S1E6 Gung Hoe Growers

A laughter filled chat about very serious issues; the importance of small scale diverse farming providing for local markets.  Sas and Mel have been farming veggies on their patch of land in Harcourt, subletting from the Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens, for several years.  In that time they have doubled their size and then doubled again, all the while learning and sharing with their local community. 

This episode was created in 2018 in an eight part series called An Environment For Change. This series was supported by MAINfm and the Mount Alexander Shire Council.


Background sounds of people pulling up dry, rustling plants and soil dropping back to the earth.

Allie: I love smelling it, you can smell the coriander…

Farm volunteer: mmm it’s beautiful 

Mel: Really? I think it smells like stink bug. 

Allie: Stink bug? Coriander?

Mel: Yup

Allie: Coriander? You’re not a coriander eater?

Mel: No, I LOVE coriander. I just think when it goes to seed, it just smells different; like stink bug…Yup. 

Allie: I didn’t know what stink bug smells like, so maybe I’m lucky there.

Mel: Laughs…really?

Allie: Yeah!

Farm volunteer: They’re the coriander of the insect world. 

General laughter.

Theme music for An Environment for Change plays.

Allie Hanly: You are listening to An Environment for Change, an eight-part series, looking at some of the many people in the Mount Alexander Shire who are working to combat climate change and promote sustainable living. These are local people who are working towards changing our habits so we can all move forward into a vibrant, healthy and sustainable future. 

In this series, we’ll hear from local farmers, Boomerang Bags, Repair Cafe, local environment groups, activists and concerned citizens. 

Allie speaks over sounds of bird calls, including crow or raven caws, and other outside sounds.

In the last episode of An Environment for Change, I spoke with Katie and Ant at the Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens and organic orchard in Harcourt. This episode, I’m talking to the Gung Hoe Growers, Sas and Mel. They’re organic veggie farmers who have been subletting some land at the orchard for several years now, and they’re part of the exciting new cooperative of farmers who are operating from that place. 

I went out to the farm, or as they call it ‘The Patch’ and had a chat to them about what it is to grow organic vegetables in central Victoria. 

First up I had a chat with Mel who was out on The Patch with some volunteers. They often have volunteers helping them out there, and they were basically just weeding and clearing some of the rows so that they could replant the next crop.

Interview is conducted with background bird calls and outdoor sounds. The sound of weeds and dry plants being pulled up continues with some sounds of digging.

Allie: Harcourt has got really different soil to Castlemaine, doesn’t it? 

Mel: Yeah. It actually has soil! 

Allie and Mel laugh.

Allie: Yup. But you’ve also had to do a lot to build it up, having to make it…

Mel: Yeah. Yup. So, Mount Alexander is an old, it’s got lots of granite, so, it’s granitic; this soil is granitic, so it looks a bit sandy, and because the granite is very old so it doesn’t have…it’s got some structure, but it doesn’t have nutrients or minerals because it’s so old, it’s just had nothing. And also, this was a commercial orchard where we’re growing, this patch is, not up the top but this one, and so it had different systems of farming, I guess. But we don’t use any chemicals and machines really, so we don’t compact the soil. A lot of it is about compacting: not compacting the soil, building up the nutrients and the microbiology and keeping the moisture in. That’s what we’re trying to do. 

Allie: Yeah, Central Victoria is a pretty harsh place to try and grow stuff, isn’t it.

Mel: Yeah. It’s really extreme. 

Allie and Mel laugh

Allie: ‘Cause you’ve grown stuff up north haven’t you? Where it’s much easier?

Mel: Well, where I grew was similar to here actually, it was Stanthorpe. Yeah. But I mean, I have lived in Sydney, and you plant something and it grows and you can plant it all year and it will grow and you kind of don’t even have to water it!

Allie and Mel laugh

Allie: Imagine that.

Mel: Yeah, it seems weird. And generally it’s kind of, we were saying to Marty the other week, it’s kind of interesting, we’re still learning this climate and, you know, the seasons are different every year as the climate gets more intense, for want of a better word.

Allie: With climate change? 

Mel: Yeah, I reckon. And, the self-seeded things that survive and then just come up in the paths and stuff like that, they actually tell you that like, oh, now is the perfect time. You know, whereas we might have thought, oh, a month later or a month earlier. 

Allie: Interesting!

Mel: So, it’s quite cool. And we save our own seeds too, so… 

Allie: Yeah Cool. What’s your favourite time of year and your favourite jobs? 

Mel: Me? 

Allie: Yeah. 

Mel: In the garden? 

Allie: Yeah. 

Mel: Oh. Wow! I actually quite enjoy pulling things out and planting things because it feels like cycles, you know you are kind of saying goodbye to something and then planting something, creating something new. And it kind of means that there’s life there. I think my favourite season is probably now… oh no, I like all of them. 

Allie: Laughter.

Mel: I curse them at the time. Laughter.

Allie: What’s your favourite part about this season? 

Mel: That we get time to do this. We get time to pull things out and plant new things ready for autumn and winter. Because of our climate and the season, the extreme climates, we’ve got very short windows to do that because we need to plant stuff while the soil is still warm so they can grow and then sustain themselves over winter. Whereas if we get them in later, they just will sit there all winter and then spring will come and that will go to seed and we won’t get anything off them. So, I enjoy the early mornings coming and having dawn, yeah, and then being able to create the things.

Allie: Then I went and chatted to Sas, who was up by the hot house putting seeds into multitudes of tiny containers so that they could have seedlings to plant in a little while.

Sounds of Sas filling pots with soil and opening packets of seeds to plant.

