Fixing the world’s problems with vegetables

 

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One of the reasons we do what we do – grow organic fruit and teach other people how to do the same – is because we reckon it’s time that we all re-learn how to grow food. It’s a practical solution to the problem of food security we think our kids might be facing in the future.

Oil is getting scarce (and expensive), soil fertility is going down, food is getting more expensive, and we’re so reliant on global food systems (and factory farming) that we’re very vulnerable to global problems, like oil shortages, transport problems or disease outbreaks. Did you know that it would probably only take our supermarkets 3 or 4 days to run out of food in an emergency? Doesn’t sound very secure to us.

We want our kids (and everyone else’s!) to have access to affordable organic food, so growing vegies is the obvious answer – as well as growing your own fruit, of course!

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Taking vegie growing to the street – a wicking bed outside the ‘Hub Plot’ garden, on Templeton Street in Castlemaine

However, though we’ve always had a vegie garden at home, we’re not very experienced vegie growers (we’ve never grown enough to sell, for example). So we just love community resources like the ‘Hub Plot’ garden in Castlemaine, a demonstration garden set up to teach people simple techniques for growing their own food in the backyard.

We dropped in for a visit the other day. It’s a gorgeous garden, full of good ideas. Want a virtual tour?

The garden has lots of different types of garden beds, with a big emphasis on wicking beds, which are lined garden beds with a refillable reservoir of water underneath the soil (the white pipe you can see sticking up is where you put the hose in to refill the bed). The water ‘wicks’ up into the soil (like wax moving up a candle wick), so the plants get watered from below. They save heaps of water, so they’re a great idea for dry climates like ours.

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Square foot garden wicking bed (made in an old apple bin, a perfect size and height for the purpose).
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A mini-wicking bed, perfect for a small space or balcony, and an easy way to keep yourself in herbs and greens for salads.

And here’s a board explaining how a wicking bed is made (if you click on the photo you’ll get an enlarged copy):

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Here’s two more wicking beds – the corrugated iron bed in the background, and a converted wine barrel in front.

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Here’s the wine barrel from above, with a healthy citrus tree. We’ve had a similar wicking bed for years in our garden with a lime tree, in a sheltered spot, and it absolutely thrives with very minimal attention from us!20131102_111237

Of course one of the most important part of any garden is the compost, because that’s where a lot of the natural fertility comes from, and it’s also the easiest way to recycle all your garden waste (it’s so crazy taking garden waste to the tip). The Hub Plot has a few different systems on display, including a ‘bay’ system, with pipes inserted into one of the bays to make sure plenty of air can get in to stop it turning into a sludgy mess:20131102_110309

Worms are (in effect) another type of composting system, and we loved this innovative idea, using a simple plastic perforated basket that you’d pick up anywhere for a couple of dollars. You bury the basket in your vegie bed so the top is just above the soil level. Pop some food scraps inside and voila! An instant on-the-spot fertiliser factory. Brilliant!

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An in-bed worm farm. Put the food in the basket, and keep it covered with a tile to keep most of the rain out (worms don’t like too much water).

Of course, we couldn’t resist taking a look inside the worm basket, and this is what we found….some half eaten food scraps, and loads of worms, munching their way through them (you can see the worms if you enlarge the photo). The holes in the side of the basket let the worms come and go into the soil, so they visit the basket for lunch, then go back to the vegie bed and distribute the goodies!

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The beauty of worm farms is they can be whatever size you like, from this tiny basket up to a bathtub, or even bigger. On the farm we use an old apple bin, because we generate lots of organic waste, and we use lots of worm castings to make compost tea.

Of course another great way to convert waste to productivity is to have a few chooks, and we thought the ‘Chook Mahal’ was completely gorgeous…

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It particularly appealed that the laying boxes have an externally opening door, so you can collect the eggs without having to go into the chook shed. The golf ball was a pretty cute idea too, just to remind the girls of where to do their business!

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The chooks do a brilliant job of converting food scraps and garden waste into eggs, as well as manure, which then gets added to the compost system. This way all the nutrients stay within the garden and get re-used, over and over again. The chooks look pretty healthy and happy with the system….

