Amanda: Today on Farming Together, I speak to Phil Shoemark and Dave Ellis of Braidwood Garlic Growers Co-operative. With the grant deadline looming, the group formed a co-operative very quickly. Members have since benefited from the co-ops marketing strength and greater access to a growing market. Phil and Dave speak about the importance of finding people with different strengths to drive the co-op, and why people skills are critical.
[Introduction 0:00:27.1 – 0:00:49.4]
You’re listening to the Farming Together podcast.
Farming Together, a podcast series exploring how farmers, fishers and foresters can establish collaborative business models and co-ops that address current economic and environmental challenges, with your host Amanda Scott. Farming Together is created in collaboration with Southern Cross University’s Farming Together program.
Amanda: So perhaps we’ll just start [by] really introducing yourselves and telling us a little bit about first what you do, but also your role in the Braidwood Garlic Growers Co-op and how you came to be there. And Phil you’re first on my screen so I’ll open up to you.
Phil: Okay. I’ve lived in Braidwood most of my life. I started out as a stock and station agent here in the real estate, I retired from that about 10 years ago and I just concentrated on farming. I’ve got a few farms and I quite enjoy the land of course, born and bred on the land. The garlic thing was sort of a bit of a thing, I was rung up by Georgina Burns who said ‘oh look we’d like you to be the Non-Garlic Grower President or Chairperson of the Garlic Growers Association’. And sucker me who can’t say no, even though it’s only two letters [Inaudible 0:1:38.7] it’s three, I said ‘yeah righto’. But I quite enjoyed the interaction with the committee, and I’ve actually started growing some garlic this year and I think it’s a great little hobby, I mean I don’t need the extra work [Chuckles]. I quite enjoy it, it’s a bit like fishing, it’s something different, it can be relaxing even though there’s a bit of hard work in it, but I’ve learned a lot and I quite enjoy it.
Amanda: Fantastic. What made Georgina call you up?
Phil: Oh she knew I was a sucker.
Amanda: There must’ve been a bit more in it.
Phil: Oh well.
Dave: She’s aware of Phil’s extensive skillsets.
Phil: Oh yeah.
Dave: That’s the answer I think you meant to give.
Phil: Oh no, I’ve been on a few committees around the town and that sort of thing.
Dave: If I recall Phil you were part of the Landcare Group weren’t you?
Phil: Yeah, still am.
Dave: Which was actually responsible for the original organisation.
Phil: Yep. Yeah I’m Vice President of the Local Shoalhaven Landcare Council, Joe overrides probably about 25 Landcare groups so that’s been a bit of an interesting journey. I’ve been in that for 20 odd years with Catchment Management and all the rest of it. Regenerative farming is another thing I’m interested in but I’ve always said–I’ve seen farmers around here riding around in their $70,000 Land Cruisers with the dog on the back and I wonder what they do all day. When I was working as a stock and station agent I had farms as well, and I would do just as much on the farm as they do all week in my spare time. So I reckon garlic’s a good option, I always said raspberries or something like that to keep them occupied and something different, but garlic I think it’s a great one for here.
Dave: I think that’s going to be our next project, a raspberry growers group.
Amanda: Oh yeah raspberries, the raspberry co-op next. But I am starting Phil to get a sense of why you were asked to be involved in this, and I’m sure we will tease out some more of your skills and expertise as we go forward. But Dave what about you? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Dave: I’m a tree changer I guess. I’ve escaped from corporate life originally in the UK, but more recently in Sydney. I’m an accountant by training, I just had the opportunity for a bit of a tree change, and we landed up in Braidwood five years or so ago. Certainly for the last couple of decades I’ve had quite an interest in the land, what is now called regenerative farming. But all the predecessors to that when we were new to the area, the original Garlic Growers Group had been running for a little while under the auspices of Landcare, and that was one of the areas where we thought that’s a chance for us to find some integration into the local community.
The Braidwood area is only a couple of thousand people, it’s a relatively small town, which is fantastic, but it’s important to try and integrate yourself with the community, if you’re going to spend a fair bit of time here you don’t want to feel isolated. I’ve met a lot of fabulous people through the garlic growing process to be honest, and because I’m an accountant I am from business, I had what I believe to be some relevant skills in terms of moving the organisation from the Landcare Group as it was, when they’re funding into a commercial organisation or at least a more registered organisation as the co-operative.