Sas: Spring’s exciting because it’s when you’re breaking out of winter and things start to grow again and all the flowers start to blossom and all the blossoms in the orchard around us are flowering and it’s just a really alive time. And then autumn is really nice ‘cause it’s like the end of exhausting, hot, dry summer and the weather suddenly changes and there’s moisture in the air again and suddenly there’s green and things start to grow again. Yeah, and it’s just that exciting change-over time, both spring and autumn are change-over times when you’re ripping stuff out and putting the next round of crops in and I guess they’re both really hopeful times.

Sas and Allie laugh.

Sas: As opposed to the end of summer when you’re just broken. Laughter.

Allie: Are you? Is summer rough?

Sas: Summer’s full on, yeah. They’re big days and it’s just the physicality of harvesting so many things, is really, it just takes the time it takes and so they’re big days. And in summer ‘cause you’ve got so many fruiting things, um, you just have to harvest them. It’s not like salad or lettuce or silverbeet that you can let go another week, it’s when the tomatoes are ready, they’re ready, and you’ve got to pick them or they rot. 

I really enjoy the hot house, really enjoy raising up the babies and yeah, the excitement of choosing what varieties. I call seed catalogues my ‘porn’! I like looking at seed porn catalogues and choosing what seeds I’m going to plant that season and what varieties of things and the different colours that they’ll be and all of that. Yeah, it’s pretty exciting watching them grow up from seed and then plant them out. 

Allie: And what’s your least favourite job? 

Sas: Hmm. Cleaning the shed, cleaning the packing shed. 


Sas: And admin, finance, like invoicing and all that sort of stuff. Pretty boring. 

Allie: You guys have had some beautiful help from the community along the way with various things.

Sas: Yeah.

Allie: How important has that been? 

Sas: Hugely important. I mean, we probably wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have the support of our community, because I guess what we grow is a special thing and it’s got to be understood to be appreciated. And I think we’re in a really supportive community that gets why local organic food is really important. So, yeah, we’ve had a lot of support from all realms; from the people that buy our produce, to friends and family, and just random people that come out and help. 

And we ran a crowdfunding campaign a couple of years ago to upscale the size of our production and that was really awesome. We got heaps of support from people all over Australia and yeah, it meant that we could buy lots of tools and things that we needed. We desperately needed a bigger hot house, so we were able to get that and double the size of our production area. 

Allie: So that was Sas talking about how important the community has been to their venture and part of that is that they do events for the people who have been supporting them over the year, to raise awareness and bring people onto the land so that they can show people what they’re doing. 

They had an open day and they did a little tour of The Patch and spoke to people about what they’re doing and how they’re growing and why it’s important. And, they also had food and produce available for people to buy, and it was a really lovely day. And while I was there, I caught a few of the people who’d come along to see what was going on, and asked them what they thought about what Sas and Mel are doing with the Gung Hoe Growers. 

Background sounds of groups of people chatting as Allie interviews visitors to The Patch. 

Visitor 1: It’s such a beautiful setting, and I’m really surprised how extensive the garden beds are. I didn’t realize that it was quite this advanced; it’s just beautiful. And everything’s just looking so incredibly vigorous and lush and verdant, and, you know, you can hardly stop yourself from snatching a bit from the garden as you go past to eat. It’s so enticing! I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s probably the future as well as we advance into the new world of ‘global weirding’ instead of global warming. I think it’s going to be the way to go:  people banding together and developing, you know, new ways of farming.

Visitor 2: I just think it’s the best. I think these guys are paving the way. 

Allie: Yeah, so in what way?

Visitor 2: Well, because it’s little farms and you know, they’re working from their heart. They’re really local because we eat this stuff in the local cafes and it’s so great when I’m eating it in the café, I’m like, oh, I know exactly where—because I’ve been out drawing out here—I know exactly where these plants are coming from and who’s putting their hands in the earth to, you know, make it happen. 

Visitor 3: I’m loving the variety of what they’re building up and how they can crop; they’ve built the crops and seeded and planted, so they’re getting produce all through the year. Beautifully managed, and it’s great to have sort of like, I suppose it’s shared farm back again—the infrastructure’s here, so someone that wants to build up doesn’t need to invest you know, the $200,000 to get the water—yeah, the land itself, so, it really helps so people can get their produce up and sell quickly. 

You don’t need much of an acreage or an area to produce an amount of food which can lower your impact on what you need brought in from elsewhere. Yeah, making enough space to make some produce means you don’t have to go to the supermarket or the local ‘veggie’, which has to get their stuff in from New South Wales or Gippsland or something. Yeah, cuts down on all the aspects that require something to get to your plate. So, yes, you know, we know that the supermarkets usually have a very limited understanding of what will be sold en masse. So little enterprises like this can reintroduce products that have left the palette; potentially stimulate people to eat new kinds of foods and new varieties of those foods that we are already partaking.

Louder background noise of people chatting.

Visitor 4: It’s awesome! It’s really inspiring. I have come here as, um, a friend of Mel and Sas just to check it out and I’m really impressed with what they’ve done in a really short time. I’m feeling like, yeah, I want to just go home and get into my garden, and it’s just great to see so much food coming out of a relatively small space and in such a beautiful setting. And it’s just great to know that a lot of this produce is going towards local businesses. Yeah, that’s sustainable in my eyes. 

I mean, I think everybody should be able to grow their own food and pick food and take it straight to their kitchen or, you know, close the loop of transportation and food miles and, you know, really create a more localised economy. I think that’s really important for our future, for our community, for the bigger society. And also, to cultivate connection to where our food is coming from, I think that’s a really important aspect that humans have, in many cases, lost touch with, you know we need to just know where it comes from and therefore be connected to it. Be connected to the earth and yeah, the producers and the resources and the process behind it. Yeah.

Background piano theme music with Allie speaking over the top. 