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One of the things we don’t have in our garden at the farm, but would love, is a greenhouse, so we made sure to get a photo of these instructions for how the Hub Plot greenhouse was built. It’s definitely on our ‘to-do’ list….

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A fantastic space-saving idea, this herb spiral is an example of vertical gardening, and also rather beautiful, don’t you think?

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An espaliered apple tree, another way of getting more productivity out of a small space.

It was late spring when we visited the garden, and most of the beds were full of lush herbs and vegies….divine!

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Plump broad beans ready to harvest, with borage in the background

 

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Healthy, green parsley just begging to be eaten!

 

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Leeks and a variety of other greens in one of the wicking beds.

The Hub Plot is part of the Mt Alexander Sustainability Group, and we think they’re fantastic. They have a Monday morning gardening group where you can join in and get some practical skills, and they run all sorts of interesting workshops and activities. Click here to go to their website if you want more of a look.

From the archive: From the chookhouse to the table

An email this week from Laura, a previous WWOOFer, as well as some interesting food discussions that have been going on in the house with our current WWOOFers about ethical meat (a new concept to them) made us think of this blog post, so we thought it was time to re-publish it.

It’s inspired by one of our very special WWOOFers Laura (from Canada), who first visited our farm in 2011 with sisters Mel and Kirsten from the US. (On a side note, we normally take a maximum of two WWOOFers at a time, and the only reason we accepted three together was because they wrote a rather ridiculous song for their application. We’re very glad we trusted our instincts!)

Laura then returned with her partner Dani last year, and they’re now back in the US, working hard towards their goal of owning their own farm/restaurant/brewery. Laura’s latest letter was full of news about the vegie harvest she just managed at the organic farm she manages, and we were reminded of this amazing meal she shared with us, so we thought we’d share it with you. Hope you enjoy it…

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For a carnivore, learning how to kill your own meat is a very real way to gain appreciation of the food that goes into your mouth. Animals are a crucial part of any permaculture system, having a role in recycling waste food, providing nutrients, contributing to pest control and (when managed properly) having a positive effect on the landscape. They also contribute an important  protein source to our diet, and raising, feeding and slaughtering your own animals is certainly the most ethical way to eat meat.

Led by Laura, who was tired of working with factory farmed chicken in her career as a chef, we recently embarked on a very personal “farmyard to table” journey. One of Laura’s goals while WWOOFing in Australia was to learn how to slaughter meat for herself, so she bought some 6 week old roosters at the Castlemaine Farmers Market. They were penned next to the rest of our flock so they had company, under a beautiful shady cypress tree with a shed for shelter, and fed a plentiful diet of rain-damaged cherries and other fruit, locally grown biodynamic wheat, household scraps and grass and weeds from around the farm.

When the boys were big enough, slaughter day arrived. Laura and Hugh had researched and constructed a killing cone to facilitate a low-stress experience for the roosters. They were up-ended in the cone, their heads pulled down to expose the neck, and the heads removed with one quick and decisive stroke, using a very sharp knife. The cone contained the flapping and involuntary movement, and allowed free drainage of the blood. Everyone that was home attended the slaughter and those that felt comfortable to do so killed a chicken – a challenging but worthwhile experience.

Slaughter day was one of the many rainy days we’ve had recently, so we set up a table in the shed for plucking and gutting. The birds were dipped briefly in hot water to loosen the feathers, then in cold water so they didn’t cook! The water might have been a bit hot at the start, because the first bird we dipped did not pluck easily, and the skin tore when pulling the feathers out, but the others were all ok. There were five of us on the job and five birds, so we took one each. Hugh and Laura showed the rest of us how to remove the feet and gut the birds – it seems difficult until you do it, but is actually quite easy. The birds were then rinsed, and put in the chiller to rest.

Having put many, many hours into menu planning, Laura then embarked on three days of cooking, culminating in the most AMAZING dinner. Here’s the menu:

To do justice to the occasion we surprised Laura with our black-tie glam.

 

The meal we shared was, quite simply, incredible, and so much thought and preparation went into every detail, that we know the foodies amongst you will appreciate having each course fully described, so here goes!

