Nestled at the foot of Mt Alexander in central Victoria, our farm orchards are 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.
In many ways, the farm still looks as it would have when the orchards were planted in the 1880’s by W.L. Williams and sons. By 1909 they had an orchard or ‘garden’ 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, though on a much smaller scale. (Our farm was previously called Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens to honour these multi-species plantings.)
With a combination of careful planning, looking after the trees well, appropriate storage, and a range of preserving techniques, our place is a working demonstration of how to keep your family supplied with home-grown organic fruit all year round.
When we started teaching the Grow Great Fruit system back in 2013, we were full-time farmers. Farming is full-on, so the teaching was always squeezed into the gaps between harvesting, selling fruit at markets, pruning, and the hundred other jobs involved in running a busy farm.
The last few years have been busy, but we’ve always found teaching fruit growing to be energising, not draining. And, our members and students have been getting great results!
In fact, helping fruit enthusiasts has been so rewarding and meaningful that we decided we want to do a lot more of it. But to do that, we knew we’d have to do less farming. So, we put a plan in place to give our passion project the time it deserves. We’ve trained up a young farmer (the fabulous Ant Wilson), leased our orchard to him, and set up the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-operative on our farm.
Why is teaching organic fruit growing so important to us?
Generations of kids and adults are growing up without ever picking ripe fruit from a tree—if you’re lucky enough to have childhood fruit memories, you know how special that is!
There’s a growing disconnect from nature and where our food comes from. It’s probably no coincidence that as a society, physical and mental health problems are on the rise.
Plus, there are so many things to worry about at the moment—pandemics, climate change, bushfires, economic woes and drought are just the top of a long list. Bees are under threat, species are disappearing, and our topsoil is being swept away in dust storms.
If ever there was a time for simple, practical skill-based solutions, it’s now.
You already know this….
If you’re on this website you’ve probably already felt the urge to get in the garden or move to the country, connect with nature, and simplify your life, right? Somehow, you just know deep in your gut that you want to grow your own food, and you probably share our belief that kids deserve to grow up eating and learning about home-grown food.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced how important it is to have control over our food supply, and how rewarding it is to have a productive garden.
In the past the knowledge was handed down from elders. Kids learned by watching their parents. We lived in communities that grew and shared food.
Now, everyone’s trying figure it out for themselves.
There’s TV shows, magazines, and books dedicated to teaching food-growing skills, but learning alone can be a long, slow process, and getting it wrong can lead to insecurity and doubt—in fact, repeated failures can actually have a negative effect on your well-being, as well as being a waste of time and money.
That’s where we come in.
How did the Grow Great Fruit system start?
Learning how to grow organic fruit on our orchard over the last 20 years has given us a wide body of knowledge about how to protect fruit trees against drought, flood, pests, disease and weather—how to expect the unexpected, in other words. We learned the hard way, by making mistakes, living through disasters, and coming up against new challenges every single year.
With the help of wise teachers and mentors and lots of trial and error we learned how to grow a successful—though sometimes small—crop every single year. Having five kids to feed, clothe and put through school was a great motivator!
When we came out the other end, we realised we’d built up a pretty solid system of practice that was helping us get good results year in, year out.
Give a woman a peach and you feed her for a day, teach a woman to grow peaches and you feed her for a lifetime.
Feeding our customers with organic fruit was wonderful, but we wanted to make a wider impact in the world, to spread the benefits of access to organic fruit beyond just the people we could feed. We wanted to share what we’d learned.
Passing on and preserving these skills has never been more urgent.
It’s up to our generation, right now, to re-learn how to grow our own food, and pass those skills on to our kids.
We’re committed to this next phase of our lives. Quite simply, we want to offer the best online fruit growing program in the world. Find out more about it here.
A bit more background about us…
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 farming and settle down in Harcourt.
Hugh’s training was significant in steering Grow Great Fruit towards organics and biological management:
- “Monitor and manage soils” and “Pest, disease and weed management”, Diploma of Agriculture in Organic Farming, Organic Agriculture Association/Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE.
- Sustainable and Biological Farming Course, Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
- “True Fertility Compost Tea Course” and “Microscope Course”, Dr. Elaine Ingham, Soil Food Web Institute
- “Compost & Compost Tea Workshop”, Paul Taylor
- “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
Hugh’s a self-confessed soil and microbe nerd, and has spent a fair bit of time looking down a microscope. His areas of specialty are many and varied, but include:
- Nutrition—looking after the worms (his babies), compost, soil testing, leaf testing, fertigation and foliar sprays
- Irrigation—knowing how pumps and irrigation systems tick, monitoring soil moisture, deciding when and how much to water trees
- Pest and disease control—predicting the weather and putting on preventive organic sprays at exactly the right time
- Machinery fix-it guy
- IT and website fix-it guy
Katie’s a third-generation orchardist and grew up here in Harcourt on the family farm, then headed to Melbourne to get a Bachelor of Science at Monash Uni majoring in botany and genetics—which came in very handy when she came home to the farm 15 years later.