You’re listening to MainFM 94.9. My name is Allie and this is An Environment for Change. And this week I’m talking to Sas and Mel who are the Gung Hoe Growers. They are organic vegetable growers in Harcourt. I went out to Mel’s house to have a bit of a chat about what made them go down this path. What made them want to do this with their lives? And also, what some of their influences have been over time.

If you hear some dog noises, that’s because Mel’s dog Scally was actually very ill at the time, and we were trying to manage her and do the interview at the same time. Poor old Scally had chased a roo too many, and the roo had turned around and kicked her and created quite a serious injury for poor ‘Scal’. So, she was on some pain medications and she had one of those big collars on and we were doing our best to help Scally be comfortable, but also have our chat about the Gung Hoe Growers. So that’s what you might hear in the background here. 

Sas: I grew up in the bush, so I always had a lot of the natural environment around me, I had the Yarra River in my backyard and was surrounded by state forest so I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging out in the bush. And from that developed a really strong connection to nature and motivation to want to, I guess, inspire connection in other people in the hope that through connecting to nature people would be inspired to want to protect nature as well. So, that came really early on for me, and so when I came to study at Uni, I studied environmental education as a means for learning how to help facilitate those connections. So, taking people out into the bush, hiking or rock climbing, or paddling as a tool through which to connect to the environment and then hoping that people would then go home and feel inspired to do something about different environmental crises on the planet. 

But I kind of quickly realized that that’s a really specific experience of nature and that taking people away from their home environment and, you know, relying on all this gear, all these packs and stoves and things like that, and getting in a bus and driving for four hours in and of itself isn’t very sustainable, even if it is facilitating those connections. So, I started exploring different ways of facilitating people connecting to nature in their own environment, in our own backyards. And, yeah, did different things to do with that environmental education teaching kids how to grow food and very quickly came to realise that food is one of our most unsustainable habits. But it’s also one of the places where most people can make change to better look after the planet. So, I focus mainly a lot more on learning, skilling myself up to be able to grow food but also to be able to teach other people how to grow food.

Allie: What did that look like? You worked with the Growing Abundance program (Growing Abundance Project, Castlemaine) for a long time, and you’re also a Stephanie Alexander Kitchen ‘gardener’ (Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation).

Sas: Yeah. So, I worked for a few years in a primary school teaching kids how to grow food. And that was really amazing because it’s something that kids just connect to naturally and they’re so curious and they’re so observant that it’s just something that they’re really inspired to do and it’s not in a classroom, so it’s a whole other kind of level of learning and it’s something every kid can do. So that’s something that’s really inspiring about all those kitchen garden programs, is that even the kids that don’t do well in the classroom do really well in the garden and, you know, they learn to look differently at the things around them and to connect differently with the plants and the animals and the insects, and to observe them and appreciate them. 

So, I worked with Growing Abundance for five years and helped start up the harvest program. And that was about looking at the resources that are already in the community and better looking after those resources: fruit trees, vegetables, wild trees on the side of the road; and looking at how to look after those things and then share the abundance that comes from them within the community, so nothing goes to waste, which was a really amazing project and it’s still going and it does great things in the community. But over the course of five years and lots of conversations with people about local food and local food systems and what a strong local food system looks like, I sort of came to realise that there’s not anybody growing food in our local community or very few people growing food at a bigger than backyard scale. So that’s when I decided to start, rather than tell other people that they should be doing it I should just give it a go myself. 

We live in a…its traditionally, it’s an orcharding region: apple, pear and stone fruit orcharding area, but over the last sort of 20 or 30 years, a lot of orchards have shut down. A lot of the old family farms have shut down and the few that remain are the large-scale agricultural farms that sell either offshore or into very large multinational companies, and so that produce doesn’t go into our local market. 

There’s only one organic orchard growing locally that supplies the local market and yeah, other than that if you go to the supermarket in Castlemaine most of it has come from Melbourne, which is the food then has then gone from somewhere else to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Castlemaine. So, it’s very hard to actually access local food.

Allie: Like, it sounds like you connected to this idea of nature, quite young and nature being worth protecting, and also nature being at risk. Do you have a sense of when you developed that idea that the environment is at risk from humanity and that it needs protecting?

Sas: Hm. Ahh Yes. Captain Planet! 

Laughter. Mel and Sas both sing.

 …He’s a hero! Gonna take pollution down to zero! He’s our powers magnified, and he’s fighting on the planet side! The power is yours! 

Sas: Yeah. I think Captain Planet was the first thing that kind of opened my mind to things beyond my own little world. 

Allie: That’s amazing!

Sas: Like when I was in prep, we had a little pine forest at the school that got chopped down and I remember that being quite traumatic because that’s where we always went and played, but I don’t think I was really old enough to connect that with any bigger picture. But yeah, I think Captain Planet got me feeling like I could do something, being more aware of what the bigger issues were. Laughter.

Allie: That’s great.  Is he,” earth, wind, fire, water, our powers combined”. Laughter.

Sas: We are Captain Planet, yeah. And that was like the game I used to play with my friends. We were all the different things. We had our little rings and we were Captain Planet

Allie: Did you have a favourite aspect of Captain Planet

Sas: Yeah, I always wanted to be ‘earth’ because he was a cool African dude and ‘heart’, Ma-Ti. He was from South America. 

Mel: He was kind of the little guy that everyone would tease, 

Sas: Yeah, little weedy one. 

Allie: Aww. That’s actually quite nice to hear about Captain Planet, ‘cause as a storyteller slash creative, it’s like, you kind of wonder what influence you’ve got, if any. I know personally that people who write novels and stuff have influenced me really deeply, but as a writer, you go “Oh no, they’re not going to read this, what’s it for?” Laughter.  So, it’s kind of cool to hear that. 

