Small farmers looking to a sustainable future

Hepburn Shire has some of the best soil and water for a thriving food production system. The region is considered a food bowl, known for great produce and wine.

Relatively unknown are small-scale farms, providing a link from producers to consumers. But farmers’ margins are squeezed as overheads go up while the sale price of produce remains stagnant. 

The story is complex. In the eastern part of the shire, some local horticulture based farmers are struggling. Musk farmer Liz Burns says she relies on $3000 to get her through to the next season, a period of more than six months. 

Others, like Mount Franklin farmer Florian Hofinger acknowledge small-scale farming continues to be a challenging business, but he has worked to establish a sustainable model for his property over the past eight years.

Relatively new to the region, Glenlyon farmer Edward Benedict hopes a niche in pickled products and an expansion to agritourism may secure the financial future of his 1.2 hectare (three acre) farm.

Cultivate Agribusiness executive officer Jo Cameron says rising costs are making it hard for family farms to survive. 

“It’s getting really challenging for the average family farm to be profitable because overheads, cost of inputs and machinery and all those things tend to be going up and if you are producing bulk commodities the prices aren’t necessarily increasing,” she says. 

Edward Benedict, Adsum Farmhose. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Edward Benedict, Adsum Farmhose. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

While some have concerns for the future of small-scale agriculture, others see the potential for growth of small-scale farms in the region. Some are searching for models to ensure small-scale farms can remain sustainable, both economically and environmentally, into the future.

Daylesford Lake House owner Alla Wolf-Tasker AM is working to create an innovative education institute in Daylesford to share global best practice in food with farmers, producers and the hospitality and culinary tourism sector. 

Others see a future dotted with tourism experiences offered at small-scale farms.

Most in the region see the benefits of supporting local food producers. 

Liz Burns, Trewhella Farm, Musk

Liz Burns bought her Musk property, now known as Trewhella Farm, in 1986, although her own ancestors had been farming in the area since 1841. She says previous owners, the Rodda family, had farmed the land from the beginning of white settlement. Trewhella Farm today grows berries and herbs, a move away from potatoes and dairy farmed on the land by the Roddas before new owners in the 1980s.

Liz Burns, Trewhella Farm. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Liz Burns, Trewhella Farm. Picture: Dylan Burns.

The other difference is the method. Trewhella Farm today practises a sustainable farming method called Demeter certified Biodynamics, meaning Liz’s farm is completely self-sufficient.

“Biodynamics is all internal,” Liz says.

“I don’t import anything. I produce all my own manure to make my own compost to feed the berries. I use preparations made out of minerals and herbs to strengthen the plant so it doesn't need pesticides and I don’t need herbicides.” 

Trewhella Farm in autumn. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Trewhella Farm in autumn. Picture: Dylan Burns.

A dietician for 30 years, Liz believes in eating a mainly plant-based diet and the best quality natural foods.  

“As a dietitian, I found that the most common reason for not eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables was the lack of acceptable taste,” she says.

“My priority has been to bring the optimum taste into my produce. This requires more time and skilled labour.” 

Liz’s berries have been praised for their taste, winning an Australian Delicious Produce Award for her “brigitte” blueberries in August.

But she is having a hard time making a living on her small-scale farm.

“As a dietitian for 30 years, I was paid a lot of money to tell consumers they should eat more plant foods and less animal products. As a community development worker, I was paid about two thirds of that money to help consumers to grow and cook healthy food. However, as a farmer, I pay for the privilege to provide the best tasting food,” she says.

Liz works alone on her farm, sometimes with the help of family. She says she can’t afford to hire workers because of strict workplace laws and the cost of insurance.

Trewhella Farm in autumn. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Trewhella Farm in autumn. Picture: Dylan Burns.

“I have been working 14-hour days, three months of the year for the last 11 years just harvesting my berries,” she says.

“At the end of the day I reckon I have put $1 million worth of labour into this farm and I still can’t pay my rates. If I do pay my rates and insurance I have got $3000 left to live until the next season.

“That’s the reality of farming. Money doesn’t drive any farm.”

Liz Burns, Trewhella Farm. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Liz Burns, Trewhella Farm. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Liz says what drives her commitment is a passion for good produce and sustainable farming practices.

A region with a history of farming 

Retired farmer Jack Cooper competes at the Rocklyn Ploughing Competition. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric.