First course, made with the chicken tenders (the part under the chicken breast), was poulet en pappillotte. When these divine little parcels were pierced the most heavenly scent was released, and the julienned cabbage, leek, carrot, capsicum and ginger in the parcel with the chicken were tender and delicious. A wonderful dish that started the evening with a tantalizing taste of what was to come.

 

The creamy mushroom soup for second course was a simple soup made from the tastiest chicken stock you could imagine, with the addition only of cream, mushrooms and a little crunchy bacon. It was accompanied by crispy toast with a most delicious pate made from the chickens’ livers.

 

The next dish was a thoughtful blend of flavours and textures that came together to make a perfect dish! Chicken confit (the tenderest, most tasty chicken that had been slow cooked in butter) was combined with bitter rocket, crunchy fennel, sweet orange segments and a balsamic dressing. It was a taste sensation!

 

The fourth course was, I think, my favourite. A seared chicken breast sat on top of a bed of chicories (radicchio, treviso and little gem lettuces), topped with a poached egg, roasted parsnip and beet slices, and a bagna cauda sauce, made with anchovies, garlic and butter. This was such a delicious blend of flavours that I must admit to licking the plate, and had to be restrained from licking everyone else’s plates as well! Though each dish was quite small we were starting at this point to feel extremely well fed…but we moved on…

 

The last of the savoury dishes was a masterpiece. One of the roosters was older than the others, and consequently had a darker and gamier meat. Laura made a feature of the extra flavour of the meat by cooking it with brown butter and marjoram, and using it to stuff pierogie – Polish dumplings made to a recipe handed down in her family from her Polish grandmother. The pierogie were presented on a smear of herbed sour cream and accompanied by caramelized onion, Lambert cherries, toasted almonds and a balsamic reduction.  This was extraordinary food!

 

One of Laura’s aims was to incorporate chicken into each course, and her creative solution for the dessert course was to use crispy honey chicken skin as a garnish for her white nectarine jello confection that included ginger, coconut, orange cream and tuille – a beautifully moulded thin biscuit on the side. This sweet but light concoction was offset with an orange reduction and a cherry reduction (“why use one sauce when you can use two?”) and was the perfect way to finish a perfect meal.

This was the sort of meal that most ordinary mortals might get to experience only a few times in their lifetime, and we felt privileged that Laura provided this experience for us. She assures us it was also a huge treat and a great experience for her!!

To be involved with buying, feeding and slaughtering the animals and then to be present at the dinner was a special experience for our family, along with our wwoofers Melissa, Kirsten and Laura. Laura clearly has an incredible talent for designing and executing beautifully balanced dishes, but she also has a passion to further pursue the connection from farm to table in her future career, which we are going to watch with great interest!

How to become an organic farmer…part one

The day we received this certificate was a very exciting day!

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Our first Certified Organic Certificate of Registration, issued in 2010

It was the end of a long process, that officially started in early 2007 when we applied to NASAA for organic certification, but in fact had begun several years earlier. But we’re starting at the end…let’s go back to the beginning.

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Planting the new apple orchard,2004

A series of events of unexpected events led to Merv (Katie’s dad) deciding to sell the family farm in 1998. Letting the farm leave the family suddenly seemed like a really bad idea, and so we put up our hands to come home and take over the farm.

Both of us had had farm experience; Katie grew up on the family farm (the whole family moved here from another farm down the road when she was 8), and though Hugh was a city boy by birth, he quickly gravitated to the country as a young man, and spent time working on and managing farms in Western Australia and Saudi Arabia. But neither of us had planned a career path that involved farming, and were doing entirely different things at the time. It was definitely a dramatic career change for both of us.

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Hugh and Merv digging up the trees from the nursery to plant the new peach block

Thankfully Merv was happy not to sell, but to let us take over, and stay on to teach us the ropes. The first 3 years were essentially an apprenticeship, as we learned the ropes of farming in the way he’d always done it. Luckily, Merv has always been an innovative farmer (he was one of the first in the district to install drip irrigation, and to start the now common practice of fruit thinning), so while he taught us the (chemical) methods he’d learned and always used, he was also supportive of us taking the farm in a new, organic direction—as long as we thought we could make a go of it!

