Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op wins Mt Alexander Shire's Business of the Year award – Bendigo Advertiser

If you ask Mel Willard how long she’s been farming for Gunghoe Growers, she’ll tell you in harvests – not years.
“We just pulled up our seventh garlic,” Mel says.
Considering there’s only one garlic crop per year, it seems strange to use such a cryptic phrase when a numerical answer would suffice.
But Mel can be forgiven. The space farming takes up in her mind is clearly reflected in her produce.
Gunghoe Growers is one of five enterprises that makes up the central Victorian Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op.
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Sprawled over 30 hectares at the foothills of Leanganook, the co-op features a dairy, an orchard, a nursery and Mel and Sas Allardice’s market garden.
The co-op was founded in 2018 by Katie and Hugh Finlay, who own the acreage.
Over the years, as their children moved on from the family business, the pair of orchardists realised they couldn’t care for the property by themselves.
So, they developed a plan to lease out their land to a collaboration of young, diverse, organic farmers.
And so the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op (HOFC) was born.
Looking down from the surrounding hills, the co-op can be easily lost among the tapestry of orchards and grand properties that dot the central Victorian Harcourt Valley.
But the group of farmers must be doing something right.
The HOFC recently took out both the Agribusiness of the Year and Business of the Year categories of the 2021 Mt Alexander Business awards – a strong nod of assurance from a local community that backs their alternative approach to farming.
Mel said the whole co-op was still stunned at winning the awards.
“We’re not an obvious business choice,” she said.
“I was so surprised. I still can’t really figure it out.”
But there’s a quiet humility to the group of Harcourt farmers, who – to put it simply – know exactly what they’re doing.
All the enterprises at the co-op operate through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, in which consumers share the precarious nature of farming with the growers.
Subscribers pay upfront at the start of the season so that the growers have the capital to buy seeds, compost, irrigation and tools to then grow the produce.
But with each harvest, the risks for both parties are growing.
“Climate change is changing everything,” Mel said.
“I was not expecting a La Nina this year. I thought it’d be really hot again.
“I’ve seen it get drier. I’ve seen it get windier. I’ve seen weather events become more extreme.
“It’s becoming increasingly harder to grow outside. Without polytunnels, you can’t grow things like eggplants, capsicums and tomatoes outside. I’m pretty nervous about that.”
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You can feel the frustration and the uneasiness from all of the farmers at the Harcourt co-op. From the orchard up to the dairy, the group of farmers are trying to figure out their place in the uncertain future of the agricultural industry, and whether their mission statement might be the change it so desperately needs.
“As we stare further down the barrel of climate change, agriculture is one of the biggest emitters in Australia,” Mel said.
“We’re just trying to create a sustainable localised food system that’s accessible to people who earn as much as us – which isn’t much.”
Mel said the pressure on farmers to be the change makers on climate change is immense. But without policy support from governments and financial support from individual consumers, the task is impossible.
“Everyone wants farmers to be all of these things now, but without the money, farmers just can’t provide alternatives to mainstream agriculture,” she said.
But from the outset, the Harcourt Co-op have been committed to treading lightly.
At the top of the hill the shipping container ‘farmhouses’ are covered in solar panels.
Tessa from Sellar House Dairy’s mobile milking parlour (the first of its kind in Australia) sits in the driveway, ready to greet all 10 of her herd.
Mel said the dairy is almost completely off the grid.
Members of the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-operative whcih recently took out both the Agribusiness of the year and Business of the year categories of the 2021 Mt Alexander Business awards. Picture: DARREN HOWE
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “The dairy is run entirely on solar.
“Out the back, a big woodchip heater – that they built from recycled materials – heats the milk and then the solar cools it.”
But the dairy isn’t the only company playing their part towards a greener future.
The commitment to regenerative agriculture plays a crucial role in each enterprise’s mission.
At first glance, Mel’s market garden has an aura of organised chaos. Weeds and grasses seem to reign over the budding cauliflowers.
“Gunghoe Growers is small scale,” Mel said.
“We encourage biodiversity above as well as underneath the soil. Which is why our gardens will never look superbly neat.
“We deliberately let things go to seed to spread things around. We’d much rather have Borage as a weed than Couch.”
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Beyond climate change and the challenges of sustainable farming, the co-op is trying to tackle another disease plaguing the agricultural industry: loneliness.
From climate change to the pandemic, farmers’ declining mental health is a significant concern for the industry.
A farmer dies by suicide every 10 days, according to an Australian first study.
But at the co-op, the emotional toll of the work is made lighter through the internal community the growers have created.
The close proximity of the four enterprises as well as the sharing of resources and agricultural tips and practices, means that the growers rarely spend the day alone.
“One of the reasons the co-op is good is because you’re supported,” Mel said.
“Quite often farming is really isolating. But here at the co-op generally someones having a bad time and someones having a great time – that always moves around us.”
At this stage, the co-op isn’t trying to develop into a large-scale agricultural operation.
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The growers simply love both their produce and their practice, and are trying to make just enough to continue growing.
“We’re all small enterprises,” Mel said.
“We just want to be sustainable financially, emotionally and physically. We don’t just want to get bigger and bigger.”
The support the farmers have built – both in and out of the co-op – is a testament to not only their produce, but also their mission.
Farming in this climate is no easy feat, and it seems the Harcourt growers have built something admirable.
A seed of hope in a badly burnt industry.
Mel said the farmers have felt that support from the beginning.
“We were so lucky with our community,” she said.
“They believed in us more than we did.”
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If you ask Mel Willard how long she’s been farming for Gunghoe Growers, she’ll tell you in harvests – not years.“We just pulled up our seventh garlic,” Mel says.Considering there’s only one garlic crop per year, it seems strange to use such a cryptic phrase when a numerical answer would suffice.But Mel can be forgiven.…

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