one year in

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This month marks one whole year of operating Hand to Ground; our small-scale, regenerative, family farm business. And what a year it was for us – so many things done for the first time, research gathered, mistakes made, successes celebrated, relationships built. It was daunting to step out and make a go of farming full-time for a livelihood. We are told the first two to five years are the most difficult for a new business, and without the support and encouragement of friends and family, as well as mentoring through the Government’s NEIS program – we likely wouldn’t have kept going.

But there is nothing so rewarding as hearing how much a customer’s children enjoyed (and devoured) their roast chicken, or seeing golden yolked eggs crack into the breakfast pan, or have neighbours lend a hand to unload bags of grain – as falling into a clean, warm bed after a long day out in the elements, to see with your bare eyes the landscape refreshed from a cycle of hens scratching and fertilising the ground…

So a summary of operations –

  • We started the year with two warré beehives in operation. We harvested our first batch of about 9 kilos of raw cold pressed honey in March.We sold all our strained honey, and rendered the beeswax for soap and candle making and cooking. Sadly after a very dry Autumn and cold Winter we found we had lost one of our hives, the other appeared slow and weak and the colony absconded before we had to chance to re-Queen!  At the same time in the early Spring we gained four other colonies – two from abandoned hives on a friends’ property, and two as wild swarms – one caught onto of our water tank and one caught in a friend’s backyard. Despite a very short and hot Spring, all four hives are going well, though building their stores very slowly.
  • In February we welcomed 300 day-old layer chicks to our custom built wooden brooding houses. Once big enough, they moved into their beautiful “egg mobile” hen house built atop a caravan trailer – which provides shelter at night, a cool place to lay eggs in the day, and can easily be towed across the pasture. In June they began to lay eggs – about 180-210 each day – which we collect, clean and pack by hand. We began delivering our pastured eggs to cafes, restaurants and a green grocer in nearby towns. We added a further 50 point of lay hens in Spring, and encountered a great chicken faux pas – that you don’t ever just join two flocks of hens together without giving them some time to get used to each other (with a barrier or some kind) – otherwise the pecking order is disturbed and you experience a swift drop in egg production! We acquired two roosters to help keep the peace, and slowly got back to normal production.
  • In Autumn we brooded our first batch of meat chickens. The 300 day-old broiler chicks actually arrived the afternoon of our baby boy Beren’s birth!  We learnt a lot in the weeks that followed about brooding broiler chickens, our local climate and how to keep our birds healthy and thriving despite extreme temperature fluctuations and prowling foxes! In late Winter we began brooding our next batch of meat chickens, ready for processing in late Spring and early Summer. We began suppling local cafes and restaurants with our tasty birds, as well as running a pre-order and pick-up system with our fabulous local green grocer Watts’ Fresh in Kyneton. We also bought a refrigerated trailer – and with the meat safety inspector’s tick of approval – were able to start transporting our chickens to our local farmers markets.
  • We attended a total of 12 farmers markets with Emily’s gluten free baked goods and seasonal preserves. Her French-style baked custards “canéles” and sourdough bread were especially popular. She also ran her first gluten free bread making workshop in October – hosted by our dear friends at A Plot in Common – It was a great success and  she will be holding another workshop in February.
  • Alex was fortunate enough to see the great farmer, writer and agricultural activist – Joel Salatin speak three times this year! He attended a Jonai Farm’s Grow Your Ethics workshop, and was also part of a Deep Winter gathering of like-minded people to discuss the future of small scale sustainable and ethical agriculture and food sovereignty. We are optimistic that with continued public interest, political pressure and support from local communities – fair food and farming systems will continue to grow in Australia.

We are so thankful for the support from our local community – our families, new friends (and old), big-hearted neighbours, chefs and restauranteurs, grocers, mums and dads – who care about what they eat and where it comes from. We do feel enormously blessed that we are still in operation – that we have access to land and water and opportunity to share what we raise with those around us.