Sas: Yeah, it really did. I remember there was one episode that was about air pollution or something, and they were putting socks over car exhausts, or bananas in car exhausts or something. Anyway, I did it to my dad’s car and he wasn’t very happy! 

Allie: You did it, what did you do. The banana or the sock?

Sas: I put the sock over there with an elastic band.

Allie: And the car caught on fire or what?

Sas: No, I don’t think so, he noticed before we drove off. “Why is my sock hanging out the exhaust pipe? “

Allie: So maybe it’s not always a good influence. 

Piano theme music plays

Mel: Mum always had a veggie garden and she always grew lots of food in the veggie garden and loved cooking. I would learn about plants and nature in that kind of way but also pretty much every weekend we’d go to the bush. So, I grew up in Canberra and before it burnt down, Tidbinbilla National Park was really beautiful, so we’d just go there and have bushfires, Mel laughs, bushfires? Campfires! Yes. I was thinking bonfire? Yeah, and that for me was a really beautiful time because I just remember all these kids and families and we’d just kind of hang out really and eat food and yeah, we just always have nature experiences.

Allie: Was there a moment when you realised that like, climate change or the environment was at risk and that you wanted to do something about it or is that part of your reason for farming?

Mel: Umm? Yes definitely. So, I guess growing up I’d always had an appreciation and that was always my place, was going to the bush or being in some trees or, you know, something like that is always a nourishing thing that makes me feel whole again. So, coming from that kind of a place, I went to Uni and then made some friends and then one of her friends, boyfriends, or guy that she liked or something, anyway, we went over to his place and then at the end he was laughing and was like, ‘’so it’s all just come out of the bin“. And it was all about dumpster diving. I think that was probably my first initiation into more action, environmental action and activism per se. You know, they became lots of my friends and, you know, I consciously made decisions about catching public transport; I didn’t catch planes for a really long time; trying to buy your food local; so, I started buying veggie boxes, uh, local, well, what they said were local veggie boxes. Laughter.

Yeah, so I reckon that was the beginning. And I guess that just made sense to me, that way of life, you know, you recycle, but you also reuse, so always buy second hand clothes; you’re always careful with water, just really simple things. 

I think one favourite thing was we made a band called the Riff Raff Radical Marching Band because we were like, well, my friend was like, “Oh, I hate going to all these hippie protests with bongo drums!” So, she wanted to form a brass band that would be at protests. So, I was involved with lots of people who were really fun and different like that, which I really appreciated and they’re still activists to this day. It’s awesome. I admire them a lot, but that’s not my… I’m not in… I can’t do that for my life. 

So, I think going along from that, I was working in inner West Sydney and I was doing social work stuff and I guess I was just becoming more and more aware through documentaries and articles and stuff of the actual food system itself, and just how wrong it seemed to be. It’s like, well, this carrot that I’m buying has travelled this far to, you know, get to me and that’s a ridiculous environmental… like this is ridiculous!

And that kind of led me then on to thinking further: well, I have some gardening skills kind of—I can’t really grow strawberries, I can kind of grow basil, you know, so I’d always try and grow little things—but then realising I actually don’t have the skills to grow my own food, which is an essential survival skill one would say. I started thinking about that and that really scared me and then I kind of realised that the majority of us don’t know how to grow our own food. So, then who are we relying on for our food? And we’re relying on big systems and big chains and just the stuff that I didn’t agree with and that obviously is ruining the world and not good for lots of different people in that system.

So, yeah. So, the other thing was, kind of seeing in that system that the really—I don’t know kind of how to describe it—but “good”, I’m saying with inverted commas, “good” food seemed really expensive. So, seeing how people who I was working with doing the youth social work stuff: one, they didn’t have the skill to grow their own food and two, food that’s healthy for them and local to them isn’t accessible because it’s too expensive. 

So, I guess that was my starting journey into farming, was wanting to learn the skills of how to grow properly for yourself, so then I could teach other people who were probably in same situation as me, you know, didn’t have heaps of money and didn’t necessarily have land or any of that, but it’s actually just looking after yourself, on a big level. Yeah

Allie: Yeah. What did you do to learn how to grow food?

Mel: I dug up the backyard of my new townhouse, laughter, and planted some garden beds. That was the turning point I guess, ‘cause I realised that I didn’t really know how to grow productively, so I didn’t know how to grow for more—I didn’t really know how to grow for myself—and I didn’t really know how to grow for more people, so my vision was to work on a farm, working with other young people teaching them skills of how to grow food I guess. Yeah.

Allie: And you’re actually… you have realised that now. 

Mel: Somewhat. Yeah, we’re getting there. It’s amazing! Yeah. 

Allie: And how long did you spend—because you went from farm to farm for a bit learning from other people—how long did you spend doing all that stuff?

Mel: Almost a year. So not very long at all. My aim was to do a different farm for each season, but I only did three seasons. 

Allie: And then when you came to Castlemaine, you set up one patch by yourself on someone else’s land. Tell me a bit about that.

Mel: I wanted to, yeah, I just wanted to start growing productively, so someone gave me…we worked out an agreement and I grew some veggies in their backyard. Yeah. So, like 12 or 15 square meters something like that? Little!

Allie: Yeah. And how did that go? 

Mel: Well, I think I learnt a lot about myself and working with other people on their land and also about my time management, because I don’t think my time management was as good because I was just riding my bike everywhere. But also, that people in this community were really happy to start buying from people who are genuinely local. Like I started selling lettuce and I sold garlic and I sold silverbeet and kale and you know, everything that I grew I could sell. 

Allie: Who to? 

Mel: To the Good Table. So, Alexander Perry. Yeah..

Allie: A local restaurant. Yeah.  