Amanda: So was the catalyst for starting this about social cohesion? Dave you said you wanted to connect with the community. So do you know what the original impetus was for forming the group in the first place?
Dave: One of the primary interests in that and part of the reason the grant funding was available, was it was seen as an opportunity to improve the economic situation for local growers, and just for the rural community in general. Garlic is a crop which potentially grows–if you know what you’re doing at least [Chuckles], grows quite well in this area. There are a couple of commercial growers in the area as well, and they were extremely open to becoming involved in terms of advice, thoughts on the various aspects of growing on a larger scale, that was really the impetus. But the funding for that Landcare grant came to an end, the Farming Together program was either starting up or had started up.
Actually if I recall correctly, it was actually Bronwyn who realised the potential for maybe accessing some more funding, and that funding required a more formalised organisation than the Landcare Group was able to provide. And after investigating various options around expenses and suitability, it seemed like the co-op was the ideal option. The Growers Group I think had 30 or 40, maybe 40 or 50 members at the time and approximately half of those, half to two thirds of those migrated into the co-op when we finally got it set up. That was just towards the end of 2017, I think there was a second round of funding from the Farming Together program, and the funding there was to put together a business plan for the co-op.
Amanda: If I remember back to that time, it was actually quite an interesting time because as part of the requirements to be a grant recipient it had to be a formal entity. And you had the idea of wanting to form a co-operative, but there was actually a real push to form that co-operative in a hurry to receive the grant funds. And I imagine that it was quite a stressful time for the group.
Dave: It was. Coming from a commercial background that I did it wasn’t particularly stressful; it was kind of business as normal which was a bit of a surprise [Chuckles]. But certainly there was a fair amount of stress involved. But curiously it was probably one of our major achievements as a co-operative group to date, was actually making that happen. And I think because we had a clear objective about what we wanted to do and what we needed to do, and because we had some pretty specific deadlines–I can’t remember whether it was you Amanda or one of your colleagues who was very difficult trying to–
Amanda: I imagine that would’ve been Sharn, Sharn or myself [Chuckles].
Dave: That was Sharn, of course, yes and I’m sure we always used to blame Sharn, that’s correct. She even came to visit us and left without too many bruises I think. That was a useful introduction and it worked quite well, we had a very active working group, several of whom are still either on the board or actively involved.
Amanda: So I’m getting a sense that the ultimate idea of the co-op was to provide some economic return, whether it’s for people who are pursuing garlic growing from a hobby perspective, or they’re looking to diversify or something like that. But actually it was also really about knowledge sharing, collective marketing and that sort of thing as well.
Dave: Yeah. There was definitely a broad cross section of growers from those who were wanting to be–I guess commercial could mean lots of things, but there’s a lot of small growers, and if you’re only growing 100 or 200 kilos it makes your marketplace a bit challenging, unless you actually want to go out for example and run a stall every week, and that comes with extra time commitment. So it was partly to try and provide–like most co-ops I guess, a way to collaborate and get a collection of growers so we had a volume to sell, if we had larger customers come to us it’d give us a bit of bargaining power. Lots of people like growing stuff, they like to be outdoors and what have you, but marketing they’d rather chew their arm off than have to go and make some phone calls, me being one of those for somebody to buy your stuff [Crosstalk]–
Amanda: But it sounds like you have a good skillset mix within the group. So there were people that were really good with marketing, you’re the money person, Phil it sounds like you’re really experienced as an advisory position on the committee.
Phil: Yeah we’ve got a bit of talent there, that’s for sure. Our Secretary, Doug Dawes, he’s from the banking sector and he’s having a tree change too. He’s got about a two acre garden on a much bigger property than that too, but that’s his main interest is vegetables, and he goes to the Sydney Markets quite regularly with his own produce. He’s got a great background in banking, 40 years or something like that, and Dave and Georgina Burns who has had quite a bit of experience in growing garlic, and she’s a bit of a live wire so she’s been good at marketing as well. Quite good from an advisory point of view, as far as growing the garlic and she knows all the ins and outs.