As we look forward to our second year we hope to keep learning from our mistakes, build on our successes, problem solve, persevere – and above all to to keep our faith in the Earth’s remarkable abilities to heal and regenerate itself, in the joy of wholesome work, in the goodness of fresh food, in a better future for our kids…

Thank you for joining us!

happy chicks

febdays15 febdays16 febdays14febdays13 Last week we welcomed our first batch of baby chicks – 300 day old layers. They are happily settling into their bespoke brooding houses and beginning to scratch and explore their surrounds. Our three year old is of course enamoured with them, and learning how to hold them gently! Early morning and night Alex goes in to check their water, top up feed, close up windows and turn on/off heat lamps – although it’s summertime the nights can be cool and in the beginning the risk of the chicks getting cold and trampling each other is high. They will slowly be hardened off the night lamps in the coming weeks. Now it’s all hands on deck to get the mobile coop built so they can move into a truly free-range existence on the pasture…

Underfoot

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are grasses tall and wavering in the breeze. are leaves long, short, serrated, flowers and spikes and seeds. more varieties than I can count on my hands. are the sign of something alive and healthy underground…

ben came into the room where we were busy egg cleaning, you have to see this, come now, bring your camera. we followed hurriedly, babe in alex’s arms, camera round my chest. what would he show us I thought, a new calf born? not yet. something just as good, something better. the release of an electric fence. the opening of a patch of luscious “ice-cream grass” to the dairy cows; three pregnant and one newly nursing her young. as ben reeled back the fence the girls moved in close, snuffing and swaying with excitement at the feast that was within munch. midnight, the beautiful black freesian-guernsey, was first in the grass. soon afterwards the fudge-coloured jerseys dolcey and prawn. then mama swiss-brown, sweetie and her wee silas. chomp. chew. munch and moo. sounds of pure and simple satisfaction. we watched on and were filled with the same sort of fullness, in heart, in mind. reuben tangled himself up in long stalks of grass. this is what I remember as a kid, Ben said. This is what its all about. the harvest. ah yes, cows were meant for this. us too, I think.

– Emily

Beginning

DSC_0249In many ways our journey began a few years ago, as newlyweds, in the backyard. Lying back on the grass, watching, listening, feeling the transformation that takes place when a plan is made, soil is tilled and enriched, seeds are sowed, weeds are pulled, food scraps are composted and then sprouts emerge, flowers turn to fruit, beans lengthen, tomatoes redden… transformation, and also lessons in patience, discipline, frustration and gratitude.

With care and determination we saw our Australian backyard flourish, and later we watched our French backyard grow too – literally with our hands to the ground. We saw how organic gardening, composting and recycling enhanced the “nature” around our homes, and in turn our minds and bodies.

Our interest in regenerative farming, though, has grown much more gradually. We first came across American farmer-revolutionary, Joel Salatin of Polyface farms – and were inspired by his biomimicry model for raising livestock that simultaneously restores or “redeems” the ground and grasses. This was in stark contrast to what we knew about many mainstream farming and mass food production practices around the globe. It got us thinking about how we could fit into the picture, beyond buying from sustainable farmers and producers. We dreamed about one day starting a smallholding that could meet most of our family’s food needs. Surplus could go to friends and family, initially, and maybe one day, could be sold. But we were living overseas at the time and had no idea how to start.
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We returned to Australia in late May 2013. We were staying in Melbourne for a week and were keen to take one of the Taranaki farm tours. We decided on a whim (i.e. the night before the ‘grasshopper’ tour) to make the 55-minute drive from Melbourne to Woodend to check it out.

At Taranaki farm cattle, chickens, goats, pigs, plants (and all manner of worms, insects and creatures of the ground) are allowed to roam, forage, peck, stomp, graze, mud-bathe, scratch, screech, oink and moo… in short a place where animals are given the dignity to behave as they are meant to, and we all benefit as a result. The soil especially.

Needless to say, we soon fell in love with the place. At the end of the tour we chatted to Ben about our dream to pursue something similar, and later applied for the Spring internship. We are thrilled that we were accepted! And while we are entirely new to raising animals, or indeed farming at all – we have seen and tasted the fruits and frustrations of putting our hand to the ground. We know it will be hard  and rewarding work…DSC_0240

Hand to Ground suggests how our physical limbs embrace the earth below us in an intentional and gentle way. It also speaks of the passion humankind can have for the natural world that nourishes and sustains us. The intricacies, patterns, and  beauty of nature, and the intrinsic health of natural systems confirm our faith in a magnificent Creator who cares about this earth. This is where our sense of stewardship comes in – that in return for enjoying and benefitting from nature’s harvest  we can offer responsible management and intentional care.

A lofty, idealistic goal? Yes,  but one we could all pursue considering our changing climate, finite resources and global inequality. We all have a part to play – in the way we shop, consume, recycle, eat, vote, learn, support and share. We aren’t exactly sure what this means for our family in the long-term. But for the present we are serious about learning how we can make a small difference with our hands.DSC_0007

Hand to Ground will explore our journey in thoughtful, sustainable organic living. We will enjoy good food and relationships along the way!

We look forward to sharing our journey with you.

Blessings,
Alex, Emily & Reuben