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE.
  • “Sustainable and Biological Farming Course”  with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
  •  “True Fertility Compost Tea Course” and “Microscope Course”, with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Institute
  • “Compost & Compost Tea Workshop”, with Paul Taylor, Woodend
  • Irrigation Management Course”, Department of Natural Resources and Sunraysia TAFE
  • Cherry Short Course”, Department of Primary Industries, Shepparton
  • Soil and Agronomy Workshop”, Dr Arden Andersen PhD DO FS
  • Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine

Hugh’s a self-confessed soil and microbe nerd, and spends a fair bit of time looking down a microscope! His jobs on the farm are many and varied, but include:

  • Nutrition—making compost tea brews, looking after the worms (his babies), soil testing, leaf testing, fertigation and foliar sprays
  • Irrigation—keeping the pumps and irrigation systems in top condition, monitoring soil moisture, deciding when and how much to water the trees
  • Pest and disease control—predicting the weather and putting on preventive organic sprays at exactly the right time!
  • Weed control
  • Machinery fix-it guy
  • IT and website fix-it guy

Hugh cleaning the compost tea brewer

Katie’s a third-generation orchardist and grew up on the farm, but bolted to the city after school and mis-spent a good deal of her youth getting a Bachelor of Science at Monash Uni (which as it turns out gave her a solid grounding in botany and genetics that came in very handy when she came home to the farm 15 years later).

Since coming home Katie’s also done a fair bit of training—in slightly different areas to Hugh—that has helped shaped the direction of the farm.

  • Permaculture Design Certificate” with Cydonia Permaculture
  • Permaculture Certificate 3” with Cydonia Permaculture and Eltham College
  • “Soil and Agronomy Workshop” with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS.
  • “Footprints to Sustainability” course taught by Jane Knight
  • “Biodynamic Field Day”, Daylesford
  • Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine
  • “Holistic Management” with Kirk Gadzia, Woodend
  • “Soil Microbes for Healthy Soil & Improved Vineyard Quality, Department of Primary Industries, Knoxfield
  • Carbon Farming 101”, Carbon Farmers of Australia
  • “Carbon Farmers of Australia conference”, Dubbo

We find it works best for us to divide up the jobs according to our main areas of interest (we both have more fun that way), which sees Katie spending most of her days managing the trees, and looking after the fruit all the way from picking to marketing.

Katie and friends doing soil testing

Katie’s jobs on the farm are as many and varied as Hugh’s, and include:

  • Pruning—5,000 trees and 4 different tree training systems means this is a big job every year
  • Fruit picking—choosing the right time to pick each of our 90 varieties, supervising pickers and wwoofers, making sure the fruit reaches the shed (and the markets) in perfect condition
  • Packing and marketing—fruit is graded and packed to suit the market for which it’s destined (wholesale, online or farmers market)
  • Thinning to manage crop load and quality
  • Orchard hygiene—an important defence against disease
  • Pest and disease control—preventive tape, netting, pheromones etc.
  • Orchard planning—keeping tabs on what new varieties are needed, grafting and pollinisers

Other Farm-y Stuff

We started the process of getting certified organic with NASAA in 2008. Being certified organic means everything we do (and everything we use on our farm) must comply with the Australian Organic Standards. We’re audited once a year by a NASAA officer, who has the legal right to look at EVERYTHING we do, including all our bookwork and procedures. We wholeheartedly support organic certification, and love that it’s such a rigorous process, because we think that gives you – the consumer – the confidence that we actually are doing everything the right way, and not just saying that we are. It’s too easy for people to say they’re organic when what they mean is spray-free, or almost spray-free. When you’re shopping, if someone is claiming to be organic – ask them who they’re certified with, and if they’re not, ask them why not!

Being certified organic means (amongst other things) that no artificial fertilisers are used on the farm. We rely instead on natural fertility (you know, the sort that fed the entire human race before about 1920 when superphospate was invented, and our soils were ruined!). Natural fertility relies on using compost, compost tea and other forms or organic matter to create healthy soil, full of microbes that provide the trees with nutrients.

We’ve also set aside 4.5 hectares of the farm as a revegetation zone, creating a wildlife corridor from the Mt Alexander Regional Park (which borders the farm on the eastern side) through to remnant vegetation on the western side. The zone has been planted with local species, and is slowly being restored to its original condition.