A newer member Wendy Hutton who comes over from Gundaroo is a bit of a live wire as well, and so we’ve got a bit of enthusiasm there, and as a particular bunch of people we’d just like to see a bit more rewarding, like get a bigger volume to handle. We spend a lot of time in meetings and that sort of thing for a relatively small amount of garlic, but I just see the potential there for it. So I’m pretty keen to broaden the prospects, growing more in the district, and I’d certainly like to grow more myself.
Amanda: So you’re putting a call out Phil, if there’s anyone that listens to this podcast from the Braidwood area and they want to grow garlic come and talk to you.
Phil: Yeah, no, no, sure. I really believe it’s quite rewarding from a financial point of view and a nice challenge, it’s not a lot of work, it’s not too much work.
Dave: It’s actually for your back isn’t it Phil.
Phil: Oh yeah, yeah.
Dave: It’s really good for your back.
Phil: No shearing though Dave.
Amanda: [Laughs] I’d imagine.
Dave: Oh yeah shearing’s a–I don’t know, you’ve got to be mad to do that.
Amanda: All right so let me get the picture right. You’ve got the Landcare funds and you’ve been able to do some work there to build that. You were then successful with Farming Together funds, and in that process you had to very quickly establish a co-operative. You’ve now got this grant to help develop your business plan, what did that look like? And the business plan I’m imagining would just be one aspect of this group that you’re trying to grow and develop what’s happening as we’re moving forward through this from the Farming Together grant onwards. For example, I do remember reading about selling out the first season in garlic and getting a really good price for your garlic in the first or second season, tell us a bit about the journey from there.
Phil: I’ll leave that to you Dave.
Dave: Oh I was just about to say the same thing to you. So the co-op’s set up with some specific rules about membership in terms of the way we were growing. So we are organic growers, we don’t allow for any synthetic fertilisers or chemicals as part of that growing process. And that gives us some marketing advantage in terms of pricing, particularly for one of our clients or a couple of our clients who are buying the garlic and turning it into black garlic. It’s a value added process involving cooking for longer periods, a bit of a black art as far as I can make out, they were very keen to have, for want of a better word, clean garlic, before they started cooking it and dehydrating it.
So we were able to sell members garlic, those who wanted to sell via the co-op for substantially more than they’d have got at a wholesale price, even if they could’ve sold relatively small amounts at a wholesale price. And from a buyer’s point of view they’ve also just got one point of contact, they didn’t have to phone 23 of us to get a substantial sum. Both years we’ve had a reasonable harvest too and we’ve been able to sell it quite quickly, as Phil said, I’m sure we could sell a lot more. The Impact of covid 2019-20 season was a bit of an outlier I guess, so I’m hoping it’s a bit of an outlier, given that it started with a drought, which obviously impacted all of the members and pretty much everybody is trying to grab anything.
Then we have the fires, quite a lot of members had fire damage, either losing crops or sheds or properties, and then we had some floods which affected people, having their crop literally washed away overnight a couple of times, and then they had covid. So part of our business plan was to try and add some value add-on on the actual garlic, processing it for a restaurant market, those plans were just coming to fruition pretty much when lockdown happened. So that’s caused some consternation and things, those things just haven’t returned to normal at this stage. We’ve just invested in a nice new machine to help us with that processing, but hopefully that will come back when and if things return to whatever normal is.
Amanda: Whatever normal is. Is that a co-op piece of equipment that’s been purchased?
Dave: Yes it is, yeah. It was a commercial quality and scale garlic peeler, peeling garlic isn’t much fun once you get past the second clove. So once you start talking about kilos of it you need mechanical, you need a good machine as well otherwise it’s messy.
Amanda: It sounds like fun [Chuckles]. In relation to what you’ve gone through this year with the covid and floods and fires and drought, has being a member of the co-op offered any benefit for members during that time?
Phil: Well not from that point of view. I don’t know whether you mean from a social point of view or whatever, but it’s business as usual really. It’s just part of life in the country, and growing garlic that’s one aspect and whatever else you’re doing is another.
Dave: Yeah I mean being a quote unquote ‘outsider’ to this community until relatively recently, it’s been quite an eye opener about how the community comes together under adversity. I mean like what Phil said, from the garlic growing point of view it’s been interesting and potentially helpful I guess to phone up your neighbours or your other members and say ‘how’s your garlic?’, and they say ‘oh it’s on fire’ or ‘gotten burnt yesterday’ or ‘washed away’ and you can try and sympathise. But as a bigger community everyone has come together, and curiously enough it’s probably been good for the community to have some of these challenges, it’s highlighted how important community is.
