What Do You Call a Gathering of Organic Orchardists?

A couple of weeks ago we got to do something we hardly ever do – hang out with a bunch of other organic apple growers.

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Chris Ellery from the Soil Foodweb Institute giving a presentation about soil biology

It may seem strange that this is a rare and unusual event, but it’s the result of a couple of slightly unfortunate circumstances. The first is that even though there are at least 40 of us Australia-wide (no-one knows what the actual number is), we’re scattered all around the country and few of us are lucky enough to live within coo-ee of each other.

The second reason is because of the generally unconnected nature of the organics industry. With more than 6 different certifying organisations, there’s no central register of who’s certified and who’s not. Each certifying body regulates the whole gamut of organic farmers and processors, from apple growers through to beef producers and organic skin care manufacturers, so they don’t function as a connector for producers within industries.

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The new organic seal

And then there’s the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) which is the umbrella organisation for the whole industry and plays a great advocacy role for the industry, for example finally achieving a national mark or logo (that’s it on the left) which can be used by any certified producer regardless of who they’re certified with. Overseas experience has shown that introducing this type of unifying symbol should go a long way to achieving better consumer awareness for organics across the entire sector, so start watching out for it on your organic produce!

But membership of the OFA is voluntary, and so this organisation doesn’t function to connect producers within specific industries.

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Field trip to our place

Hugh and I have long bemoaned our lack of a peer group, which might seem strange when we live and grow fruit in Harcourt, the “apple centre of Victoria”. We’ve long been members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers’ Association, and in fact I was secretary for more than a decade. While obviously we have much in common with conventional growers, we also have many differences. The very basis of our growing systems – the soil – is handled quite differently between the two systems, as are pest and disease control, weed control, and even irrigation. The two paradigms can be so different that we sometimes feel we speak a different language.

So it was really a treat to find ourselves finally in a room with 10 other organic growers, who all essentially have the same issues, challenges, problems and understandings as us.

It’s long been on my “to do” list to try to organise this type of event; I even got as far as starting to compile a list of other organic fruit growers a few years ago, but that’s as far as it went.

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Michelle McColl, Tim Neilson and Hugh on a field trip to our farm

Luckily the very dynamic Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics (she and husband Chris were recently featured with their organic orchard on ‘Gardening Australia’) beat me to it last year. She took the initiative of finding and contacting as many organic apple growers as she could find and organising a get together in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. Luckily, we were on the list and were invited to the event.

It was fantastic! Michelle had the foresight to organise a facilitator for the growers’ round-table discussions, and to put a few topics on the table to get the ball rolling, which meant that discussion was lively, frank and very useful as growers shared their problems, solutions, tips and resources.

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Compost tea demonstration in a very cold barn!

Field trips to 3 organic orchards were also illuminating – there’s nothing quite as interesting as actually seeing and experiencing what other people are doing. Another highlight was the conference dinner at a restaurant in Salamanca Place in Hobart. All in all Hugh and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we offered to host this year’s conference in Harcourt.

Following a similar format worked well, the only addition being two really interesting and relevant speakers who gave presentations on soil biology and insect and bird interactions in organic orchards.

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Mount Alexander Shire Council Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford giving the conference welcome

We were really pleased that our local Mount Alexander Shire is taking an active interest in the potential for growth of the local organics industry, and Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford gave a great welcome and opening address for the conference. It was also fantastic that a few local orchardists accepted the offer to attend the session on soil biology, a topic with relevance to anyone growing anything!

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Some of the fantastic value-added product that growers brought to share

Two jam-packed days of talking, sharing ideas and experience, eating, field trips, cider tasting, getting to know each other – and lots more talking – left us feeling refreshed, revitalised and very grateful to be part of a new group of people who are not only professional colleagues, but also rapidly becoming friends.

Thanks – we’re chuffed!

