An innovative program in central Victoria is partnering experienced farmers with novices.

Story Amanda Burdon  Photo Nicole Cleary

Retired biodynamic orchardist Ian Clarke has learnt a thing or two about farming during his 30-year career. He’s profitably grown apples, pears and stone fruit in New Zealand and more recently near Daylesford, Vic, living what he describes as a “wholesome, rewarding life” in the country.

It’s just such a wholesome lifestyle that Melissa and David Connors imagined for their young family when they moved from Melbourne to a 4-hectare hobby farm in the Macedon Ranges, near Kyneton, in 2011. They wanted to raise a few head of cattle and sheep for their own meat, and grow vegetables. Trouble was, their fences were in disrepair and the farm was covered in thistles. They didn’t know a soul and very little about the business of farming. 

“Many of us who come out to the country are well meaning but naive,” says Melissa, formerly an administration and account manager and now mother to four children. “We want to care for the land and find a sense of community, but it can be hard developing a local network from scratch. We didn’t know anything about the local agricultural scene and were ripped off on several occasions buying services and equipment.”

It was only with the help of retired farmer Noel Jenner, who had recently moved off the land, that Melissa and David found a way forward. And the guidance and support Noel gave them planted a seed in Melissa’s mind. “I thought, what if I could connect experienced farmers like Noel with newcomers to farming like us, who need help and mentoring,” she says.

And so the grassroots program This Farm Needs a Farmer (TFNAF) sprouted. Now TFNAF matches newcomers with more experienced farmers, retired or active, like Ian. Expertise and experience is shared through field days and on-farm workshops, and even more formal and ongoing commercial consultative arrangements.

“Some people now entering farming have no family connections or heritage to draw on,” says Melissa, who earned the 2018 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year award for the initiative. “And then you have experienced farmers like Noel and Ian with more time on their hands and amazing wisdom to share. The aim of TFNAF is to help build stronger and more cohesive rural communities, but also to place value on the incredible farmers within them.”

The program also recognises that new farmers – who are sometimes bringing land back into production and helping to boost local populations and economies – are to be valued and encouraged. “TFNAF is based on the principle that there is a place for everyone in this new patchwork of agricultural production that’s emerging,” Melissa says. “By being better informed, novices can ensure they contribute to good land management practices well into the future.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #122

Outback Magazine: December/January 2019