Amanda: Absolutely. Even if you use it on the smaller scale of when you were almost pushed into forming a co-operative in those times of stress or unexpected turbulence, some of that bonds people together even stronger.
Phil: Yeah, yeah. As I say it’s great for any group, whether it’s a co-op or a tennis association, it’s a great bonding thing really. And in Braidwood there’s quite a few people I know that have moved in here in the last 20 years I suppose, but even more so in the last five and it’s a great way to get to know people. I’m not on Facebook or anything like that, to actually look at people eye to eye and that sort of thing, I think is a much more appealing way of getting to know people, and if you’ve got a common interest like growing garlic that’s great. Especially in a small community, I don’t know how many committees there are around Braidwood, there are hundreds of them, and you’ll see the same old faces on a lot of them, but no it’s good from a social point of view for sure.
Amanda: Absolutely. People are the glue that binds, aren’t they.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. And the co-op covers the New South Wales Southern Tablelands area, so whilst the majority of members are in and around Braidwood, we have some who are a little bit further away, as Phil mentioned Gundaroo, other members are back towards Canberra.
Amanda: How do you run the co-op in terms of you’ve obviously got distributed membership by the sounds of it, do you do regular meetings online? How do you coordinate getting together?
Phil: It’s usually by email. I mean we have a committee which meets monthly, and we’ve got a newsletter that Wendy [Inaudible 0:18:10.7] puts out every month to keep people in touch. You know just trying to get an idea of how people’s crops are going, so we’ve got a bit of a forecast as to what we’ve got to sell when the time comes and that sort of thing, is a reasonable response to that. It’s a bit frustrating at times, you don’t really know how people are going, they don’t want to get too involved that way, so we’re flying in the dark a lot of the time and I don’t know what to do about that. The avenues are there for them to know what we’re up to as a committee, and we’re always keen to get information from them, how their crops are going, how much they might have and that sort of thing. And to offer advice too, like we’re having a plaiting workshop on Sunday, which will be interesting to see how many turn up for that, as I say just trying to attract people to get involved a bit more.
Dave: I’m kind of hoping my hair’s going to be long enough by the time I get there.
Amanda: [Chuckles] I was thinking I did a weaving workshop last weekend, I’ll just pop down for a plaiting workshop this weekend.
Dave: You could already be our expert. I think the question you asked raised one of the challenges; I guess it’s probably the same in any organisation or any business. Communication is quite challenging for members even for a small group for a multitude of reasons, that’s why it’s difficult to address because it isn’t a specific reason. We have a more mature demographic to our members, so they don’t spend 24/7 playing with social media and stuff like that. Some of the communication tools that we were using like social media tools were not ideal for everybody. Being rural quite a few of the members don’t actually have a very good internet access, even mobile access, even though we are literally only 100 kilometres from the nation’s capital it still can be a bit flaky, like most rural areas I guess.
And the co-op members also primarily are not growing garlic for their primary source of income, so it’s not necessarily front of mind all the time, they’ve got other responsibilities and other things they need to attend to first. And of course it’s farming, so one week you’ll think my crop’s lovely and the next week you discover the hailstorm has put it on the ground or there’s been a flood and it has washed away etcetera. So there’s quite a few challenges there for trying to manage that interaction, we do our best, and having somebody who’s good with the technology is also quite key.
Amanda: All of what you’re saying Dave is really resonating. For example, we’ve seen that if you really want to drive initiatives forward quickly and strongly then the need has to be there, there has to be an absolute need. If it’s something that is nice to do or that it does solve a problem that isn’t essential, it often takes a little bit longer to move forward. So I think because a lot of the growers it may not be their primary source of income or dependent on that source of income, it doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of speed and drive as something that was going to put food on the table for the family.
Dave: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.
Amanda: And I think the other thing that I’m hearing as well, we’re seeing communication as really important with the groups that we’ve spoken to, but the different ways and shapes and forms that takes. So for some groups they have spoken about using WhatsApp, and they don’t know where they would be without using something like WhatsApp. And then for other grower groups, larger grower groups that I’ve spoken to in more remote areas, the mail out newsletter is something that the farmers look forward to receiving in the letterbox every month. And the only other way to communicate outside of that is pretty much events, so holding events and getting everybody to come together on that day. So I just think it’s very interesting to see communication is essential, but the different ways in which people engage with their members is so different, you’ve just got to find what works.