Mel: Yeah

Allie: Cool. So how did you two get together and what made you decide to move and try somewhere else and join forces? 

Mel and Sas laugh

Mel:  It’s a funny story!

Sas: You tell it. 

Mel: I feel like you tell it better! 

Sas: Nah. You tell it!

Allie: You both tell it. You start.

Mel: I moved into a house that was a house-sit and it was rent-free and a beautiful house, and it was kind of a bit of an intentional community and Sas and her partner also lived in that community.

Sas: Yeah. And at the time I was working with Growing Abundance, but more and more in my brain going “I need to try to grow food. I want to grow food”. I think that’s my next step in this sustainability local food journey is to see if I can actually grow food to feed a community rather than just myself. Because where I was living I was growing food to feed the neighbours, but yeah, I wanted to see what that would look like on a bigger scale. So, when I met Mel and she had the same vision it was just like, great! Let’s find land! 

Allie: And how did you find land? 

Sas: We spent probably 12 months at least asking around and going and checking out different patches of land. And I mean, the great thing about, the local community is that people really want to support local food and new farmers and that kind of thing. But unfortunately, we also have a severe lack of soil and water and infrastructure to do that. So, we spent a lot of time looking at different patches of land that were very generously offered to us to use, but they were all very inappropriate in terms of they didn’t have soil, didn’t have access to water; didn’t have either. Laughter.

Allie: So, for people who don’t live in Central Victoria, can you explain what that means in terms of lack of soil, ‘cos there is obviously ground beneath your feet!

Mel: Yeah, that’s it! That’s it! Laughter.

Sas: Yeah, Castlemaine was historically a gold mining area and there’s been a couple of gold rushes in the region over time so it means that the ground has basically been turned inside out multiple times in the last 200 years and all topsoil that ever existed has been washed away and all that’s left is seams of rock or clay. So, we joke that the Castlemaine shovel is a crowbar ‘cause that’s what we use in Castlemaine to dig a hole, is a crowbar. Laughter

Allie: How did you guys find the perfect place? How did that come about? Part of what I was asking you about your first attempt, Mel, was that it wasn’t right for a couple of reasons and one of them was the impermanence of it and that your decision to go with Katie and Hugh was because there was an agreement that was a bit more set in stone. Can you explain that? 

I guess why I’m asking is that there are key points in there about how other people can…what you need to think about to make things like this actually work so that you guys have security and, you know, ‘cause you don’t want to invest in soil if you can’t keep the soil because you have to move on. 

Mel: Yeah. Well, and as you just heard from Sas, it’s a lot of investment of time, money and labour. 

Allie: What does it take? 

Mel: Blood, sweat, and tears!!

General laughter

Allie: It takes compost, poo and straw…

Mel: And time and water!

Mel: Yeah. And just everything. Because it just has nothing. Yeah. And I mean when we’re talking about Castlemaine most of the places that we looked were in Castlemaine but where we’ve ended up growing is in Harcourt, so Harcourt actually has some soil and when we first started digging it, we went, “Oh my God, there’s soil!”. It took us…of course we did soil tests and everything and we realised, oh, it still doesn’t have anything in it but were like, at least there’s soil and we can dig. 

Allie: So, nothing in it means not the right nutrients? 

Mel: Just not any nutrients…

Mel and Sas laugh

Mel: Or minerals. It’s very old, it’s granitic soil which means it’s old and it’s taken a long time to break down, which means it’s just, yeah, it’s washed out. 

Allie: Yeah. Okay.

Mel: So, I think Sas asked them, just floated it with them at the beginning when we’d decided that we wanted to grow together, and they’d said no, because they’d been in 13 years of drought so the idea of sharing water, sharing land, you know, just seemed ridiculous when they’re struggling enough as it is. 

And then a year later they saw that we were still looking and I think that, to them, showed that we were genuinely keen, it wasn’t a flash idea, something that would just pass so they then approached us. So, then the way that it worked was: they’re very good business people and they’re also very straight down the line and upfront so you’re not kind of dealing with anything that you don’t really know about. And we both wanted it to work for both sides and to be really fair and something that I think, knowing now four years down the track, they really wanted us to work. So, they were trying to give us a ‘fair thing’ we still have to pay our way, but a ‘fair thing’ that meant that we could access land so that we could farm, because in the bigger scheme of things, that’s something that needs to happen more with farmers who don’t or can’t have access to land.

Allie: So, what does fair mean? What sort of security do you have? Did you have a contract in place? 

Sas: Yeah, so we took a lease template from another farmer in New South Wales that also has other young farmers leasing land off them. So, we took his template lease and we just sort of adapted it to our situation to include access to water and specific patches of land and the monetary value of that over 12 months. I think we originally started with a three-year lease term. So, it’s like a very formal on paper legal agreement, so we have security and they have security too. 

Allie: How did you start? What did you do? 

Mel and Sas laugh.

Sas: We, um, we started with garlic. Our lease got finalised in April and that’s when we plant garlic, so the first four beds we dug were for garlic. So now we count our years on the farm in terms of our garlic crops.

Mel: Because we still do garlic with biodynamic planting, which is planting by the moon. We try and do lots of other things other than garlic, but garlic we always do. And there was a specific day that was the best day for garlic, so we were like, “yes, we’re going to plant it that day” but we were waiting on our soil tests to come back because also around this area, because of gold mining but also the orchard hasn’t always been organic, it previously wasn’t organic, and where we were growing hadn’t been an orchard for a very long time and it was just paddock, so we needed to know that the levels of anything in it were okay and we could still grow. So, we were like, “we believe that the soil will be okay!” so Sas hired the rotary hoe and we got the soil tests back in the same day, so we rotary-hoed an eighth of an acre and then we dug the beds and then we planted the garlic all in one day! That was how we started. 