Well, the season has undeniably turned! We had a wee ‘back o the truck’ sale this morning and I stayed an hour overtime having cuppas in the sun cos it was just so damn NICE! Even a few days of sun and we notice the difference in the patch.  The lettuces begin to look like they weren’t picked, I feel like I’m discovering cabbage patch babies every day in the broccoli and cauli rows, the bulbs are out and the peas are stretching their tendrils long and high!

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The weeds are also loving life, and now comes the hard work part of pre- and post-spring…giving them a new life in the compost heap!  The great news is, thanks to our generous contributors from our recent fundraising campaign, we can spend more days in the patch tending, weeding and harvesting without the overhead stress of having to weekly find off-farm jobs. Amazing!

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Originally we began filming with Leonie in June 2015, and then added some working-bee drone footage of the patch extension in February and put it to air a month ago…so in all it’s been about a year in the making.  Leonie would gently ask us, ‘have you started editing the footage yet girls?’ Sheepishly we would reply, ‘not yet Leonie, we’re too busy’.  It was her gentle pushing and the slower months of winter which finally got it out there. A little secret too – one of the reasons we chose chuffed was cos if you didn’t make your target, you still get to keep the funds donated to you.  We never thought we’d make our target, let alone more!

The generosity and belief in us is overwhelming and energising, so thank you again. It can be scary asking for help, it feels vulnerable sharing your dream and saying it loud and wide, but the response has been incredible!

We are getting excited about the next few seasons and being able to protect our little tomatoes, eggplants, chillies and cucs and zucs from the frost thanks to the campaign, looking forward to both wheeling wheelbarrows to and from compost heaps simultaneously! We’re keen to buy up a much bigger quantity of seeds for spring and summer and buy some good quality seed-saving containers for us and the people to use in seasons to come! Also to have a financial buffer to buy more picking and washing utilities, A FULLY WORKING GREENHOUSE! and of course to replace our tool shed which the wind so drastically brought to the ground.  We can’t wait to share the space and produce with you!  But, Wow, now to get on with all of that!

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Hope this finds you sitting in the sun today and staring at that beautiful full moon tonight.

Grow well, and thanks again from the dirt under our fingers AND toenails!

Mel & Sas
(sorry, gross, but I couldn’t resist – John loves that foot photo! credit to him for taking it! -Mel)

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation!

The glorious blue-sky days, frozen puddles, blooming daffodils and sparkling frosty grass of this week all suggest a change around the corner. Spring isn’t far off and we’re busily getting ready for it now! Preparing our beds, adding the beautiful biodynamic compost we made last spring, weeding, weeding, weeding…and planning.

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Come spring, each garden bed in its turn will transform from what it now holds into something completely different and that takes planning. Lots of it! Looking forward at what we want to grow for summer in what kinds of quantities, and looking back at what we have already grown in each bed to make sure we don’t plant crops from the same family in too close succession.

Last year’s tomato beds now have green manures and broad been crops in them, but this spring will be too soon to plant tomatoes in them again or we risk harbouring pests and diseases that could wipe out our crop. So….maybe we’ll plant salad in those rows instead!? We now have almost 55 rows in our market garden to plant out and planning the successions is really quite a juggle! We make sure we have 20% of our space growing a green manure at any one time to ensure we are feeding the soil, not just taking nutrients from it all the time. Then we have to work out what we can grow, what we like to grow and what people will want to eat! Lots to consider.

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Once we’ve worked all that out, Mel crunches the numbers to work out how many seedlings of each different crop we need to grow in the hot house and then we set about scheduling days according to the moon cycles, to sow successions of those crops to ensure they aren’t all ripe and ready at the same time! Yikes!

We’ve got 2 weeks left on our crowd funding and if it is successful we will be able to purchase some much-needed propagation infrastructure to make sure that we can actually grow the seedling in the numbers that we need them. The community hot house we use at the moment is great but much too small for our expanding garden, as we found out in autumn!

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You can check out our crowd funding campaign here if you’re interested in finding out more about what we’re up to and why:

https://www.chuffed.org/project/gung-hoe-growers-double-or-nothin#

And in the meantime, may the daffodils be blooming in your garden and stars bright above your head at night!

Grow well

Sas and Mel