We’re starting a new collaborative way of farming! At the moment it’s called the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (which is accurate, but too long – we need our younger and maybe more creative Alliance partners to come up something a bit shorter and punchier!). Name notwithstanding, what’s it all about?
Well, it’s funny the places life takes you at times. All the business planning in the world can’t account for the magic that sometimes happens when an idea you’ve had brewing for a while collides with an offer someone makes to you, a random email that falls into your inbox, a conversation you have with a friend…and after a while, a whole new “thing” emerges that bears little or no resemblance to where you thought you were going.
We could claim credit for visionary strategic thinking in coming up with this idea, but actually it’s the culmination of lots of crazy dreams, little decisions, false starts, funny little conversations, half turns, and dead ends, and the contribution of lots and lots of people over the last couple of years. We reckon we’re on the right track though, because this new alliance idea solves lots of problems, answers lots of questions…and feels right!
We’re planning to set up an alliance of small organic farmers on our farm, all running different (but complementary) enterprises. We’re aiming to start with a market garden (already in place courtesy of the Gorgeous Gung Hoes), a micro-dairy (we’re in negotiations with someone at the moment), and the orchard. We’re also open to ideas for new enterprises.
So how did this all come about? There hasn’t been a single straight line, but it’s to do with a few problems we’ve been mulling over:
- We’re not getting any younger, and while we want to keep our orchard in production, we can see ourselves taking a less active role in the future (a common story among farmers our age).
- We know there’s room for the whole farm to be more productive than it is, but we don’t have the capacity to start new enterprises ourselves (see #1!).
- There’s lots of enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate people out there who want to run their own farming business, but the barriers (especially buying land) are prohibitive.
- Small-scale organic farming is risky, with the risk and expenses usually carried by a single family. We’ve often wondered whether there’s a better way we could farm that would share the risks and the expenses but also make better use of the resources.
- We’re keen to have more time to develop our online Grow Great Fruit teaching business, which we love doing and has been crammed into the cracks between fruit seasons for too long.
We know that lots of people and groups have been thinking about these problems, which boils down to a couple of questions: how do we keep productive organic farmland in production as farmers age and retire, and how do we create pathways into farming? The solution we’ve come up with is unique as far as we know (but we’d love to hear of anyone else doing the same thing—they may be able to save us making all sorts of teething mistakes!).
So, how do we put this into action? We could just keep running the orchard ourselves, but considering that one of the things on our mind has been our succession to retirement, it seems much more logical to create an opportunity for someone else to start their own fruit-growing business. We’ll be busy as lead Alliance partner, building and guiding the Alliance, in cooperation with the other Alliance members. And of course we’ll still be getting our hands dirty running our on-farm heritage tree nursery.
Starting today we’re seeking Expressions of Interest to find the right person (or people) to lease the orchard part of the farm. We’ve put 20 years of hard work into converting to organic production, rejuvenating old orchard blocks, working on soil health, and building infrastructure. Although any farm is always a work in progress, this offers a great opportunity for someone to take over an established organic orchard without having to start from scratch.
It’s going to suit someone (or a couple) with previous orchard experience, or at the very least substantial farming experience, as well as experience with organics. We’re offering mentoring, but not teaching someone with no farming experience.
Serendipitously, both state and federal governments have an appetite for funding collaborative farming projects at the moment, so we’ve applied for some funding to help us get started—more on that in the next blog.
There’s lots to thrash out to get this model to work, such as how many farmers is enough? What proportion of costs will each one contribute? What legal structure will we need? How do we create and maintain supportive, trusting relationships? How exactly do we share resources? What other products can we generate? What are the marketing opportunities?
No doubt all these things will be revealed as we embark on this ambitious, exciting and slightly terrifying journey.
Hugh & Katie
(Please share this blog if you know anyone you think may be interested in the orchard lease opportunity.)