General laughter

Sas: And that’s pretty much the pace we’ve kept.

Background piano theme music with Allie speaking over the top. You’re listening to MainFM 94.9. My name’s Allie and this is An Environment for Change. And this week I’m talking to Sas and Mel who are the Gung Hoe Growers.

Allie: And who have you been selling to? 

Mel: We sell to local restaurants and cafes and we sell to some local catering people every now and then, and boxes, we do veggie boxes. And so slowly, we’re kind of building up how many we do and for how long we do them. Uh, I think this summer we did what? four or five months?

Sas: Yeah. 30 boxes a week. 

Mel: Yeah. So that was our formal, we kind of informally do—I mean, we pick every week of the year—and we informally do boxes, oh and sometimes markets as well. 

Allie: It’s been five years did you say? 

Sas: We’ve just gone three we’re in our fourth year, right now. We’re in our fourth crop of garlic. Laughter

Mel: Yeah, we never know: are we three, four or five? What are we? We don’t know! Laughter.

Sas: Definitely on that fourth crop of garlic. Yep. Going into our fourth year.

Allie: What’s in the future; where are you guys headed? Are you feeling good about where you’re at now?

Sas: One of the, yeah, one of the really exciting things that’s kind of emerged over the last couple of years since we started farming there with Katie and Hugh is that they, I guess, started to see how important our relationship was and how many other young farmers there are out there that have the same issues in terms of land access to get started. And part of their, I guess retirement plan in a way, is in keeping the farm still productive but not them having to do all the work; is to invite other young farmers onto the land to start their enterprises. So that’s one of the really exciting things coming up in the future is we’re setting up a co-op, so a legal structure that we all come under as part of a collaborative farming model, which is kind of pushing a few boundaries in terms of legal structures and certification bodies and yeah, lobbying and that kind of thing. The model that we’re sending out doesn’t actually exist in Australia, if the world, and that’s pretty exciting thing to be a part of.

Allie: So, who else is joining in? 

Mel: So, Katie and Hugh, they’re passing the orchard on to a guy called Ant. So, Ant will be part of the cooperative and Tess, she’s going to be doing…what is it? 

Sas and Mel: Speaking together. Sellers Farmhouse Creamery. 

Mel: She’s already on site and she’s starting up a micro dairy. So that’s really lovely and then Sas and Katie and Katie’s dad, Merv, they’ll do a heritage fruit tree nursery. So, they’ll grow fruit trees from seeds and grafting things and sell them.

Sas: We’re looking for a bee person and a chook person and yeah, there’s opportunities there for other people to start enterprises as well. Maybe on-site compost making, um, yeah, lots of things that all interact with each other, but are their own distinct businesses.

Allie: Do you think it relies on you guys all being particularly good-willed and may not be…

Mel: Um, no, good-willed? Why? No! we’re grumpy, we’re grumpy farmers! 

General laughter.

And it’s great when we have our cooperative meetings, we’re like, “no, we’re actually… we want to be primary producers, we don’t want to do tours all the time, because what we actually want to do is we want to do our work which is to farm!”.

Allie: How do you see the future of farming in Australia? Because it seems like this is almost going back to an old school kind of village system and where everyone’s businesses complement each other and you all have, you know, something to offer to the community that isn’t necessarily competing with the next person. As opposed to what the last hundred years has been: large-scale farming and monoculture crops and all of that sort of stuff.  So, is that what you see as the solution to food agriculture? If everyone could…is this a model that could move elsewhere, or do you think it’s a bit unique?

Sas: Small-scale diverse agriculture is where we need to go, but I think at the scale that that’s happening at the moment we can’t feed our nation and our communities. So, I think we need to be encouraging more of it and I think access to land is one of the big barriers for people who want to farm, but don’t have the capital to buy you know, a hundred, a couple of hundred-thousand dollars property, and then all the infrastructure that goes with starting a farm. 

So, I think the model that we have where Katie and Hugh, who own the land are open to leasing the land at, you know, generous rates that also cover their costs. I think that’s a really important model to be encouraged because it’s not like we don’t have the land or the water or the soil to grow enough food, it’s just that we’re stuck in a bit of a mindset of the way that it should be done, which is no longer relevant or no longer relevant on a mass scale.

But I think at the same time—I don’t know very much about it—but there’s a lot of new technologies coming out for growing food in a really sustainable manner but on a larger scale, that helps to mitigate the vagaries of a changing climate. Which is one of the real struggles we have is that growing food in the ground outside is a very variable thing as the climate changes more and more, like, every season is completely different where we’ve got no norms anymore. So, I think there’s probably also a role for some sort of technological advances in sustainable agriculture.

Mel: I think…I won’t speak for Sas, but I’ll speak for myself in terms of the environmental context. I believe quite strongly that there need to be heaps more of small-scale farmers because when the petrol runs out, when it’s too expensive, uh, the trucks that carry our food everywhere won’t be able to do it. And so, they might build trains and then they will probably break down too, or, you know, I just think our food system as it currently stands environmentally is bound to crash. And therefore, we need to be able to look after ourselves, and we can’t rely on the people to grow our, you know… 

Sas: Carrots

Mel: Carrots, yeah thanks! Laughter …three states away, and “I’ll buy them because they’re the cheapest carrots that I can get”, kind of thing. So, I think that—I don’t know if I’m answering your question—but I think that it’s really important and I think there is a small-scale movement in Australia; there’s a small-scale movement of farming all over the world and you know, it’s exciting, but it might not happen in our lifetime, but I think our dream is that it becomes a viable business for us. And it becomes a working example of a model that both serves our community with food and serves us with our livelihoods and also is an educational place where we can continue those skills to keep going outwards because that’s essential. Laughter

And you know, not everyone needs to be able to grow the food like we do, we need people to be able to save seeds; we need people to be able to grow beautiful seedlings; we need people to, you know, not everyone has to do the same thing, which is what I love about the cooperative, the co-op at Harcourt, ‘cause we’re all doing different things but we do or complement each other, and once or twice a week we’ll gather together over a shared meal and we’re all the same, but not, and it’s really simple and it’s really beautiful. 