Our first, tentative steps towards organics were not the result of an ideological standpoint at all. We just didn’t like using chemicals, especially some of the nastier, broad-spectrum insecticides (which kill whatever they hit). It felt wrong, so we stopped using them, replacing them with ‘softer’ chemical alternatives—at that point we still couldn’t imagine farming without chemicals. The ideology came later, as we learned more, were exposed to new ideas, did some training, and put what we were learning into practice.

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Learning about soil

Noticing the changes that happened in the orchard when we removed broad-spectrum insecticides was probably the first significant shift in our consciousness. When we realised that woolly aphid (normally a bad pest in apple orchards) had completely disappeared from our orchards, while all our neighbours still had it, the first little penny dropped and we began to understand that by interfering in the natural ecosystem with chemicals, maybe we were doing more harm than good (it sounds pretty incredible now that this was a revelation to us, but it’s the truth!).

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Selling “spray-free” fruit at an early Farmers Market, 2006

But it was still a long road from there. Even as we gradually thought more about becoming organic, and kept dropping more chemicals from our farming practices, we still had huge barriers to overcome (mostly in our minds) before we could seriously contemplate going all the way. We were coming from a fear-based position where chemicals were problem-solvers, and we couldn’t imagine how we were going to cope with the onslaught of problems we would be faced with if we stopped using them!  How would we cope with all those pests ruining our fruit, all those weeds ruining our beautiful bare orchard floor, and how on earth would the trees get their nutrition, if we weren’t allowed to use fertilisers??? It all seemed too hard, and too scary.

There were two big things that happened next that helped us make the decision to apply for organic certification. The first was Hugh going to a talk called “Farming as if it mattered” by an inspiring American scientist called Arden Andersen, in February 2006. This really opened our eyes, and started us on a path of education, reading and training, that completely changed the way we think, and laid the scientific foundations for the way we farm today.

We learned about soil biology, natural fertility,  making compost tea, and disease and weed management. Between 2005 and 2010 particularly, we did lots of training, learned masses, and really got switched on (finally) to the importance of soil.

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Hugh at a sustainable farming course, 2009

We also did courses on irrigation, cherry growing, whole farm planning, sustainable farming practices, calculating our carbon footprint, climate change strategies, carbon farming and permaculture, as well as doing lots and lots of field trips. It was a huge and exciting learning curve, and we continue to be committed to ongoing training or education every year.

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Field trip to Davo’s worm farm, 2010

But back to the other big thing that happened to let us make the leap to organics. Our neighbour and organic mentor, Ross Forrester, the only other organic orchardist in our district, gave us his old swing-arm slasher, thereby solving the one problem we hadn’t been able to wrap our heads around—weed control. We’d come around to the idea of the value of having plants in the orchard rather than bare soil, but we knew we still needed to keep the height of the weeds down, and we only had a slasher that was pulled after the tractor, leaving long weeds in the tree lines, where we didn’t want them.

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The swing-arm slasher Ross gave us

On a side note, unfortunately Ross and his wife Jenny have left the organics industry, one of many farming families to stop farming as a result of the drought. They were experienced organic growers and lovely people, and we were sad to lose one of the few organic mentors we’ve had, before or since (they’re very happily in a non-farming business now). We were lucky they were still in business at the right time to help us out, because as you can see from the photo, the slasher we got from Ross had an extra blade on a swinging arm on the left-hand side side that mowed right under and around the trees, and solved our last problem (or so we thought). There didn’t seem to be any more barriers….

Our side-arm slasher today, a much more modern version of the one Ross Forrester gave us.

And so finally we applied to NASAA for certification in mid-2007, had our first inspection, soil tests and fruit tests in late 2007, and received our first ever Certificate of Registration in January 2008 confirming that we had passed the tests, and were officially In Conversion to organic production.

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Our pre-certification certificate from NASAA, issued in 2008

Next time…the million mistakes we made, and how to avoid them!