Retired farmer Jack Cooper competes at the Rocklyn Ploughing Competition. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric.

Glenlyon resident Jack Cooper first started farming in the shire when he was 14 years old. He retired from farming at 63, around 10 years after selling his farm in Daylesford and 24 years of working the land.

Jack’s father farmed spuds in Bullarto around 70 years ago, at a time when the industry was booming.

Rich volcanic soil has made Trentham a potato growing town for over 140 years. 

“Back in the day, Trentham grew some of the best spuds in the area,” Jack says.

“There is a big decrease now to what there was. If you’re big you can handle a lot of money. But anyone who is in a small way, they’re struggling to make a living nowadays.

“We farmers do need support. We’re always at the end of the line.”

Florian Hofinger, Mount Franklin Organics, Mount Franklin

Florian Hofinger has been growing organic vegetables for eight years on his Mount Franklin property. His passion for high quality produce comes from years working as a chef. 

Florian Hofinger, Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Florian Hofinger, Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

“My farm is quite small and obviously I can’t compete against the big conventional vegetable growers. But being organic and growing unusual varieties, I have created a bit of a niche market for myself,” Florian says.

Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

He grows and sells a range of produce including tomatoes, chillies, zucchinis and cucumbers. A weekly stall at Dayelsford’s Sunday market is Florian’s main outlet to supply locals.

“I sell everything local,” he says.

“I have one customer in Melbourne, but other than that it is all within 15 kilometres from the farm.

“I have a huge number of regulars at the market so there is definitely support in that sense. Local organic shops around the area are very supportive and they supply just about every restaurant, cafe, pub and caterer in Daylesford.”

Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Florian says it makes sense to buy local.

“There is obviously a huge amount of people who go to Coles and just buy everything there whether it is in season and regardless of where it comes from,” he says.

“But I just think there is a huge number who just can’t stand the supermarkets and what they stand for and that’s the people who buy off me.”

Most of the year, Florian runs the farm alone, but occasionally enlists the help of a friend for picking during harvest season.

Florian Hofinger plants shallots at Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Florian Hofinger plants shallots at Mt Franklin Organics. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

“I used to be a chef and, well, you don’t get rich from being a chef and you don’t get rich doing this. But you can earn a good living,” he says.

Edward Benedict, Adsum Farmhouse, Glenlyon 

Edward Benedict moved to Glenlyon with his family to escape from city life. He decided to make a living growing organic vegetables on his 1.2 hectare property. Edward and his family at Adsum Farmhouse are now hoping to find their niche in selling pickled gherkins.

Edward Benedict, Adsum Farmhouse. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Edward Benedict, Adsum Farmhouse. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

“The season here is really short to make everything happen,” Edward says.

“If we had a product in jars come winter then we could at least maintain an income.”

Edward says the cold climate in Glenlyon means harvesting season runs for just five months.

“You have to wait until the soil warms up to put seed in and once you do put it in, you have to wait another two or three months for it to grow. That gets you into December and January when you have actually got stuff to sell. Then you get to April and you have got your first frost. Once you get frost, you can lose half your crop.”

Edward and his family work the farm sometimes with the help of volunteers like WOOFERS (Willing Workers on Organic Farms).

Adsum Farmhouse. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Adsum Farmhouse. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

“It would be very difficult for us to pay, at this stage, a full-timer,” Edward says.

“We would love to be in a position, if we can set up the gherkin business, to be able to pay someone. But that could be a few years down the track.

“It’s certainly a massive wage drop from what I was doing (sales rep) when I was in Melbourne. You can make a living, a small living. But if you’ve got a huge mortgage you’re in trouble.

“You probably make money for five months of the year so you have got to save money to get through the next five or six months. That’s the short season. Unless you are on a huge scale with tractors and unless you’re on 100 acres, but we have only got three acres.”

Adsum Farmhouse is a three acre farm. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Adsum Farmhouse is a three acre farm. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Adsum Farmhouse sells at local markets and Edward says they sell everything they grow. But he sees potential to expand their farm and upcoming pickle business to a tourist experience.

WOOFERS (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) have painted  art throughout the farm. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

WOOFERS (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) have painted art throughout the farm. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

A potential for agritourism 

Edward sees opportunity for an agritourism scheme in the region and envisions a future where visitors can enjoy produce on his farm.