Allie: And how far are you guys from actually being financially sustainable for yourselves? 

Mel: We’re probably not like your typical business people. Laughter

Sas: We both work other jobs to fund our life and then we farm because we’re passionate about it. And the hope is that one day farming will be our livelihood. 

Mel: We started with $200 each to put into Gung Hoe. So, considering that, we pay ourselves a very small wage each week but that’s been building itself up ever since we’ve started and I think we’re getting better and better. And part of it for us is now that we’ve stopped expanding, we want to get more efficient so we spend our time better. So therefore, we’re actually producing off our whole land ‘cause currently, because we’re not able to efficiently manage it we’re not fully producing. Which means that I think we don’t have a full idea of what we can get from it. 

Allie: And you guys have volunteers who come and help out on The Patch. What do you think they get out of being there?

Mel: Food! I mean that as a joke, but that’s actually true!! 

General laughter

Sas: I think, lots of things. And I think, I mean, we obviously get lots of things out of having volunteers out there with us too. But I think a lot of the people that are motivated to come out and volunteer do so because they want to learn, which is really inspiring for us because we love being asked questions that are thoughtful and you know, that are motivated from the person wanting to learn how to grow their own food. And that’s part of the dream is to share those skills and, and help to nurture other people to start similar businesses because there’s lots of people that are thinking about it. And a lot of the volunteers that have kind of approached us have been people that have that dream that one day they might grow food productively either to feed themselves or as a business. 

So, I think, yeah hopefully they get some knowledge and skills out of doing it. And I think just the connection to like connecting to other like-minded people that share similar interests is really lovely. We’ve met some really beautiful people that have come out and volunteered with us and then become friends.

Mel: Yeah, and I think, uh, it’s a very real thing that when—we can forget sometimes, you know every day ‘cause we have so many things to do all the time forever—the very simple act of being outside and working in the soil and helping things to grow and helping to create something and then helping to nourish something, that’s really good too on a level that you might not even be aware of. 

Yeah. One of my favourite times lately—we had a few volunteers come out one day and we were all weeding—we’ve got the big brassica patch and we were all just…and it was a jungle and we were all just weeding it and just the conversations that were happening and people were just happy, and they’re just like, “can we do this every week?” and I’m like, “you want to weed every week? Yes, laughter sure!!.” But you know, it was because of the connection, like what Sas was talking about, I don’t know, yeah, it’s really good. I think people appreciate being able to do that if they don’t have that in their everyday.

Background piano theme music with Allie speaking over the top. You’re listening to MainFM 94.9 and this is An Environment for Change. I had one last question for Sas and Mel. Looking around Mel’s house I could see beautiful quotes and poems posted up on the walls, so I asked them who might have influenced them, or if they had favourite authors that had inspired them 

Sas: Mel and I, that was one of the first things we connected over I think, before we even started talking about farming was Sufi poets. So, we share a love of Rumi and Hafiz. So, this one’s from Rumi:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty

and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study

and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. 

And I, yeah, I just really liked that one. That, especially that line, let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. And I feel like that’s what farming is about. It’s, you know, it’s an expression of our love for the planet and the environment and quite literally we’re often kneeling and maybe not kissing the ground but very close to. 

General laughter.

Allie: That’s great. Oh, that’s beautiful, beautiful one, yeah, I love it. 

Sas: It’s a bit of a cliche, but I was inspired by The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, I think that’s how you say his name. 

Allie: I have never heard of him.

Sas: He’s a Japanese farmer who practiced lots of natural farming techniques. And one of the things that he does is broadcast seeds rather than planting seedlings and then taking the seedlings and planting them out into the patch. He tries to mimic some more natural ways that nature manages itself. 

Allie: And so, he scatters them rather than…? 

Sas: Yeah. He just throws the seeds out and whatever comes up, comes up and they’re the strongest ones. That’s something I quite like to do. Laughter.

Mel: Sas just loves to do it. You’ll see her with sunflowers, like whacking the ground or, oh, just kind of throwing seeds, she’ll just be walking, half-skipping around. It’s great. I’m like, Oh cool! Seed fairy! Laughter.

Sas: Yeah. And then like a month later, it’d be like; why is there mustard growing over there? Oh, that’s right. 

General laughter.

Mel: So, I’ve got two. This is one: So, I love Wendell Berry. He’s a North American, I don’t know, he’s kind of old now, but he’s a farmer and he’s also a poet and kind of an activist. And I love him, so this is a quote from him and it says:

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it, we can have no life. 

So, this is another book by Wendell Berry, it’s called The Clearing. My friend bought it for me from a second-hand bookshop when she was in Portland, of course. How old is it? …Sounds of Mel leafing through the book. Oh, 1934. So, this is, I don’t think this copy is necessarily from there…

Allie: but that’s where he was…

Mel: When he first wrote them. So, it’s called A Work Song (Work Song Part II: A Vision):

A Vision

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of heaven or earth,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The rivers will run
clear, as we never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

Mel: Number three is passion. 

Allie: That was beautiful. 

Other background comments

Mel: That one and this next one is what kind of got me. Yeah. 

So, Passion:

Passion has brought me to this clearing of the ground, 

an ancient passion singing in my veins beneath speech 

unheard many years, yet leading me through 

cities, streets and roads, gatherings, voices, speech 

and again, beyond speech, beyond the words of books. 