Katie’s training has been in different areas to Hugh—but no less significant in shaping the direction of the farm and the Grow Great Fruit business.
- “Permaculture Design Certificate”, Beck Lowe, Cydonia Permaculture
- “Permaculture Certificate 3”, Beck Lowe, Cydonia Permaculture and Eltham College
- “Soil and Agronomy Workshop”, Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
- “Footprints to Sustainability”, Jane Knight
- “Biodynamic Field Day”, Biodynamic Agriculture Australia
- “Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries
- “Holistic Management” , Kirk Gadzia
- “Soil Microbes for Healthy Soil & Improved Vineyard Quality, Department of Primary Industries
- “Carbon Farming 101”, Carbon Farmers of Australia
Katie’s specialty areas include:
- Pruning—5,000 trees and 4 different tree training systems over 20 years adds up to a lot of experience
- Fruit picking—timing the harvest to ensure every variety is picked in perfect condition
- Grading, storing and preserving to ensure every piece of fruit is used to its highest purpose
- Thinning to manage crop load and quality
- Orchard hygiene and pest and disease control
- Orchard planning—variety selection, pollination and harvest planning
- Grafting and growing rootstocks from seed and cutting
Media & Speaking
- Article, “Congratulations to business award winners”, Mount Alexander Business Awards website, [link here], December 2021
- Article, “title to come”, Bendigo Advertiser, [link coming], December 2021
- Article, “Organic farming coop gets top biz gong”, Castlemaine Mail, [link here], December 2021
- Speech, Merv Carr (Katie’s dad) accepting the Mount Alexander Business of the Year Award on behalf of the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, [link here], December 2021
- Radio interview, “Interview with Katie Finlay, Grow Great Fruit Wet Spring edition”, Dig It: Gardening is Not Cancelled, Maine FM, [link here], November 2021
- Podcast, “Share Farming: when you don’t have the capital to buy a farm”, Farming Together, link here, November 2021
- Blog, “A cuppa with Merv”, Orchard Keepers, link here, October 2021
- TV appearance, “Four friends have taken oWeut a lease at the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op … under the guiding eyes of Katie and Hugh Finlay”, WIN News Bendigo, [link expired], September 2021
- Article, “The Orchard Keepers at Harcourt Organic Farming Coop”, The Harcourt Core, link here, September 2021
- Article, “Our Harcourt”, Castlemaine Mail, link here, September 2021
- Article, “Meet the Orchard Keepers”, Midland Express, link here, September 2021
- Article, “Apples from old family orchards: co-op farming experiment hailed a success”, Richard Cornish, Good Food, link here, August 2021
- Podcast, “Future proofing your farm using a collaborative approach”, Farming Together, link here, April 2021
- Article, “Harcourt Apple Festival”, Bendigo Times, link here, March 2021
- Article, “Harcourt farmers search for new talent, opening orchard up for lease”, Bendigo Advertiser, link here, January 2021
- Article, “Broccoli by subscription”, Sanctuary modern green homes magazine, link here, January 2020
- Article, “Farming for old and new” (The Co-op Generation), Organic Gardener magazine, link here, February 2020
- Article, “Culinary Gold”, Going Places, Malaysia Airlines in-flight magazine, link here, February 2020
- Radio interview, “Interview with Katie Finlay re fruit tree selection”, Dig It: Gardening is Not Cancelled, Maine FM, link here, May 2020
- Article, “Why food and wine co-operatives are thriving in the Bendigo gastronomy region”, Lindy Alexander, Bendigo Gastronomy, link here, May 2020
- Webinar, “Planning for success in succession”, Farming Together, link here, December 2020
- Article, “Creating an Organic Farming Co-op”, Transition Australia, link here, 2019
- Article, “New co-op models show promise”, The Weekly Times Farm Magazine, link here, October 2019.
- Keynote speaker, “The Individual’s Role in Agriculture & Sustainability”, Josie McEwan Dinner, Buda Historic Home & Garden, Castlemaine, September 2019.
- Article, “Working co-operatively”, Organic Insights Magazine, National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), link here, Winter 2019.
