On a family farm in the historic apple growing region of Harcourt, an exciting experiment is taking place. People who want to be farmers, but cannot afford farmland, have joined a farming cooperative.
Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, 10 kilometres north of Castlemaine, is home to 30 hectares of rolling pasture, orchards, sheds and the farmhouse where Katie Finlay grew up. Finlay returned to Harcourt with her husband Hugh in 1998 to take on the family orchard.
"Back then, there were 36 orchards in the region," says Katie, the cooperative's founder. "Now there are six. Some have been amalgamated, but, as generational orcharding families sell, the trees are grubbed [removed], and the land becomes lifestyle properties."
More than a decade later, Katie and Hugh Finlay started looking for an exit strategy from their orchard where they grow 100 different varieties of stone fruit, pears and apples on 4000 fruit trees.
"We wanted to pass on this amazing piece of productive farmland," says Katie. "Our children are not interested yet, and we did not want to see the community lose this beautiful fertile land with access to irrigation. We also knew there were a lot of young people hungry for access to land."
It took three years of working with lawyers and farm leasing consultants to develop a cooperative model that could share expenses and allow individual businesses to run independently.
"It was like writing the constitution for a small country," jokes Finlay. The co-op was formed in 2018 and the orchard is now shared with three other farmers.
One of those farmers is Mel Willard. While the Finlays were working out the legalities of the co-op, Willard was "begging and borrowing" people's backyards and bits of farmland to grow vegetables for local restaurants and caterers.
"I was destined to work outside, and farming encapsulated so many of my values," she says. "But I was struggling to find long-term and viable access to land. That's when I heard about Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op."
Willard teamed up with another local grower, Sass Allardice, and formed Gung Hoe Growers The business now supplies top local restaurants, cafes, farmers' markets and local people with fresh vegetables all year round.
Gung Hoe was joined by small-scale dairy farmer Tessa Sellar from Sellar Farmhouse Creamery. Sellar grew up in the Victorian country and always wanted to farm. After leaving her career working in Melbourne's food justice sector, she started working towards owning a dairy farm of her own.
"People undervalue food but overprice land," she says. "The result is that valuable farmland around population centres is unaffordable to people who want to farm, especially those who want to farm regeneratively."
Sellar and her small herd of eight milking cows were a boon for Gung Hoe Growers. The cows took over weed control, eating plants and turning the stalky remains of corn crop into valuable manure. When fruitfly hit the orchard, fruit was refrigerated to kill the larvae and fed to the cows.
"One of the big benefits is the massive library of farming knowledge held in the heads of Katie and Hugh," says Alex Kelly, who grew up on a sheep farm and became a documentary filmmaker. However, the call of the land was too strong for Kelly, and she returned to regional Victoria and started looking at ways to farm.
"If we don't have young farmers coming on, we lose huge amounts of knowledge," she says. "The knowledge can't be passed on." Kelly formed a business called The Orchard Keepers with three other people and took over the Finlays' orchard.
"Katie and Hugh's knowledge of how the trees react to drought, hail and frost is massive. Having that mentorship is essential. That is why this cooperative model is so important. It goes way beyond buying and selling a farm. It's about sharing the farming history of the land – passing on all that intellectual property."
Katie Finlay says the experiment has been hugely successful.
"We share the cost of organic certification. We can send one person to sell the fruit, milk, yoghurt and vegetables at the farmers' market. All these costs farmers usually experience [individually] are shared by the cooperative."
But it could not have happened without the support of the local community, adds Willard. "They were willing to buy our product, even paying us in advance through community supported agriculture. This co-op has changed many lives."