Harcourt orchardists, Katie and Hugh Finlay, are leading the way in local sustainable fruit growing, and supporting community food initiatives in the process.
Katie returned to the family fruit farm 16 years ago, when her father decided to retire and sell the property.
"When he announced that to the family, I said, actually, no, I want to learn how to be a farmer," she says.
After a couple of years learning the ropes, Katie and Hugh established Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens. They diversified their range of fruit to include apricots, peaches and nectarines, alongside the existing plum, cherry and apple orchards.
In 2005, they began their successful application for organic certification.
"When you're going from the chemical mindset, the idea of giving up on your chemicals just seems like you'll create all these insurmountable problems for yourself, which is not at all how it works," Katie says.
"We've developed strategies and solutions to mitigate against the risks, and we now see having no chemicals as an advantage. The road to recovery is the same in every situation in organics, which is to improve your soil."
Katie and Hugh use their experience in this successful, sustainable method, to provide mentoring, information and advice to other local fruit growers. The Grow Great Fruit Program is a valuable community resource that provides another income stream for the business, and secures the continuation of sustainable fruit growing in the region.
The farm's small plantings of 85 different organic fruit varieties are geared towards supplying their seasonal farmer's market stalls in Castlemaine, Bendigo and Melbourne, a strategy that Katie believes is the way forward for local growers.
"Farmer's markets are really key to this developing interest in local produce. They are a great way for us to connect with customers, and also the community."
Since establishing Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens, Katie has become a vital advocate for the local food community. She belongs to the Mount Alexander Sustainable Food Network, a council-sponsored initiative that develops food strategies for the shire, and is also a founding member of Growing Abundance. Run by Castlemaine Community House, the project aims to minimise waste, and strengthen the local community by harvesting and sharing excess backyard produce. The scheme supplies food to local primary schools and the high school canteen.
With her knowledge and enthusiasm for sustainable, organic growing, Katie has ensured that the local community will benefit from great fruit for generations to come.
Lee Smith is a freelance writer and managing editor of The Local Type. He specialises in writing about Victorian produce, and has a particular interest in sustainable, ethical farming. www.thelocaltype.com.au