Phil: Yeah I’m a bit old fashioned. I reckon the only real positive way of keeping in touch is to–don’t go and visit all the members, but a phone call, at least they’ve got to talk to you when you phone them and it’s a bit more personal. And that way you can keep on top of it, which is pretty onerous, even though we’ve only got 25 members at least you know. If you send out a survey and you get 10 responses out of 25 you’re a bit in the dark, so a phone call, at least someone had the time to do that, I think it’s the only way. And as you say, the newsletters are a good way to say well look we’re here and we’re doing this and we’re doing that. Not everyone looks at the webpage or anything like that, and I think the more personal the contact the better everyone would be, but it’s a time thing for sure.
Dave: I think we’ve certainly tried all three of those variations with some phone calls, events, either training events or harvesting events, planning events coming, the newsletter. So the other aspect to that I think of the technology end, where some of the administrative tasks–if you can get them all in one place using some kind of collaboration tool, or something that people can all use for things like the membership information, the financials, and who’s growing what and the production end, if you can get them all in the same place that would help quite a lot. It saves a lot of duplication of effort or double handling of information and Chinese whispers, and I think we’re still a bit challenged in that area, we haven’t quite figured out where all of this information should live. There are definitely platforms out there if you can find the time to investigate them and choose one, there’s a cost element to that as well, we’re not a big business and we can’t afford expensive software programs.
Amanda: Yeah I think a lot of people would resonate with that. A question that I often ask is looking at now, what do you wish you had known before you started on this journey?
Phil: Oh look everything’s a journey isn’t it, it doesn’t matter what you put your finger into, it’s a journey, and sometimes you can get burnt and other times you get off Scott free. It’s a challenge from a committee point of view, but if you believe in what you’re into you just ride the waves and try and go forward, and hopefully drag a few people with you. With a lot of committees it comes down to a few divers, you might have a committee of 30 people but if it wasn’t for the two or three whip crackers you’ve got nothing. And I’ve noticed that in a lot of situations, it’s a bit like being the President or the Prime Minister.
Amanda: So we all need whip crackers, is that what you’re saying?
Phil: Oh well I mean a bit of enthusiasm from more. But as I say it usually comes down to two or three or four in any committee I’ve ever been on really, just to keep it together. The rest follow out of loyalty and that sort of thing, but not everyone’s up for the shining light, keep clicking the switch.
Dave: Yeah, there’s undoubtedly a lot of hidden–hidden maybe the wrong word, but a lot of talent within pretty much any of these organisations, and it’s just a question of having somebody who’s skilled enough to tap into it and encourage people to join in. There will always be the two or three or four, like Phil says who that’s what they’re good at. The social interaction, they like being with people, they like being in contact with people, and they don’t mind asking people to do things or corralling them into activities. And there are lots of other people who’ve got other skills which [Crosstalk]–
Amanda: How do you tap into those? How do you find those out? I always find that really interesting. So I agree with you, you see these natural leaders which are the ones that drive the project forward; they do a lot of the groundwork. But then I reckon there are also a lot of untapped skills, and especially when you’re starting something to know what’s out there and how to make the most of it.
Phil: Well I think even big corporations they’ve got personnel officers who look for that sort of thing. And how you do it on a small scale it’s just by intuition, you find out someone’s good at this or good at that and you egg them on or drag them in and drag them forward. But a lot of people don’t skite about their skills or they want to be laid back about it, so you have to drag them out sometimes.
Amanda: Especially farmers I think. Like when I asked you what skills you had Phil, you were quite shy in coming forward with that.
Phil: Oh you can be a jack of all trades and master of none, and I’m probably that.
Phil: I enjoy what I do. But people they get quite honoured when you ask them to share their knowledge and that sort of thing, but they don’t rush out and post about what they can do, you have to draw it out. So you’ve got to have inside information to know what their talents are and find a way of drawing it out nicely.