Daylesford Macedon Ranges Tourism general manager Judith Isherwood says an agritourism model would fit in with the region’s tourism position which is centred around a “wellness” concept.

Daylesford Macedon Ranges Tourism general manager Judith Isherwood at Lake Daylesford. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Daylesford Macedon Ranges Tourism general manager Judith Isherwood at Lake Daylesford. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

“I think what we are increasingly seeing is that visitors and the public recognise that the natural environment here and the organic nature of farming here is of great interest,” Judith says.

“People actually want to understand where their food has come from and how it is produced as much as eating fine produce in restaurants.”

Edward says he would like Adsum Farmhouse to be seen as a potential tourist destination after establishing the pickle side of their business.

Adsum Farmhouse. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Adsum Farmhouse. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

“Hepburn Shire and the Macedon Ranges promotes this area as a food bowl and as a gourmet foodie area. But apart from the wineries, there are not many farms you can visit,” he says.

“We’d like to be seen as a potential destination down the track. Something you can advertise all over Australia. ‘Come and visit the pickle farm’. Come and have some pickles and sit outside and have a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.

“There’s a few other farms around that could be set up for agritourism which would be a great thing for people who come to Daylesford who have had a massage and a coffee and have been to a winery or two. We’re another level of interest. I think that is the missing link in this area.

“If the government wants to be innovative, there is a whole area of small scale farms, that with some kind of program in agritourism, could create a boost for the farmers and for tourists to do something nice and interesting to look at and to take home good quality produce.”

Daylesford Macedon Ranges Tourism is the peak tourism body for the region. Judith, the bodies’ general manager, acknowledges it can be a challenge for farmers to get tourism aspects of their agribusiness up and running.

“To become a tourism experience it needs to be done at a fairly high standard because people’s expectations these days are high,” she says.

“So it’s about ensuring people have a high quality experience; that if you say you’re going to be open you’ve got to be open, that signage, places to park, all of those things need to be considered when shifting to a tourism focus.

“We recognise there are costs and challenges in doing it. But those who do it well, I think, recognise the financial benefits.”

Daylesford Macedon Ranges Tourism would look at promoting and attracting visitors to farm experiences once agribusinesses develop a tourism product.

“As a body, we believe that the more of those sorts of businesses can be created within the region and that’s going to help drive tourism in the long term,” Judith says.

A concern for the future of small-scale farming 

Adsum Farmhouse from above. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Adsum Farmhouse from above. Picture: Rochelle Kirkham.

Liz Burns has concerns for the future of small-scale horticulture based farms in the region.

“As I door-knocked the whole of Coliban Ward last October on a campaign to save our farming, I was saddened to realise that it’s probably too late,” she says.

“This landscape was dotted, every fifth paddock with spuds in my childhood. There have been less and less spuds because you are not going to go back and keep growing something knowing you are going to lose money on.”

Cultivate Agribusiness is a not-for-profit support group for agribusiness in the Central Highlands.

Executive officer Jo Cameron says it can be difficult to represent individual small- scale farms as producers offer a wide array of products.

“As far as a representative body, we try to represent everyone within the food and fibre sector on behalf of agribusiness in the Central Highlands, but for individual producers it can be quite hard because they can be quite small and segmented,” she says.

“That is one issue we have in terms of trying to get some movement or outcomes for the sector.”

High rates has been raised as an issue facing farmers, so has peri-urban sprawl.

“Too much of the valuable agricultural land is being cemented over for housing,” she says.

“Also, planning or permits associated with councils for agribusiness owners to get little businesses up can be quite onerous.”

Liz says the cost of rates and insurance make it hard to make money in horticulture.

“Rates are by far my highest cost representing 50 per cent of my gross income for working 14-hour days for three months of each summer over the last 11 years and full time during the rest of the year,” she says.

Liz also says escalating land prices are a deterrent for future farmers and the loss of a horticulture section in the government agriculture department is a cause of industry fragmentation.

Jo acknowledges small-scale producers can face difficulties, but says she believes there is a future for the sector in the region.

“I think it will be a growing area and there are huge opportunities for premium products,” she says.

“People want to know the story behind food these days. They want to know where the produce has come from, how it was grown, was it ethical and whether farmers are looking after their land as well.”

Alla-Wolf Tasker’s vision for a food bowl 

Lake House culinary director Alla Wolf-Tasker AM. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Lake House culinary director Alla Wolf-Tasker AM. Picture: Dylan Burns.

