Tweaking the farming dials in 2018


At the turn of the New Year, after a post-Christmas week of reading and quiet reflection, I hinted on social media that changes were coming to Half Moon Farm and I promised some details about the way we're hoping to to forge ahead. Well, here goes. 

Farming, I've been reminded, is hard. It's hard everywhere and in all contexts, and it's hard for various reasons. One is nature. She's the boss, and in the end, she always gets her way. Another is the marketplace. Australians eat relatively few fruits and vegetables on average, certainly less than the prescribed five and two per day, and they want to buy them cheaply, often for less than the cost of production. A third element - especially in regard to market gardening - is aptitude.

No-one likes to talk about this much, probably for fear of being seen as weak, but market gardening is extremely complex and very few people have the skills and abilities to build a viable business. A market gardener wears multiple hats. They must be super efficient. Dedicated. Disciplined. Organised. Fit. Responsive. Observant. Skilful. Scientific. Empathetic. Entrepreneurial. Good at marketing. Good at record keeping. Good at getting up again and again after being whacked around the head with the cricket bat of extreme weather.

Few people have what it takes to be farmers, and fewer have what it takes to be market gardeners. I don't want to discourage young farmers from giving market gardening a go, and I tip my hat to my farming mates who have what it takes to build a successful farming business. But it's a truly tough way to make a living.

The last year has reminded Kylie and I, that even though we have some of the attributes above, we ultimately lack what it takes to run a full time, commercially viable market garden. We can improve our skills and our soil but the reality is clear - we both value time and space for family, community and creative pursuits, things that are hard to do exceptionally well alongside managing a large and demanding vegetable garden. 

So in 2018, rather than fighting ourselves, we're tweaking our farming dials. We're turning down the volume on commercial farming, and turning up the dial on homesteading. Note that we have no desire to be hobby farmers. That's a derogatory term and it cheapens what genuine homesteaders are actually on about. Homesteading, and similar approaches to farming like smallholding and crofting, are about pursuing a true agrarian lifestyle that is closely connected to land, but doesn't use that land primarily to earn money.

Homesteaders grow firstly for their immediate household, with surplus and value added produce sold and shared beyond the homestead. This model has always made a lot of sense to me. My household's annual food bill last year was more than $15,000. It was our biggest expense, larger than our mortgage repayments and much bigger than the dreaded electricity bill. Yet here we were, picking and selling good produce at a loss, while eating the seconds and buying in everything else. I wonder how many market gardeners do the same? 

This year, we want to shift the balance. We plan to grow much more for the household, including staples like grains and pulses. We need to improve our supply of meat and eggs (our poultry set up needs a major revamp), and we'll get back to making things like preserves, cheese and sourdough. By easing off on commercial growing, we'll have the time. We'll still grow some things to sell, especially for our local restaurant Emeraude, and we'll focus on higher value crops like avocados, garlic, salad greens and berries. As always, we'll aim to grow these things to a very high standard. But they won't be our all consuming focus.

As for our farm stand, we're unsure what to do. During the cooler months, we'll sell avocados and some vegies, but support for the stand during 2017 was surprisingly flimsy and it looks unlikely to be the thriving little produce outlet that we thought it could be. It remains a work in progress.

A homesteading focus will allow us to make time for creative pursuits. I'll continue writing about gardening and I'm hoping to use my credentials in this field to land a book deal sometime this year. Writing is something I've always been passionate about and in the second half of my life, it would become a death bed regret to have not written a book. I have to give it a red hot go.

Does that sound like a plan? I think it does. Life in 2017 felt more challenging than usual, so we're keen to see the changes we make pay off in the wellbeing and happiness of our family. After all, the love of those around us and the health of the land on which we live and grow are what matter the most. We hope to nurture these things in the months and years ahead. Thanks for reading!