Dave: The people with the personnel skills are always very valuable. We kind of agreed way back at the beginning, because it’s a co-op, for one thing we don’t have a quote ‘leader’ as such, the members are responsible for the co-op. Whilst we have a Board who provides general direction, we were quite clear that there isn’t a CEO, nobody’s driving towards a particular goal. We have some broad aims, and then within the co-op we have a respectful interaction, and hopefully a relatively open and honest communication about how we’re going. But I think by and large we’re navigating through, we try not to take it too seriously as well, and it’s better if I can take the mickey out of Phil occasionally–
Amanda: I can see there’s a bit of a dynamic there, I like that dynamic.
Phil: Yeah. I mean I’ve been an agent since 1975, but people’s fields are pretty important in any game really, and everyone’s different so you can’t treat everyone the same. You’ve got to handle people differently too, it’s a pretty valuable asset if you can work out how to work people without upsetting them. And so I think that applies with any committee or any organisation really, you get the best out of people if you handle them right, Garlic Growers is no different to that either.
Amanda: Absolutely. And we’ve seen that collaboration–I guess the idea of collaboration is that you’re all working towards this greater broader vision. But the wonderful thing about collaboration is that you’re actually bringing together a whole lot of different people, who potentially come from different backgrounds and have different opinions and feelings and ideas about things, and in that process there’s always going to be some kind of conflict. And the idea with working together is that you can understand that the idea is not to all agree on the same thing, but actually collectively find a way forward while you still may think differently about a situation. And I’m wondering what kind of processes through your experiences that you’ve developed to navigate this difference of opinion in your co-operative?
Phil: Well the way I see it we are virtually a marketing group, so people grow the garlic, we can sell it for them, our role is there. And the more stuff we’ve got to sell the more rewarding it is, so hopefully we can draw people in from the fact that we do a good job. So we know what we’ve got to sell, you know forecasting is a big thing, there’s no point in rolling up with a ten tonne [Inaudible 0:30:00.9] when we’re only expecting two tonne and wonder what the hell we’re going to do with it. As I say a bit more interaction between the members would be great, but apart from that I think we’re doing our job, getting them a good price. And as Dave said, some people like going to market and that sort of thing but not everyone’s got the time to do that. If that was the case every [Inaudible 0:30:18.4] would be going out with his truck full of meat with all the markets every weekend, and no one’s got that time. So some people like it, others aren’t into it, and I think we’re doing our job alright.
Amanda: I’m just interested because obviously I’m hearing that some of the group are interested in selling at markets, some of the group are interested in marketing the product in different ways. So how does the co-op go about making these decisions? What’s the process for the decision making that you go through to work out what you’re going to do as a collective?
Phil: Well we sort of rely on forecasting to big things, so if you knew that people are going to have so many kilos of garlic and they’re going to sell through the co-op, that’s the most important thing we want. And if they want to sell it themselves that’s fine, go for it, but we want to be able to sell what we’re contracted to sell I suppose for want of a better term, as to how much there is.
Dave: I think the nature of the co-op–because it’s more a collaborative venture, it means that the way that we deal with those particular challenges of who wants to go about things certain ways is those who are most proactive within the co-op tend to pick up. You decide that you want to be selling at a market and you need to make sure you’re going to have enough stuff then you can, it’s like congratulations you’ve got a job, if that’s what you want to do then take on some responsibility for doing that. So where the co-op heads is largely–I think within the overall objectives, dictated by who’s willing to put the time and effort into what they want to do.
Amanda: That makes a lot of sense.
Dave: That would be my response to that. If we had a fulltime paid position where we could set some objectives for, be it finding a market then that would be a different story. But the organisation we are at the moment, we largely head where those who are most engaged want to go.
Amanda: Those who have got most time to put in, it sounds like those people that have the most time to put in to drive something?
Dave: I’m not sure it’s about the most time. It’s about those who are willing to make the most time to put in.
Phil: Yeah, very true. I mean it’s often the case that you ask the busy person to do it because you know they will do it, whereas some people think oh I’ll come tomorrow.
Dave: We all know the tale about if you want something doing ask a busy person.
Dave: Maybe that’s why I never get asked to do anything.
Amanda: [Chuckles] Absolutely. It’s all about relationships, how do you make it work with different personalities and egos?
