Tiny House. Big Discussion.
This blog started out as a simple message to ask your help with a great project we’re involved with, but during the writing of it, I’ve felt the need to explain what we’re doing at Tarndie in agritourism, which has unveiled quite a thought provoking journey.
So please read on if you have 5 minutes to offer.
First up – a word game.
What sorts of emotions does this word bring to mind?
Romance? Nostalgia? Struggle? Resilience? Inhumane? Care?
Whatever it conjures up, farming has a place in the Australian psyche.
Australia has a long connection to agriculture from the early colonial times when this industry cemented the nation’s ability to sustain itself, and the surplus food and fibre supported many people’s livelihoods beyond the farmgate and into the cities.
At Tarndwarncoort we have solid bluestone reminders that once-upon-a-time, Australia rode on the sheep’s back. The golden fleeces of the 1870s lead us to hold great faith in the valiant farmers that they would keep the good times growing.
We can also see the steps of evolutionary changes in our wool farming practice, along with a multitude of diversification forays over the 176 years of family farming here.
Merino > Polwarth. Apple Cider. Moorpark Apricots. Bronze Wing Turkeys. Linseed. White > Black Sheep. Yarn Production. Tourism.
The outsider here is Tourism. It isn’t primary production, it’s a service industry, and this is where we find a conversation starter.
Being a real farmer
Being a tourism operator doesn’t fit with the ideas and emotions we place around farming, and it is quite a different skill set, let alone land use, in the standardised view of tourism as an industry.
Some people believe tourism activities would imperil the identity of a farmer. I don’t think many in Australia would spend as much time thinking about hoteliers as they do farmers.
A point of view shared in Modern Farmer warns against falling into the romantic pastoral ideal of a quaint farm that no longer fulfils its purpose to provide food or fibre. Writer Sarah Searle believes that “those sorts of establishments are hollow alternatives to what working farms could and should be: real, vibrant contributors to a rural economy that is representative of and fair to farmers and farm workers, the animals they raise, the ecosystems they steward, and the consumers they feed.”
A point worth noting here is that adaptation is critical for survival. Change isn’t always good or bad, but no change is almost inevitably bad.
Sarah would rather we focus on production than on hosting weddings and overnight guests. And many a small-scale producer would probably prefer that to spending weekends setting up market stalls in a way that says “please like me and my product” – (farmers need to be marketers too don’t forget!)
Others are wary of the implications of tourism on the right to farm. A Victorian Farmers Federation spokesman said: although farmers have always looked for diversification, primary production should be paramount. “Tourism shouldn’t impinge on agricultural production, we don’t want people to promote they’re in a farming area then object to what we’d say are normal farming practice – the noise, smell, machinery and animals,” he says. “Any other activity should complement not conflict”.
And that’s where I hope we fit in – tourism as a complementary business activity.
Paying the bills
The reality for most farms is that they need to be financial. And as the New York Times highlights in a piece by a farmer-cum-writer, “The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income.”
In Australia, a similar story is told by leading agribusiness thinker, Mick Keogh. He states 30% of broadacre farms bring in less than $100,000 revenue, of which they can expect to earn $5,000 profit, while average earnings from off-farm wages are approaching $40,000. Around our district, off-farm wages come from nursing, teaching, retail, hospitality and consultancy, to give you an idea.
Mick puts forward the idea that these figures have “the potential to create an image that the (agricultural) sector is composed of ‘ma and pa farmers’ as one prominent Australian commented recently. This, in turn, has the potential to contribute to negative community perceptions about the professionalism of farmers in Australia, which potentially impacts on career choices and even decisions by investors and the banking sector.”
His issue is with the way the government collects and analyses data, not with the farmers themselves, but he does voice the notion held by some that farming should be a business first, not a lifestyle.
Plenty of food for thought.
I’m mindful of all these points of view, but in the end, I do what stacks up against our triple bottom line criteria. Our farming system needs to have good economic, social and environmental outcomes.
And because we like what we do, we don’t want to go off-farm to work.
Below is a basic outline of our rather vertically integrated farming system.
- We grow wool on 500 white and 500 coloured Polwarth sheep over 250 acres. Another 250 acres is used for cropping or leased to neighbours.
- We sell some raw fleece directly to handspinners, and then process about 30% of the annual clip into our own brand of tops and yarn for woolcraft.
- We don’t wholesale our products, so we attract customers to buy direct.
- We build our customer base by offering experiences on the farm by either visiting the Woolshop and cafe, or by taking a tour, attending an event or staying overnight in our accommodation.
- We try to keep engaged with our customers online and with events/workshops, and sell via a webstore.
From this, you can see that individual relationships with people are important to selling our product, and being intelligent people, they want to make up their own mind about how our product is produced, rather than rely on marketing or the opinions of others.
From this perspective, it makes a lot of sense to have people on our farm in a managed way. In any other setting, this would be called tourism, but we are still primary producers. “Agritourism”, as a label, seems to fit, and tourism as a diversification complements our farming practice.
