Victoria’s first organic co-op

Four businesses kick-start a new way to share-farm
The Southern Farmer
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NEW WAY TO FARM: Katie and Hugh Finlay have pioneered the first organic share-farm, where four individual producers have signed on to lease parts of their farm – including an orchardist, vegetable growers, a micro dairy and a heritage nursery. The Finlays hope that, over time, even more farmers will become involved in the co-op. Read the story below and then turn to pages two and three. PHOTO: David White

BY the end of this month, Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens will herald in a new era of farming.

Katie and Hugh Finlay will step back from being orchardists, instead earning part of their income from their land as it is farmed cooperatively by different businesses.

Together, the team will become known as the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (HOFA).

It is a novel idea, and one that is very much in its infancy; plenty of details still need to be thrashed out, including power usage, water rights, infrastructure maintenance costs to name a few.

But the idea behind HOFA is as romantic as it is practical; complimentary farming for individual products.

The Mount Alexander Fruit Garden, just out of Harcourt, sits on 60 hectares of granite loam soil.

The property has been in Katie’s family for almost 50 years, with 6000 mature apple, peach, pear, cherry and nectarine trees – as well as a self-supplying tree nursery.

With an average rainfall of 450mm, the 2018 season is tracking well for sub-soil moisture, which will work with their ongoing soil improvement program to help promote healthy microbial activity.

It has also proven to be the perfect time for the Finlays to take a step back – the culmination of a process that started a couple of years ago.

“We wanted to retire, but we wanted to stay on farm,” Katie said.

This is where the pair hit the first road block.

“It’s a common story among farmers our age; we’re not getting any younger, and while we wanted to take a less active role in the orchard, we also wanted it to stay in production,” Katie said.

Back in 2015, Katie and Hugh were approached by a local team looking to rent land for a market garden.

The Gung Hoe Growers have now become part of the property landscape – but they planted more than just vegetables.

“We had this great experience working with Gung Hoe – which led us to think maybe we could lease out parts of the farm and still have an interest in it – but not so much of the back-breaking work.”

Not long after, the Finlays were approached by Tess Sellar – who wanted to establish a 10 cow micro-dairy, but had no equity to buy her own land.

“That was enough to kick us into action, to make us chase this new idea,” Katie said.

The next step was deciding to look for someone to lease the orchard.

The process:

To find the right person, Katie and Hugh undertook an extensive social media campaign, ran webinars and contacted local farming groups.

They found the right person in Ant Wilson, and offered him a traineeship to help learn the skills he needed to take on the orchard.

Next, Katie and Hugh set about developing the paperwork – a process that received a huge boost with a $10,000 grant for business development through the Regional Development Victoria Food Source program.

The same program has since provided a further $45,000 – to be matched by the co-op farmers – for building infrastructure.

“Collaborative farming is a bit of a buzz word at the moment,” Katie said.

“We just happened to come along at the right time, and so there has been a lot of support and help made available to us.”

Lease documents, which should all be signed by the end of this month, are for three years with two three year options for extension, along with a built-in clause that each can only be terminated by the individual business owners, not the property owners.

Running costs like power and water are metered where possible, with each lease financially valued according to land size and the amount of infrastructure provided.

“We have modelled the business on a break-even model for now, just because we want this to work and for it to be affordable for new farmers,” Katie said.

After the lease documents are signed, HOFA will officially form as a farming co-op.

ALL SMILES: Being an orchardist is hard work, but there is nothing quite like picking a box of beautiful farm-fresh organic produce. Pictured is Katie Finlay with the 2017 apricot drop.

Who is involved:

So far, there are four active players in the HOFA team.

Tellurian Fruit Gardens – leased by Ant Wilson, four hectares of the orchard will be commercially farmed with organic fruit destined for farm gate sales and wholesale markets. Ant spent nine months learning the ropes from Katie and Hugh, and will continue to be mentored by them.

Gung Hoe Growers – the first to approach the Finlays, Gung Hoe Growers is owned and operated by Mel Willard and Sas Allardice who currently use approximately a hectare of market garden but are looking to expand. Gung Hoe Growers grow a large range of seasonal vegetables, mainly supplying local restaurants and vegie boxes.

Sellar Farmhouse Creamery – still in the development phase, the micro-dairy will be operated by Tess Sellar, who plans to milk 10 cows. Tess has a dedicated lease of 15 hectares, and the opportunity to utilise other parts of the farm for grazing when appropriate.

Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery – named for Katie’s father Merv Carr, who originally planted the orchards on the farm. Merv grew and supplied every fruit tree that Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens initially planted. Katie and Sas (from the Gung Hoe Growers) will operate a small scale organic tree nursery, utilising Merv’s knowledge to develop a range of hard-to-find heritage fruit trees.

“We still have a few hectares that we could put other small enterprises on,” Katie said.

“To help share the cost burden, it would be great to have at least two more intensive horticulture businesses.”

There is already a buyer waiting for certified organic botanicals, but also potential for mushrooms, native foods, poultry, bees or berries.

Sharing more the just the farm:

“Whatever costs possible are to be shifted into the co-op, to reduce the running expenses for our farmers – we are trying to set up a model that is low cost and high profitability for each enterprise,” Katie said.

There are plans to share insurance costs, farm maintenance and even machinery.

But the biggest benefit for the group was when NASAA Certified Organic agreed – just last week – to allow the multiple enterprises to be together under a group certification.

“Everyone can now operate as an organic producer, while sharing the costs associated with that – which can be considerable,” Katie said.

HOFA members will also have the opportunity to farm land, without paying to enter the real estate market.

“One of the biggest obstacles faced by next generation farmers is how to start,” Katie said.

“Unless you have family with land, it is almost impossible to gather the equity required.

“This way of farming works for all of us; we can share with the farmers, they share the hard work and the costs – and we hope everyone wins in the end.”

Future direction:

There are definitely still obstacles to overcome, the Finlays know that.

As with any business, there will be teething problems – days when Katie and Hugh may wonder whether they have done the right thing, days when the problems may seem insurmountable.

“At times we’ve wondered whether we should have just sold the farm – some mornings we have woken up and thought, why are we doing this?” Katie said.

“But I think that’s because no one else has done it, so we’ve had no guidance and have had to figure it out at every step.”

Long term, they hope their farming decision will have an impact across more than just the orchard.

“If this works, it could be developed in other places as well,” Katie said.

“We would like it to be a replicable model.”

Along with running the nursery, Katie and Hugh operate an online business called Grow Great Fruit – teaching people how to successfully grow organic fruit at home.

“We really have a passion for helping people learn how to grow their own food, and can’t wait to have more time to expand our teaching business,” Katie said.

Looking forward, they hope to become financially sustainable from their leased property – but more importantly, they would like to help guide the next generation of farmers.

“As we move into our golden years, I hope Hugh and I have a thriving organic farm and that we are feeding our community – and growing growers,” Katie said.

“That’s what the Harcourt Organic Farm Alliance is really all about.”

More farming news and stories can be read in the September, 2018 print edition of The Southern Farmer or click here to access digital editions.