Lake House owner and Daylesford Macedon Produce chair Alla Wolf-Tasker AM is passionate about good food and local produce. She has been working to create a food bowl in the region for almost 40 years.

After returning from working as a chef at a Michelin star restaurant in regional France, Alla had a dream to replicate a love for good food in her home country. She purchased a bare paddock in Daylesford in 1979 and worked to create renowned restaurant Lake House, which sits at the site today.

“It was nuts, because we didn’t do that in Australia. No one went to the country for good food,” Alla says.

“It didn’t happen because you couldn’t get any trained staff in the country, and there certainly wasn’t any small-scale local produce.”

Potato farms and big-scale agriculture had previously made up most farms in the region.

“I put an ad in the paper saying I wanted local produce and I got a sack of potatoes,” Alla says.

“I wanted that experience I saw in the French kitchens where the producer would come in in the morning and speak to the chef and exchange pleasantries and talk about their families.

“They would open the boxes and there would be this magnificently freshly picked produce, much like I get here now. That’s what I fell in love with and that’s what I wanted to replicate here.

“We started the ball rolling by creating a demand. We put out ads and rang people and said ‘if you have got fruit trees and have too many plums, bring them and we’ll do something with them and we’ll do an exchange’. Then eventually we would ask people to grow for us. But now we will have people coming to us and saying ‘look, we’ve only got two acres, but I am going to put something in; what would you like and what would you buy?’ And of course now we have got people who have got proper farms and running them as a business.”

Alla’s next step in realising her vision is development of an educational institute to share global best practice in food.

Alla has partnered with William Angliss Institute to develop the idea of an Institute of Gastronomy, a community educational facility providing a hub of knowledge for chefs, producers and small-scale farmers.

“I work with small producers and the issue I see with them is not having the capacity to source the knowledge to get their businesses to the next step and evolve their craft,” Alla says.

“It occurred to me that if we created an institute here it could serve both purposes of up-skilling culinary professionals and offering them really interesting electives on their courses, and at the same time creating a hub as a centre of learning for sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

“We don’t have anything like that at the moment in Australia.”

Alla says the institute would also cater for people wanting to start an agricultural pursuit of their own.

Alla-Wolf Tasker AM speaks at the Lake House about the Institute of Gastronomy on September 28. Picture: Kate Healy.

Alla-Wolf Tasker AM speaks at the Lake House about the Institute of Gastronomy on September 28. Picture: Kate Healy.

“I can’t tell you how often we get phone calls from people saying ‘look, we want to relocate, what do you think about people having an olive grove, do you think I could raise sheep for meat, or we are interested in making cheese, do you think there is any potential for it in Daylesford?’ They have no where to go to get expertise from other people. So this could be a hub where people come to learn from other practitioners about setting up a business like that. And it benefits the practitioners themselves, because you would get people on placement hours working on the farms.”

Over 30 years ago, when Alla put out the Lake House’s first advertisement seeking produce from local farms, she didn’t realise the benefits of her desire to replicate the local food system she had been a part of in regional France.

“What I didn’t know then was the benefits of all this. I just wanted the local produce. I wanted to be able to say ‘this is from just down the road, I know who grows it, isn’t it delicious’. But the benefits are enormous,” Alla says.

“Firstly, you don’t just get food that is grown because it is easy to transport and store. We have lost that impact of that freshly picked pear, that freshly picked apricot and peach that I remember from my childhood, climbing my mothers fruit trees and having the juice run down my face.”

Alla adds that money goes to the farmers, not transporters, when buying local produce.

“The other good thing about being able to source local food is you are going to get better food, you are going to know the people possibly who grow the food, you may be able to trust them more. Creating a local food hub is better for the health of people and it is usually better environmentally because people will be adhering to good regenerative practices.

“The third thing is economically. The money stays in the community. And it doesn’t matter if we talk about local being here or Victoria being local or Australia being local, but money stays locally.

“The other thing is social. Daylesford surrounded by big ag, which is what we originally had, is an entirely different village to Daylesford surrounded by small scale artisan farmers.

“They are part of our community, we see them. We interact with the people who grow our food at the local markets, the local coffee shops, and they donate food to the local primary school kitchen and garden. That is such an important connection that we have totally lost in many areas.”