Phil: [Chuckles] no one’s written a book about that at all. Oh look, we’ve had our ups and downs from a personality point of view but we’re over that now, and you’ve just got to take off or pipe up or whatever. You’ll always get someone who’s antagonistic in some way and you’ve just got to get rid of them, it’s pretty hard to do, people skills are pretty important.
Amanda: It’s so funny you say–because you say it’s hard to do, but every group seems to have that kind of dynamic at some point in their process. And the people dynamic, it always comes back, and how can we learn from each other to navigate that in in a way that’s respectful, do you know what I mean?
Dave: It’s always the same challenge; everybody likes to think they’re working with a group of grownups, so we all have to behave like grownups. We specifically lay out–certainly with our board meetings, that we’d have a basic principle of respectful interaction and open and honest communication. At some stage you have to stand back before you get too excited, and just think other people’s views are going to be different to yours. It doesn’t mean you’re right or they’re right and you’re wrong, you’ve just got to try and go with the flow and find some common ground, and generally speaking we’ve been able to do that.
Amanda: Fantastic. So tips for others who would be going through that challenging point where the people dynamics are challenging, what would you say as advice or recommendations?
Phil: Well like meeting procedures. I mean we were having trouble earlier in the piece–Sam Byrnes, well I don’t know where it came from, but he had a list of proper meeting procedures, if someone wasn’t playing by the rules there was something there to respond to it.
Dave: That’s right. A structure around the interactions helps quite a lot, if you can find your people person/persons who can mediate, because you always need somebody who’s going to sit in the middle. Really that’s part of the key so that no particular parties feel ostracised or ganged up on or not being listened to you, you need to have someone to be able to mediate that. And back to the same thing we talked about earlier, people skills are important, and you can almost always find some common ground. If your objectives are reasonably clear then that comes into the same form as having some proper procedures. If you know what you’re trying to achieve then whilst there may be different routes to discuss, you can all head roughly in the same direction, the sheep can be herded.
Amanda: I think also sometimes–I don’t know if you had this experience, but I’ve seen a group that worked really effectively together that had this underlying set of six values by which they operated. And every time they came to a disagreement they would always come back to those underpinning values in terms of their decision making together, and that worked really well.
Dave: Yeah I think that would be good. You can put whatever fires out by going back to some common ground or some common–it’s easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment.
Amanda: And I think that’s where things can get stuck and things can unravel really quickly, or at the right dynamics things can progress so fast, so that the opportunities to learn from others experiences can be really invaluable.
Phil: Very true.
Amanda: On how to navigate that.
Dave: Yeah I would agree.
Amanda: Maybe we’ve talked about this before, but what advice would you give someone wanting to set up a co-operative?
Phil: I think you’ve got to have a pretty strong goal that will get people fired up, you don’t want to go in off half-baked–you want a big picture of where you’re going to head or would like to head before you go. And the garlic thing is a prime example, I mean I think it’s a great idea, otherwise I wouldn’t have said yes [Chuckles]. But you’ve got to have enthusiasm to get something going and it’s got to have potential, whether it’s a tennis club, you’re going to have enough people there to play a competition, there’s no point having a tennis cub with four members.
And it’s like the garlic, you know that’s one of my frustrations, we’re talking probably a couple of tonnes of garlic at the most at the moment, whereas I think we should be aiming for ten tonne because the market’s there. Australia used 13,000 tonnes of the stuff every year and most of it comes from China or elsewhere, so it’s not as though it’s going to die out. There are more people eating garlic for health reasons and the flavour and that sort of thing these days than everything, so it’s a growing market as well as an already huge market. So you’ve got to have a good goal, you’ve got to have enthusiasm there to kick it off too.
Amanda: I’m hearing enthusiasm, goal, good people and a decent amount of people, and expert advice.
Phil: Yep, yep.
Amanda: Does that about sum it up?
Dave: I think so. I think if you can find some framework–the thing I often come back to is related to the holistic management framework about goal setting, the name of which completely escapes me for the moment. There’s an area at the beginning which underlines all that you do there afterwards, you’ve got to decide what it is you’re really trying to do. That can actually be quite a challenging landscape, maybe several layers lower down than what you think it is that you’re driving.
Amanda: The so what, the so what, the so what.
