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Cultivating a Garlic Farmer

By Georgia Savage

I was born in the city, pretty much in the middle of Melbourne, far far away from the green fields of agriculture. I went to a school where farming was never presented as an genuine career option, and it was a time before kitchen gardens were something found in a school.

Despite this, two years ago I finally discovered the pure joy of growing food. Of digging into the earth and gently placing a cobweb of roots into a suitably sized hole. Of carefully nurturing that plant through shooting green leaves and flowering vegetables until in my hands was a zucchini, a tomato, an ear of corn. I was hooked, and I wanted to learn more about growing food, I wanted to learn how to grow enough to feed others – I wanted to become a farmer.

That’s a big statement for a city slicker that is based on a romantic notion of beautiful sunrises, connectedness with nature and fluffy, yellow, tweeting chicks. I needed to test this craving I had to return to land – well, to go there in the first place really.

It was at this time, riding on my bike down Canning St, I noticed a small sign asking me ‘Did I want to become a garlic farmer?’ I didn’t much like garlic, but the farming part certainly appealed to me. Here was a new program, for people exactly like me, who wanted an opportunity to try growing food on a larger scale. I figured not liking garlic might give me an advantage as I could safely avoid inadvertently eating all my hard work and potential income.

With barely another thought, I signed up to the Pop Up Garlic Farmer program run by Farmer Incubator!

The program began in March with a workshop, and the next 9 months followed in a haze of familiarising myself with farm tools, weeding through endless amounts of stinging nettles and building my sun tan the honest, hardworking kind of way. I learnt about soil science and garlic varieties, I leant what terms like ‘cultivating’ and ‘breaking pasture’ actually mean. I laughed and shared time with my fellow farmers, and I grew a healthy 500 bulbs of garlic.

In December we harvested our crop, which I have shared amongst family and liberally used in my cooking (now a garlic convert!). I have developed the confidence and some assurance in my genuine interest and ability in farming to pursue it further. If you think you might have it in you too, but you want to test the waters with a fun and rewarding experience, get involved in the program in 2016. I’ll be there as one the facilitators and we can work on our tans together!

Aspiring Farmers – Sharing Their Perspective

This post shares the views aspiring farmers have about their situation. I’m glad to report there are many of you 🙂 I surveyed aspiring farmers over a year ago. After one day on social media thirty-two people had taken the survey. That excited me! When the number reached eighty I stopped circulating it and moved on to the next thing. What I wanted to find out was if there were many out there, what they were doing pursuing their farm dream, what they perceived as barriers to entry, and if they would consider using the proposed farmer incubator model as means of getting there. Ninety percent said they would.

We have recently recorded a handful of interviews, asking similar questions to the survey. Good job on the five of you who stood in front of the camera. If you didn’t know already, this generation is about more than just shoes and video games. You are welcome to watch these folk, who are putting themselves out there. The age of those we interviewed with the camera ranges from early twenties to thirty. Also, forty five percent of the survey respondents were in the age bracket: 25-34. People who were younger and older also took it.

Farmer Incubator is about growing farmers. It aims to get new entrants into agriculture and give them the appropriate support. The survey is one means of finding out what support people think they need. Talking with people is another way. Coercing them into interviews for our blog, another.

Some seem quite close to making their farming dream a reality. With determination they should push through. Others are entertaining the idea for the moment. Many are in between, feeling their way into it as a potential transition. I sense this in both the survey and the video interviews.

I used Survey Monkey to design the survey and collect responses. The free version allows us to see summaries of each question, generating bar graphs and percentages of each answer choice, or we can look at individual responses. The paid version will allow more functions.

In the survey, the first question simply asked: Do you aspire to one day operate—perhaps own—a small farm? Those who said yes continued with the rest of the survey; and those who answered no I asked not to.

The next question asked: By what means are you working towards this goal? Respondents could select more than one answer of twenty-one provided, and they could comment in a box. I’ll share some of the results. At one end of the continuum of activities, three people aimed to start farming that year, while at the other end, fifty-three said they were farming in their backyard. One third of respondents reported being involved in a food politics group. Eight respondents were busy creating a farm business plan. Thirty-one were out there visiting farms. Eleven were gaining experience by working as a farmhand. Eight were enrolled in tertiary education (agriculture or closely related). And so on.

The next question asked: Which of the following would you describe as barriers between you and your farm? Again respondents could select more than one answer from a possible twenty-five. The two top choices were equal—I need more experience—and—I lack farming knowledge. Forty-one people selected each. Reasons such as not having enough money and a caution of entering into debt followed closely, thirty-eight and thirty-four respectively. Twenty-five selected I don’t know all the regulations as one of their barriers. Twenty-four didn’t feel confidant or ready yet. Twenty-four also reported they felt they needed another potential farmer to partner with. Twenty feared isolation in being on a farm. Down at the bottom of the list of these barriers people perceived they had only two said they weren’t ready to work hard. In the comment box a couple of people claimed their partners weren’t ready for the change of becoming a farmer.

Results from the survey, among other things, have guided our business plan. I am thinking about where potential participants are at, what their perspectives are, their expectations, and how their journey through the incubator might look. I feel in a similar place and know where some are coming from. Generally I feel this survey has illustrated there’s a demand for this type of initiative.

Our surveys are imperfect. I’ve tried to look at them for what they are. I skewed the results by being selective in the groups I chose, questions I asked and multiple-choice answers I provided. Anyway it was a start and this is the start of a process of discovery. I would like to interview more brave people and ask more questions. Contact me. I now suspect one of the significant barriers to be access to land. I will explore this further.

Following on from the aspiring farmer survey, we wrote a survey targeted at farmers and landholders. In some ways this survey mirrored the one for aspiring farmers. So far forty-five people have completed this survey. We are aiming for fifty. So if you’re an existing farmer or landholder please take it!

There is an enthusiasm for agriculture out there for sure. I want to get out and do it. Thanks to all those who took the survey and had interviews 🙂 I am sorry, Matt and Rach I could not include you this time. When I transferred your interviews to my computer your images were very pixelated. If anyone knows of a spot that might work for Dave, contact us and we’ll forward on the message: farmerincubatorau@gmail.com

The identity of this aspiring farmer has been protected for the moment by a technical glitch!
The identity of this aspiring farmer has been protected for the moment by a technical glitch!

Paul.

(These are my words, not the whole team’s.)

Welcome to Farmer Incubator

We’re excited to introduce you to Farmer Incubator, a new venture which commenced development in 2013. We’re now searching for land located in Victoria, Australia.

We’ll grow new farmers—as well as amazing farm produce on a real working farm. Prospective new farmers will use Farmer Incubator as a stepping-stone on their way to farming independently. We will employ them part-time (paid) on the main farm, while they develop their individual farming enterprise on the side. After an agreed period, successfully incubated farmers, leave our farm, taking their products, markets and equipment with them as they transition to a new farm. Farmer Incubator is an opportunity for new farmers to start small and work cooperatively. In Farmer Incubator empowerment is key, through it we will allow new farmers the knowledge and resources to act independently; part of this is connecting them to the land, each other and mentor farmers.

Farmer Incubator is searching for suitable land. It aims to operate once land is secured. If you have land, know of something available, or can hint at where to look – please contact us below.

Farmer Incubator facilitates a way to start small. It is about novices working cooperatively to each get a leg up. Does this sound like your kind of opportunity? Please contact us below. Prior to commencement of the program, we’ll be in touch.

Would you or your business like to buy produce from Farmer Incubator and novice farmers? In future seasons Farmer Incubator will make an interesting range of fresh produce available. Please contact us using the same form below.

Warm Regards, Paul Miragliotta.