Changing Farm Systems
The way we farm is changing. More corporate farms. Less family farms. Climate variability. High input costs. Technology replacing humans. It’s a fact.
I would like to see more farming families in more parts of Australia who are producing food and fibre that customers want. I’d like them to make enough money so they can focus on working on their farm rather than being forced to go off-farm.
Part of existing farm systems might involve direct sales, which means building a customer base. Hosting visitors is a great way to engage customers in a meaningful way.
On top of that, and this might be a more important aspect, having regular visitors has the power to boost that often overlooked part of the triple bottom line – achieving good social outcomes.
Tarndie is already pretty active with people coming and going, but most farmers operate with very little interaction with others. Isolation and loneliness are compounded in farming when one of the many gambles we make doesn’t work out.
In order for our 176 year old family farm to continue to be a part of the rural community and to grow our sought after wool on a small farm, we need to evolve the business so we don’t have to go off farm. We aren’t alone here and many families around the country would embrace the opportunity to be able to make an extra dollar by working the farm in a slightly different way.
So how does all this relate to Tiny Houses?
When Joep Pennartz called up with an idea to put Tiny Houses on farms for holiday stays, I thought it was worth supporting. His start-up business, Shacky, has really captured the imagination of Australia with newspapers taking his message from Perth to central Queensland and through the cities on the telly and radio.
He wants city folk to stay on farms in properly constructed houses made of timber and steel on a trailer base. They will book their stay through www.shacky.org and then refresh their connections to the land over a slow weekend in a peaceful part of a farm somewhere around Australia.
Joep (pronounced “Yoop” – he’s Dutch) is a young, decent, entrepreneurial guy who wants to work with rural Australia, and in my assessment, he genuinely wants to make a difference. These sort of people aren’t banging down the door in country Australia to invest their time, money and experience, and then give us tools for improvement. So I say let’s give him a red hot go.
Now he needs us so he can get started. He is running a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money to get the website, marketing and the first tiny house built.
Tarndie will host the trial period over 6 months to see how to best run this social enterprise, so by pledging $175 to Joep’s Pozible campaign, you would be pre-purchasing a stay here.
Homestead. Farmhouse. Cottage or Tiny House?
The proposed Tiny House will have the basics covered. Hot water shower and an enviro-toilet close by. There will be a small cooking annexe with gas cooker, drinking water and enough kitchen ware for simple meals. Inside will be a lounge area and wood fire potbelly with a mezzanine floor with the king size bed. It will be solar powered for low voltage lighting and USB power.
We intend to place the Tiny House in the middle of a paddock near the top of the ridge at Tarndie. Views to the north capture the scale of the vast Australian pastoral landscape, and to the south we see the foothills of the Otway Ranges with the occasional kangaroo. There won’t be any garden or screening, just open paddock by your front porch.
This will create a more intense experience of the land where it’s just the Tiny House, the sheep and the elements.
It will be a simple experience without distractions such as neighbours, TV or wifi. At Tarndie there is good phone and 3G internet reception with Telstra, so you’d have to decide about how you connect to the outside world.
Here’s a vignette of what I hope might come to life with Shacky:
A city-based couple arrive Friday evening. It takes a short while to adjust to the fact that everything they need is at their fingertips and after an hour walking around the farm they start to settle into their unusual weekender.
The sheep are no longer wary of their new paddock mates and graze in front of the big windows while the couple allow themselves to put their phones away, pour a sundowner, and take in the scene of grazing sheep and distant views. “It’s funny to think that sheep could be wearing my next jumper” muses one to the other.
They cook up a one pot curry with flat bread over the gas stove and sit in front of the wood fire inside admiring each mouthful.
“You know, I’m going to knit something this weekend”.
“Good for you. I’m going to read”.
Morning tea with everyone on the farm down at the homestead under the vines, in front of the Farmgate Woolshop.
There’s the farm family, a volunteer worker from France, and a number of guests staying in other places somewhere else on the farm. Everyone is chatting and intrigued with this pop-up community. There’s a sense of vitality that belies such an old setting in rural Australia.
And in the Woolshop Studio, a few people are knitting away. “Would you get me started? I’m thinking to knit a scarf”.
The sheep have moved on and are now grazing at the other end of the paddock along the treebelt where the kangaroos were yesterday.
A bookmark gets slotted between the pages. The book isn’t finished, but it was pretty thick, and the weather was perfect for taking photos.
“Have you got my phone?”
“It’s probably where you put it Friday”.
With scarf wrapped loosely, the newly minted knitter packs the car and wonders what other treasures will come from the sheep who shared the paddock.
Long story short
At Tarndie, we are able to produce sought after wool because we are supported by customers who are interested in our story and product.
I’d like to see more people spending time on farms so they can choose to support other farmers and their produce.
Shacky is a great avenue to facilitate that and for that reason I would to ask you to pledge $25 – $175 to Joep’s crowd-funding campaign before midday AEDT on Easter Sunday at this website: http://www.pozible.com/project/202893
If you pre-purchase your stay, we’ll see you here soon on the farm.