- Speaker & workshop, “Pruning Fruit Trees”, Castlemaine & District Garden Club, May 2019.
- Panel Speaker, “Co-operatives as an Alternative Economic Structure”, Localising Leanganook, May 2019
- Article. “Climate change”, Bendigo Advertiser, link here, 8 February, 2019.
- Panel member, Launch of the “EAT-Lancet report on Food, Planet and Health, Festival 21, Melbourne, February 2019
- Article, “Victoria’s first organic co-op”, Southern Farmer Newspaper and North East and Goulburn Newspaper, link here, September 2018
- M.C., “An Evening With David Holmgren” Retrosuburbia launch, August 2018
- TV appearance, “A day in the life of a farmer: If you see it, you can be it”, ABC Kids TV series celebrating International Womens Day, link here, July 2018
- Speaker, “Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op”, Farming Together Co-operatives conference, June 2018
- TV appearance, “Central Victoria will beome home to Australia’s first organic farming alliance”, 9 News Central Victoria, link here, July 2018
- Article, “Harcourt co-operative set to develop organic farming hub”, Bendigo Advertiser, link here, 2018
- Article, “Local organic co-op: an Aussie first”, Midland Express, link here, 2018
- Speaker, “Apple Day”, Kyabram Garden Club, 2018
- Article, “Fruits of Labour” Lost Magazine, link here, 2018
- Article, “Farmers choose to see ‘up’ side of disaster”, Weekly Times, link here, 2018
- Article, “New food trends”, Australian Geographic magazine, 2018
- Podcast, “Get the Dirt”, the food exchange, link here, 2018
- Keynote speaker, VCE Business Forum, La Trobe University, Bendigo, 2017
- Article, “Meet the maker – stone fruit”, Eatwell Magazine, link here, 2017
- Speaker, Spring Gardens Expo, Rushworth Spring Gardens, 2017
- Article, “The ancient art of grafting” Pip Australian Permaculture Magazine, link here, 2017
- Blog post, “Innovative small farming model developed in Harcourt”, Waller Realty blog, link here, 2017
- Article, “A Big Country: Turning an orchard into an organic co-op”, ABC Rural News Online, link here, October 2017
- Article, “Co-operatives in agriculture making a comeback”, NSW Country Hour, ABC Radio, interview about co-operatives in agriculture, link here, 2017
- Article, “Victorian Government backs organic alliance”, The Weekly Times, link here, 2017
- Speaker, “Planning a farm co-op”, Food & Fibre Future Directions conference, Bendigo TAFE, 2017
- TV appearance, “Retirement plan leads to organic farming co-operative”, ABC News, link here, September 2017
- Article, “New farming enterprise offered a headstart on Harcourt family’s established land”, Bendigo Advertiser, link here, September 2017
- Speaker, Outgoing Business of the Year, Mount Alexander Business Awards ceremony, 2017
- Article, “Sharing organic food-growing knowledge across the Pacific”, ABC Online, interview about hosting international organics delegate, link here, March 2017
- Article, “Bold women of central Victoria share their wish list for change on International Women’s Day”, ABC News Online, link here, March 2017
- Speaker, Outside the Square event, Bendigo, 2017
- Speaker, “The link between per-urban farmers and consumers via Farmers Markets”, Urban Agriculture conference, Bendigo, November 2016
- Article, “Fruit farmers on a mission to boost our backyard bounties”, Megan Backhaus column, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, link here, August 2016
- Panelist, Selection Committee for Rural Women’s Award Victorian winner, 2016
- Field day host farm, Soil Health Guide launch and soil workshop, North Central Catchment Management Authority (NCCMA) Sustainable and Biodiverse Farms Field Day, November 2016
- Radio interview, “Country Hour”, ABC Radio, interview with Nikolai Beilharz after winning the Victorian Rural Women’s Award, hear the interview here, 2015
- Article, Australian Fruitgrower Magazine, link here, 2015
- Keynote speaker, NASAA Industry Conference, Canberra, link here, 2015
- Speaker, “Farmers using technology”, Local Lives, Global Matters conference, Castlemaine, 2015
- Article, “Celebrating excellence”, Midland Express, link here, 2015
- Speaker, Chicks in the Sticks conference, Kyneton, 2015
- Judge, Rural Ambassador Award, Victorian Show Association, Melton, 2015
- Keynote speaker, Connecting Rural Business Women conference, Beechworth, 2015
- Article, “Two hot topics on the one bill”, Midland Express, link here, 2015
- Interview, Is growing organically just a fad or is it the future of farming? Debate between Dr Ian Musgrove and Katie Finlay, ABC Rural Radio, link here, June 2015
- Article, “Primary passion”, The Southern Farmer Newspaper, link here, May 2015
- Panelist, “The Great Debate: is organics a fad or the future of farming?”, Ausveg National Horticultural Convention, 2015
- Article, “Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens at Harcourt Back from the Brink”, Weekly Times, link here, 2015
- Video, “Waste Deep”, made by Sustainable Table – watch the video here, 2014
- Article, Midland Express, about our involvement in the local sustainable food system, link here, 2014.