In many ways, the farm still looks as it would have 100 years ago. The property was owned by W.L. Williams and sons, who began planting orchard in the 1880s. By 1909 they had an orchard or ‘garden’ (hence the farm name) of 60 acres, making them Harcourt’s largest fruit growers. They successfully grew apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears and cherries – as we still do today!

Sustainability Plan

Sustainability and resilience come from diversity, and this principle is applied constantly to all parts of our business. So, rather than growing a monoculture of just one type of fruit (which is very vulnerable to environmental conditions), we grow 7 types of fruit, and more than 90 varieties, with more added every year. (The house garden has another 20 or so varieties including nuts and citrus, but these are just to add to the diversity of their own food supply rather than for commercial sale). Growing lots of varieties spreads the risk, reduces disease pressure, improves food security by providing fresh fruit off the tree for almost half the year, spreads the workload and costs, and makes sure the fruit is picked, sold and eaten while it’s fresh.

The diversity principle is also applied to everything else, including for example:

  • markets – pick-your-own, wholesale, online and Farmers Markets
  • water sources – irrigation (Coliban Water), on-farm storage and increasing the amount of organic matter to store more water in the soil
  • income – on-farm (fruit, trees), online (Grow Great Fruit training products) and off-farm (Hugh’s alternative income)
  • sources of organic matter – compost, manure, worm food, humates, seaweed and other soil additives come from multiple sources to ensure adequate nutrients are returned to the soil
  • biodiversity – we encourage as many different types of birds, insects, arthropods and microbes as possible by having as many different types of plants as possible

We’ve documented every aspect of the business, including our carbon-neutral status, in our Sustainability Plan which includes:

* the principles that guide the business
* strategy and goals
* challenges to sustainable practice
* summary of carbon emissions & sequestration
* key performance indicators including production, profit and satisfaction
* marketing and transport analysis
* pest, disease and environmental conditions review
* water and soil management

You’re welcome to read the whole plan – click on this link to go to Farmnotes and eBooks in our online shop to download it for free.

(Of course as soon as you produce any sort of business document it needs updating, so we aim to update the Sustainability Plan every 2 years, but being human, and busy, it can take a bit longer than that…)

Community Stuff

We are both involved with the local scene in all sorts of ways—because it’s so much more fun and interesting than going it alone! Plus it adds to the resilience of our business, as well as helping to build an active community.

Some of the things we’re doing at the moment include Hugh’s membership of Coliban Water’s Harcourt Water Services Committee, and both of us are members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers Association (of which Katie was Secretary for 10 years, and is now the Community Liaison Officer). Katie’s also passionate about the Growing Abundance project—a food relocalisation project based in Castlemaine (and not only because it involves lots of cake!)

Katie’s also involved each year in the local Harcourt Applefest, a celebration of our district’s long association with the mighty apple (that’s a photo of the crowd enjoying the ferret races at the Applefest).


Media and Speaking Stuff

MAFG has been featured many times in the media, and Hugh and Katie have spoken at various events over the years…here’s some of the recent highlights:

  • Katie was on the panel at a community forum called Get the Dirt on Food Security at Wesley Anne in Northcote in 2011
  • Hugh and Katie were featured speakers at the Organic Agriculture Association Future Farming conference in Bairnsdale in 2010
  • In 2009 MAFG was one of 4 orchards chosen for orchard walks for delegates to the 2009 Australian Fresh Fruit Company (AFFCO) Training Workshop, as part of their Annual Conference in Melbourne
  • In 2011 MAFG was featured in articles in both Australian Horticulture magazine and Good Fruit and Vegetables magazine
  • In 2012 MAFG was used as a case study in the report “Many Publics. Participation Inventiveness and Change” by Kate Auty, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria (you can read the report at:
  • In 2012 Katie was a speaker in the Keynote session at the Growers and Eaters Conference in Bendigo
  • In 2010 MAFG was part of the FarmVIEW video series featuring our response to the challenges of farming in a changing environment: (ep 2.1 ‘Climate and Planning’)
  • In 2014 we were included in a short video about waste in the food system called Waste Deep, made by the passionate people at Sustainable Table – watch the video here.
The film crew in the shed making the Waste Deep doco

Awards’n stuff

  • In both 2010 and 2011 we were Medallists in the ‘From the Earth’ category, delicious (ABC) magazine Produce Awards
  • We were runners-up in 3 categories of the Carbon Farmers of Australia Carbon Cocky Awards in 2011: Outstanding Best Practice, Outstanding Innovation or Invention and Encouragement Award.