Dec 20, 2023
Jade Miles and Charlie Showers have been living in Stanley for 25 years. Growing their own food through homesteading, they started the local food co-op nine years ago after spending a few months looking at food systems in Vermont, USA. Wanting a family scale heritage apple and berry orchard with a Black Barn that would bring everybody together for workshops and schools programs, after eight years on Black Barn Farm, their vision is well and truly taking shape.
The Early Years
Jade and Charlie got an understanding of what it takes to prune and manage a customer facing experience by running a local farmer’s orchard as a pick your own. Saving it from being bulldozed, “it was a really fertile learning environment,” Jade tells me on a sunny afternoon at Black Barn Farm. “But there was a huge amount of work that didn’t get done on our own property because we were over there. With our own trees only just in the ground, we naively thought we could run it for a couple of years until our trees were ready to go.”
“We knew it would be a 10 year startup and we’re at year eight in Feb. So we’re there, we’ve broken it’s back. The buildings up, the trees and the berries are in. We have an established brand and people come, but there’s still lots to do.”
The Farm Gate
Collecting and charring timbers for years for the Shou Suhi Ban, charred timber clad Black Barn, this summer is their second full summer open to the public. Last season, Jade found out that people didn’t need to come for picking, they came for doughnuts or the farm gate. With homemade preserves, soaps, herbal teas and beeswax wraps all made by Jade and sold in the Black Barn. This year there will be posies as well as herbs, potatoes, pumpkins, garlic, apples, pears, frozen berries and seeds. A commercial kitchen will complete the barn this summer and there will be ice cream and apple and berry pies along with their twin teenage boys’, Harry and Bertie’s Apple Cider Donut business.
Building the Business
“The business is built around diversity. Beginning with ecological diversity with multiple rootstocks in the orchard, a gazillion different varieties. Interplanted with things like clovers and veg, green manure crops and different flowering species for pollination. We look at the business like that as well. It’s not just a commodity orchard that sends fruit away and that’s what makes the money. It also has workshops, schools programs, a nursery, flowers, apple tree sales, the farm gate, pick your own fruit. We have ideas for a cidery making apple cider vinegar, apple cider, and apple juice. There’s not any one dominant leg to the milking stool of Black Barn Farm. It’s got many which means if we get hit with late frost or a wet year like we did last year and don’t get high pollination, we’re okay. It does mean that for two individuals who are trying to start the business and build and plant and establish it’s a bloody slog, especially when you’ve got a full time job as well. For the startup phase, one of us needed a full time job because it’s expensive.” Jade is the CEO of Sustainable Table working full-time and traveling for work and Charlie works two days a week off farm as a geologist with the Victorian Government.
“We’ve tried to build something that is a really solid bolt hold for generations to come. We wanted to create something that had a really good foundation that multiple business concepts could fly from. We’ve looked at this very much from an intentionally slow approach, knowing that it will be multi-generational.”
“Only using organically allowed insect and fungus control, there are even some organic sprays that we won’t use,” Charlie explains. “We prefer to make the trees healthy and outcompete the fungus. We do that using a whole myriad of different tools. Spraying good biology into the trees. You can’t have a living system without a messy orchard. Nature’s not neat, and you need diversity around the tree, long grass, flowering plants, mulch. The other farmers in the region think we’re nuts. Their orchards are immaculate, spaced rows, mown to within half a centimeter. But their actual tree row is heavily herbicided and there’s no nutrient cycle. There’s no biology, they are a literal biological dead zone. There’s nothing and that’s the way they like it, no good biology, no bad biology.”
“Using regenerative practices, ultimately we’re looking at the whole ecosystem rather than just the yield. We rely on the soil adding compost to feed the tree, rather than quick, readily accessible fertilizers. It’s a much slower burn, it takes a bit longer for the trees to grow, but they’re way more healthy, and a healthy tree is way less susceptible to insect and fungus attack.”
“It still requires intense observations and interaction and intersecting with a solid knowledge of what you’re intersecting with and the way in which you’re interacting with this natural ecosystem that you’re guiding,” Jade adds. “So it’s definitely not hands off. People think it’s kind of a free for all, it looks like a bloody mess so clearly you’re doing nothing, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s a very highly curated and pretty controlled bloody mess.
Jade's new book - Huddle
As if they don’t have already have their hands full , Jade has another book coming out soon. A follow up to her first book ‘Future Steading’ which she toured around Australia and the United States. Future Steading is all about living in a way that values tomorrow, harking back to the knowledge of our ancestors. “We live in the modern world, and we can all still appreciate the technology that that gives us, I’m not about to go back to horse and cart, although with the cost of petrol…it does have appeal,” Jade jokes.
“The new book is called Huddle. The first book was very much about our rhythm, our seasons, how we feast how we create and what our rituals looks like. The next book is about how we do that in a broader community. And how we learn to have complicated conversations and compromise. Wow we find other communication mediums that aren’t just the written word or the spoken word. It’s dance and it’s song and it’s gifting and it’s food and it’s different patterns and rituals. It’s the next step really. It’s to take those who have taken up Future Steading in the last few years and said now what do I do? How do I bump into the next household that’s doing the same thing and build an ecosystem of people like this? It’s building your huddle.”
For more info visit Black Barn Farm website here
Order Jade’s Futuresteading book here