- Article, Bendigo Advertiser, “Warm in the Orchard”, link here, 2014.
- Article, Midland Express, “Sustaining a Community”, link here, 2014.
- Farm visit by leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, and article about the visit in the Midland Express, link here,
- Article, “Love for the Land Runs Deep”, in the Finding Neverland series of articles, Bendigo Magazine, Issue 33, Summer 2013/14.
- Case study, “Many Publics. Participation Inventiveness and Change” report by Kate Auty, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria (read the report at: www.ces.vic.gov.au) 2012
- Web article, “Enjoying the Fruits of Our Labours”, Cultivating community website, 2012
- Keynote session speaker,Growers and Eaters Conference, Bendigo, 2012
- Panel speaker, Get the Dirt on Food Security, Northcote, 2011
- Article, Australian Horticulture magazine, 2011
- Article, Good Fruit and Vegetables magazine, 2011
- Video case study, FarmVIEW video series about farming in a changing environment: Watch video here. (ep 2.1 ‘Climate and Planning’), 2010
- Featured speakers, Organic Agriculture Association Future Farming conference, Bairnsdale, 2010
Awards, Grants and Research
- Case study, “Growing Agriculture Opportunities in Tweed”, Farming Together, link here, May 2021
- Research participant, “Beyond ‘get big or get out’: Female farmers’ responses to the cost-price squeeze of Australian agriculture.”, Dr. Lucie Newsome, Master of Governance and Public Policy, University of New England, link here, August 2020.
- Case study, “Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op”, Farming Together, link here, 2020
- Case study, “Grow Great Fruit”, Clare Fountain, sorted. link here, 2019.
- Research participant, “What is the relationship between soil health and environmental stewardship in conventional and alternative agricultural management systems in Victoria, Australia”, Assoc. Prof. Wendy Stubbs, Dr Vanessa Wong, Mr Thomas Kennett, Monash University, September 2019.
- Grant recipient, 2018, “Harcourt Organic Farm Alliance”, Farming Together Grant, Australian Government
- Grant recipient, 2018, “Creating the Land of Milk and Honey in Rural Australia”, Food Source Victoria Growth Grant, DEDJTR, State Government of Victoria
- Research participant, The Difference Incubator for Hepburn Wind, March 2018.
- Grant recipient, 2017, “Harcourt Organic Farm Alliance”, Food Source Victoria Planning Grant, DEDJTR, State Government of Victoria
- Winner, 2015 RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award, link here
- Winner, 2015 Mount Alexander Business of the Year
- Winner, 2015 Mount Alexander Sustainability and Environment Award
- Runner-up, Outstanding Best Practice, Outstanding Innovation or Invention & Encouragement Awards, Carbon Cocky Awards, 2011
- Medalist, ‘From the Earth, delicious produce awards, 2011
- Medalist, ‘From the Earth, delicious produce awards, 2010
- Pragmatic, concise information – not so mind boggling! — Anna Winneke
- I think pruning is really difficult! Been to several workshops over the years and I vacillate between leaving the tree to do its own thing, and cutting off everything that is not absolutely where I think (!) I want it! Your information was excellent because (1) you were encouraging (2) you kept referring back to the basic principles – which makes us THINK, observe before we prune! For me, very timely advice re ground cover (and you convinced me!). Have been saying for some time that mulching and keeping the margins around the mulch clear of weeds is unsustainable in terms of effort (mine!). Will have lots of fun sowing lentils and vetch (which I have bags of seed of) in place of mulch. And will see how many herbs I can find (and afford)! Going out to put my first Bordeaux today. — Clare Claydon
- Great to get practical, real approach from someone growing fruit. — Gabrielle Pellissier
- I definitely feel informed and equipped enough to give compost tea a go. Much appreciated, accessible, easy to digest learning – thanks guys. — Holly Beaumont
- Very informative and great ideas. Going to build my compost heap asap. — Jonathon Levin
- Wish I’d had all this information before planting my orchard. Great breadth of planning. — Sam Downing