Dave: Yeah. So why do we, why do we, oh yes right. And so that’s actually what we want to do, then you can build from there. And if you’re going to set up an organisation unfortunately you need at least three key skills within the organisation. You need someone who’s going to be finance orientated, you need someone who is going to be marketing and sales orientated, and generally you need someone who’s going to be in production. I mean certainly if you’re farming and producing anything, and I guess that relates to intangibles, you need somebody who’s driving that production. They all need to be pretty closely linked up in some way.
Amanda: And the people person.
Dave: Yes I guess that’s true actually, maybe I’ve missed out a person there, if there’s a people person who can get involved.
Dave: So if you can’t find one of those [people] in your group then you might want to look externally before you get too far down the process.
Amanda: Yeah, good advice. So what’s in store for the co-op looking ahead? It sounds like there’s a good market, there’s a great opportunity.
Phil: Yeah as I say just encouraging more people to grow it, or the ones that are going to grow more. You know what I mean, like with any product, it’s not all beer and skittles. A lot of people start cafes and they just think they’ve got to pick a good cook, there’s a lot more to being a restaurateur than being just a good cook. My personal goal would be to sell ten tonnes every year–
Amanda: The sky’s the limit.
Phil: I think it’s a goer.
Amanda: I like the vision. Dave does that resonate with you?
Dave: Yeah, I think so. I think in terms of the co-op moving forward it’s about maintaining an active membership, and ensuring that the co-op actually is aligned with their goals or they’re aligned–well they’re aligned with their goals, it’s the member’s only co-op. Certainly being able to grow more and sell it in sensible sized blocks, I mean that personally appeals to me because of the time issues, although I don’t mind the odd market stall. Yeah I think trying to grow more.
Amanda: And my final question to you both and I ask this of all my guests, is what have you learnt that has surprised you the most about Farming Together?
Phil: I’m old enough that nothing surprises me anymore Amanda.
Amanda: [Chuckles] I have never heard that response.
Phil: [Laughs] everything’s a challenge and you can make it a stressful challenge or just a small hurdle. You’ve got to go with the flow a little bit, and if you feel that you’re on the right track well you stick with it. Not every road’s smooth, you’ve just got to go with it, if you don’t agree with it well you shouldn’t have been there anyway, as I say personalities always come into it when you’ve got a committee. In some respects I’m a great believer in a one man committee, you make a decision in two minutes and have a two minute meeting and you’ll be right 50% of the time, or you can have a committee that spends three hours doing the same bloody thing.
Dave: This is Donald Trump.
Phil: That’s why I avoided the AGM [Annual General Meeting], I forgot about the AGM Amanda, so I didn’t turn up and I hoped to get the sack but it didn’t work.
Amanda: [Chuckles] it backfired.
Phil: Oh yeah, yeah.
Amanda: Voted back in.
Phil: I was preoccupied shearing and forgot all about it, but it didn’t work so I’m still here.
Amanda: Can’t get rid of you that easily.
Amanda: And what about you Dave?
Dave: Do you know the thing that’s surprised me most is how community minded people are in terms of information. If I try to grow something without any knowledge regardless of what you can read or look at on the internet, then I probably still wouldn’t be [into 0:42:14.5] garlic. So all that information has come to me–I’ll say for free, and I’m remembering stuff like that, but it is people, yeah people are very generous with their time and information and it’s supportive really. You know when we have our group meetings or a group get together to do stuff some of the work is not necessarily all that enjoyable in the sunshine, but when you’ve got a group together you can talk about stuff. So Farming together, it’s better to do things in the community by and large.
Amanda: Except if your name’s Phil and you want to make all the decisions on your own [Laughs].
Dave: I think it’s just the decision making he wants to do by himself, he’s happy to do everything else is in the community.
Amanda: Yeah, I think you’re actually a bit of a secret people person Phil.
Phil: Oh I enjoy interacting with people, I like being on my own too. But there’s a broad range of people here and most of them like to share their talents, and if people are prepared to get their hands dirty and grow garlic that’d be even better.
Amanda: We’ll put a little link for you in the show notes Phil.
Phil: Thank you.
Amanda: So we can promote, come and join the co-op.
Phil: Yeah, why not.
Dave: Grow garlic.
Phil: It’s good for you.
Dave: It’s excellent for you. That’s right, health benefits as well.
Amanda: That’s a win, win, win.
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