To stand in this hillside field in October wind, 

critical and solitary like a horse dumbly approving of the grass. 

The world is clear as light, as dark as dark. 

Can it lead me away from books? 

Is it leading me away? 

What will I say to my fellow poets 

whose poems I do not read 

while this passion keeps me in the open. 

What is this silence coming over me? 

I am curious and afraid one day my poems 

may pass through my mind unwritten 

like the freshenings of a stream in the hills, 

holding the light only while they pass, 

shaping only what they pass through, 

source and destination the same. 

I’m afraid some days that only vanity keeps me at my words. 

Some days I wait here empty as a tree, 

whose birds and leaves have gone, 

and I know my words have gone in search of things. 

They are hunting the song that will celebrate 

the absence of what does not belong.

(transcription note: we know we haven’t got the line breaks right on this piece, if anyone knows the poem, please contact us!)

General laughter

Allie: Wow! That’s the poet’s verse! That’s beautiful.

Mel: So, this is number five, A Beginning:

October’s completing light falls 

on the unfinished patterns of my year. 

The sun is yellow in a smudge 

of public lies we no longer try to believe. 

Speech finally drives us to silence. 

Power has weakened us. 

Comfort wakens us in fear. 

We are a people who must decline or perish. 

I have let my mind at last bend down 

where human vision begins its rise 

in the dark of seeds, wombs of beasts. 

It has carried my hands to roots and foundings

to the mute urging that in human care 

clears the field and turns it green. 

It reaches the silence at the tongues root 

in which speech begins. 

In early mist, I walk in these reopening fields 

as in a forefather’s dream. 

In dream and sweat, the fields have seasoning. 

I worked to renew a ruined place, 

that no life be hostage of my comfort, 

that my words then begin in labour, 

let me sing a work song and an earth song. 

Let the song of light fall upon me as it may. 

The end of this is not in sight 

and I come to the waning of the year weary 

the way long. 

(transcription note: we know we haven’t got the line breaks right on this piece, if anyone knows the poem, please contact us!)

Allie: That’s beautiful. I feel like that’s really lovely in that he’s talking about returning to a ruined land, and you know, regenerating and going back to old ways and stuff like that. That’s really lovely. 

Mel: Hmm, yeah. And then, yeah, so this is the last one and it’s called Returning to the Beloved:

The low song was of summers end 

dreaming in the air and the light clear. 

I drive loads of manure to the field 

to make pasture for the coming year. 

There is a kind of labour that is absent 

in the hurry and fret of growth. 

The worry of obligation, time and money, 

the threat of summer storm or droughth. 

And now we make this return, the team and I, 

in the glimmering atmosphere of song, 

we come and go again, 

rebuilding promise in the ground. 

It will not be long before the cold will drive us in, 

but this, now, is where I ought to be 

and want to be 

and where I am. 

Desire and circumstance are one. 

Like a woman’s arms, this work holds me. 

(transcription note: we know we haven’t got the line breaks right on this piece, if anyone knows the poem, please contact us!)

Piano theme music plays

Allie: This has been An Environment for Change on MainFM 94.9. This week I’ve been speaking to Mel and Sas from the Gung Hoe Growers about producing food on a small-scale for a local market and why it’s so important to be able to do that in a climate that is changing so dramatically. 

I won’t be on air next week, or if I am it will be a repeat of this program, and I’ll be back in two weeks with a fresh episode of An Environment for Change. 

This series has been brought to you care of a council grant from the Mount Alexander Shire council. That grant only really allowed for eight episodes and I would love to do a lot more episodes, so if you’re enjoying this series and you want to hear me extend it for a year or so and talk to so many other environment groups in the region, including other farmers and people being active in the community trying to work for change towards a more sustainable future, then jump onto the Pick My Project website and look for Saltgrass: The Podcast. I changed the name, because I felt like An Environment for Change had already been done by me right now, but also, it’s a name that’s been used a few times and I felt like ‘Saltgrass’ was a nice word. It’s an actual Australian native plant, it can be used to help salinity and erosion and it also brings to mind ideas around salt of the earth people and grassroots movements. 

So, I thought all of those things combined was a nice symbol for a series that would talk to local people about what they’re doing for the environment and to create a sustainable future. So, jump onto the Pick My Project website, you’ll see a lot of other local projects. There’s an awful lot of really great projects available for you to cast a vote on, I think you get three votes. So, if you register on the website, you can have a look through all the projects that are available in our region—so that’s within 50 kilometres of here—and you will get to pick three of them. Please think about voting for Saltgrass: The Podcast then I’ll be able to do a whole year’s worth of episodes like this, talking to local people about sustainability.

Theme music for An Environment for Change plays.

You have been listening to An Environment for Change, an eight-part sustainability series made possible by a community grant from the Mount Alexander Shire Council. You can listen to this and other episodes of this series on the MAINfm SoundCloud page. 

My name is Alison Hanly. Thanks for listening.  Talk to you soon.

Transcription by Robyn Walton

Note: Saltgrass is produced to be heard. Some elements of the podcast may not translate easily to the written word. We have also chosen readability over strict fidelity to the actual words spoken. Human speech relies on tonality, rhythm and emphasis to give meaning to phrases that may seem fragmented on the page. Some mannerisms of speech are also perfectly acceptable to hear, but awkward on the page, eg. repeated words, filler words such as ‘um’ and ‘you know’. As such, we have not transcribed every word and have sometimes altered the text to keep the meaning true, but also be as readable as possible. 

Our transcripts are created using both speech recognition software and human transcribers, and though we do our best to avoid errors they may occur, please check the audio before quoting in print.

2 thoughts on “S1E6 Gung Hoe Growers

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