The New England heralds mountainous rain forests, thick with twisting vines and fleeting bellbirds. These reach for the sunlit plateau where my family farm has always dwelled. It boasts ancient basalt soils and long idle volcanoes, littered with waterfalls gushing through cavernous rock. Early morning mist seeps away leaving icy frosts on our cattle. I grew up knowing these elements but how can I guarantee that my children will too?

Collaborative farming is helping farmers reclaim their industry. For most it is a shift occurring on the opposite end of the supply chain, but the flow on effect will change everything! So what is it exactly, and how will it affect consumers too?

A little context from our farm

Never was there a humbler hero than the land’s true and most loyal caretaker – the farmer. Farmers operate in a complex system of weather and markets; these variables are not fixed but constantly shifting. They need capital to smooth out the ebbs and flows of these unpredictable conditions. On top of this, my family needed lots of startup capital to develop our property; it had no fencing, facilities or fertilizer history. In this condition it wasn’t productive enough to cover necessary input costs and also turn a profit. Cattle which left the farm gate took with them nutritients from our paddocks and that needed to be replenished. To survive we diversified by spreading ourselves across another on farm industry. We built tourism facilities on the property, which proved highly successful and let us share the place with others.

The three ingredients for a truly sustainable farm, (that is economically, environmentally and socially in balance), are diversity of species, being of reasonable productive size, and having the capital to maintain and sustain it. As I grew from toddler to teen I held deep connections to the farm and sharing wriggled its way further into my ideology. I thought often about how we could give our property this balance. I envisioned young families with wild bush kids, each farming our land independently but benefitting the whole. A model ever increasing in diversification, one may have cattle, another chooks, ducks, pigs or vege pursuits. Each enterprise would be supporting the other and continually enhancing the fertility of our soil. It would be a mixed farm rather than a specialised one, an ecosystem of interacting industries and people. But even with a search history of Google-able inspiration at my fingertips, it seems a little daunting. We have a vision but how do we get there?

Collaborative farming

What collaborative farming is and why it’s rising

The government recently revealed a $4billion investment to farmers as part of its Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper. Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce declares this is the golden age of farming – and for an aspiring farmer it’s exciting! Trickling down from this investment is $15million for collaboration – and it’s key to the future of Australian Agriculture.

Collaborative farming has no formal structure but it allows farmers to share certain aspects of farming inputs, for example machinery and labour. They would do this under the guidance of an agreement or a memorandum of understanding, which highlights the contributions of each party. Understandably it’s a way of operating that not everyone is comfortable with because combining farms, for instance, means giving up an element of control. If you reach the next crest in this hill of thought, you may end up in a Co-operative.

Structuring collaboration: Co-operatives

Co-operatives combine the collaboration mindset with a solid, democratic business structure. It’s a formal structure, which requires a constitution to guide its operations. This model has been around since the dark ages and it’s all about people! The members of a Co-op have an equal share in the assets of the business; it is a flat hierarchy wherein every member gets one vote. The business model allows members to combine their resources in order to achieve shared goals.

Lorraine Gordon is the Director of the Farm Co-operatives and Collaboration Pilot Program (warmly known as the ‘Farming Together Program’), which was born from the findings of the Agriculture White Paper. According to Lorraine, “a Co-operative is there to represent the whole; it is for the good of the whole. There is no place for individual egos. A ‘true Co-operative’ can deliver great social and economic benefit to the individual and society.” This program assists farmers, fishers and foresters in working together so our industries can be sustainable in the true sense.

I spoke to Lorraine about how she envisions the future of co-operative farming. She explained that in the first 7 months of operation the program has had over 650 farmer groups showing interest – the groups her team works with represent about 16,000 farmers. There is an approximate 50:50 split between those wanting to collaborate and those forming Co-operatives. “By working together it will ultimately deliver more money back at the farm gate and enhance the country’s competitiveness when it comes to exporting our clean green products. It also means that farmers are not put into a position where they have to sell to multi-nationals or foreign investment companies. They can own the supply chain and have greater say in how their products are produced and sold.”

Examples of Co-operatives and collaboration

  • Devondale Murray Goulburn is a hybrid of the Co-op and company structures. They have separate shareholders and members, which some may say are driven by different agendas. Members want more money for their milk, shareholders want a return on their investment.
  • Norco is a highly successful dairy Co-operative operating since 1895. It continues to deliver benefits to its members, but does not have shareholders.
  • Bulla Burra is a collaborative enterprise in South Australia formed by John Gladigau and Robin Schaefer. They designed the company from scratch and re-evaluated how they could be sustainable, efficient and profitable. It now crops 11,000ha to canola, cereals and legumes.

You don’t need to own land to start farming

If this is truly to be the golden age proclaimed by Barnaby Joyce, then we need to get younger generations farming. Collaboration enables young farmers who can’t afford property, because that’s no longer a requisite. If you yearn for an affiliation with the land, you can join or start a Co-op! You only need 5 members. Here’s how it could work.

  1. Work out how much capital you need to establish your chickens, your veggie patch, your nut trees or whatever enterprises you decide you want.
  1. Say that amount is $100,000. Your Co-op may for example,
  • Have 100 members who pay a membership fee of $1,000
  • Have 10 members who pay a membership fee of $10,000
  1. Set up a lease or share farming agreement with the company who owns the land you wish to farm.
  2. Don’t forget to include the cost of a Manager in the membership fee.

The membership fee is the amount each person invests. Each member gets an equal return from that investment because they all put in the same. This gives you ownership of farming assets and allows you to invest in the industry without living in the country. Contact the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals to see the specific legislation and requirements for your state.

Collaborative farming

Farmers will get closer to consumers

If you’re not interested in becoming a farmer, you can still benefit from collaborative farming as a consumer. This is because a single farming family does not have the power or capacity to supply unlimited consumers with their branded product. But if farmers are working together, their capacity to deliver more of their product to the market increases, as does their ability to provide more information on that product. Lorraine explains, “An individual business couldn’t afford to own a supermarket chain, but a Co-operative (with all contributing through membership fees) could own a number of IGA’s, cold rooms, processing facilities or abattoirs.” They become much more competitive in the market place because they represent many farmers speaking with one voice. Supporting collaborative farming brings affordable, quality produce to the consumer. It can also connect them with farmers more directly, as well as with where their food is grown and how it is produced.

Farming is a complex ecological system that humans engage with intimately. We are an intricate part of that system but we are not its master. The process of growing and nurturing something is physically and spiritually rewarding. You are building a relationship with the land. Lorraine is a leader in the Agricultural collaboration and Co-operative space; and she is also my mother. I know when it comes to the future of our farm; we will not rest until it truly reaches the crown of social, economic and environmental balance. In all its simplicity you realise you are doing something vitally important, and breathtakingly real.

Read more stories from the faces behind your food.

Image credits: Nikki To

Ethan Gordon