Spring Fever

Cherries, one of the earliest crops we pick
Cherries, one of the earliest crops we pick

Our new orchard intern Ant will be starting in a couple of weeks – and we’re super excited! But we’re very conscious that he will have missed all of spring, which is the ‘engine room’ of the fruit season, when most of the important stuff that determines how the season will turn out happens.

Along with the intensive training we’ll be providing Ant, we want him to get a good understanding of what each season on the farm is like, to help him with his planning. So while it’s very fresh in our mind, we thought it a great time to sum up what spring on a busy organic orchard looks like. (All these jobs need to be done whether you have 6 trees or 6,000, so hopefully this list should be useful for everyone with fruit trees!)

As we move from winter to spring, the way we prioritise our jobs gradually shifts from those jobs that are good for the trees (and next year’s fruit) in the longer term, like compost and fertiliser, to what’s most crucial for looking after this year’s fruit (short-term) like netting, taping and thinning. Once the fruit is ripe and ready for picking, top of the list every day is, what needs picking today?

It looks like a big list and it can certainly feel overwhelming while you’re in the middle of it,  but as long as you’re prepared for the fact that spring needs your full-time attention it’s all quite doable – though wherever possible it’s great to lighten the load by having friends or volunteers to help out, and in our case employing people where necessary, to make sure the jobs all get done.

Spraying
Hugh wearing appropriate Personal Safety Equipment (even though we use organic fungicides, you can't be too careful!)
Hugh wearing appropriate Personal Safety Equipment (even though we use organic fungicides, you can’t be too careful!)

This one starts way back in August, when we have to start monitoring for the first signs of budswell in the peaches and nectarines, and from then on we’re monitoring regularly for two things (the trees as they flower, and the weather) to make sure all trees have an organic fungicide on at the right time.

Depending on which trees need to be sprayed, this job can take anything from 2  hours to all day, and depending on the weather, it might need doing a couple of times a week, or not for weeks!

Weed control
It's important to whipper snip around any trees that will be taped
It’s important to whipper-snip around any trees that will be taped

With spring comes rain and warmth, and the grass starts growing. This is basically a good thing because all these lovely annuals start pumping carbon into the soil, but we can’t let the weeds get too long around the trees, so it means we need to start slashing – and keep slashing regularly, right through summer until the grass slows down. It’s mostly a tractor job (until we introduce some animals into the orchards), with some back-up work with the whipper-snipper around any young trees.

Taping
Hana and Helle (awesome volunteers) helping to tape the nectarines
Hana and Helle (awesome volunteers) helping to tape the nectarines

This job is simple and quick (just putting a bit of double-sided tape around the trunk of the tree. It only takes a couple of minutes per tree), but its one of the most important jobs we do for trees where the main fruit-eating pest are earwigs and garden weevils (cherries and nectarines in particular). One of the tricks we’ve learned over the years—don’t put it off! It’s really good to get this job done nice and early, before the earwigs are in the tree, because if you put the tape on after they’re in the tree then you’re trapping them up there! It’s also a sticky job, so it’s definitely worth gathering a couple of buddies, getting hold of some disposable gloves, and going for it!

Irrigation system
It's important to test all the drippers at the start of the season
It’s important to test all the drippers at the start of the season

Watering itself needs to start happening as soon as the weather is warm enough and the soil dry enough to warrant it, which will be different each year (but was in mid-spring for us this year). But before that, there’s lots of little maintenance jobs that can practically be done in late winter, so you get them out of the way before spring craziness happens—checking the pump, checking and cleaning out all the filters, flushing out the irrigation lines in each orchard, and then turning the system on and checking every dripper. Admittedly, this is a job that’s much more pleasant to do in warm weather (yep, you’re gonna get wet…), but from a time-management point of view, the earlier the better!

Thinning
Thinning in the mixed block
Thinning in the mixed block

Thinning is one of those jobs that you can’t start until the fruit is big enough, but as soon as you start it should have been finished yesterday (before the fruit gets too big)! Luckily this job is also quite spread out, because there’s usually time to finish thinning the apricots by the time the peaches and nectarines are ready, and then we move onto the plums, the apples and the pears. It’s a big job because most trees need thinning (except cherries) and each tree can take a long time. It’s definitely one job where many hands make light work. Here on the farm this is one of the main jobs we employ people to help with each year.

Netting

There’s not much point doing all these other jobs if then we let the birds eat the fruit (and they will, they always do!). So, as soon as the thinning and taping is done, it’s time to get the nets on.

Netting is another team effort. For us this means one person to drive the tractor forward to drape the net down over the row of trees, and two to hold the sides of the net to spread it out over the trees. Then we all help with tying the net down so the birds can’t get in underneath. Again, this job doesn’t take very long (only about 1/2 hour per row, plus the setting up time of getting the equipment and finding the right nets!).

Feeding the microbes
Putting compost tea into the irrigation system
Putting compost tea into the irrigation system

In early spring the trees get their energy from the nutrient they stored in their bark, roots and buds the previous season, but as soon as that runs out they need to be able to quickly access whatever they need from the soil via their roots, which means we need to make sure the soil microbes are active and well fed, so they can feed the trees. Compost tea (to top up the microbe populations), microbe foods (mainly liquid fish and kelp), organic matter (compost), and any manure we might get hold of—any or all of these are applied from early spring onwards, and we keep this going right through the growing and fruiting season.  Compost tea is great because it is a liquid and so can be injected straight into the irrigation lines. (On a backyard scale it’s an easy knapsack job.)

Picking, packing and selling

So, after all that, it’s kind of a relief when the fruit starts ripening, the cricket season starts (providing perfect packing shed easy listening) and the rhythm morphs into a more steady summer pace of picking, packing and selling all that delicious organic fruit we’ve been nurturing!

Our organic farming group is coming together!

If you’ve been following us for a while you’ll know that we’re creating a very exciting new collaborative farming model on our farm—currently called the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance, or HOFA (we may change the name to something a bit more exciting down the track).

HOFA members hard at work, thinking!
HOFA members hard at work, thinking!

What started as a great idea (“Let’s invite a bunch of aspiring farmers to start their farming businesses on our farm!”) has turned into an incredibly complex and lengthy process—and we’re still just at the beginning!

For the sake of posterity (and to help anyone else thinking of doing the same thing on their own farm), we’ll summarise the steps we’ve taken so far:

How we found the farmers
This all started when we were approached by the Gung Hoe growers a few years ago (you can read that story here), and then as that relationship went well and we started to think more about the idea of adding more farmers to our farm, we started to talk about it—everywhere and all the time! It wasn’t long before we were approached by two more farmers interested in starting their own small enterprises—Tess and her micro-dairy, and Gilles and Sean from Maidenii vermouth.

Mel 'n Sas from Gung Hoe Growers starting their farming journey on our farm
Mel ‘n Sas from Gung Hoe Growers starting their farming journey on our farm

A talk with our accountant helped us to solidify our ideas, and we began the search for someone to join the alliance and lease the orchard. This was a months-long process that included sending out emails to all our contacts to tell them about the opportunity, press releases, setting up a webpage, doing a webinar, working with a PR person, more emails, posters, weekly stories in our e-newsletter, radio stories, and newspaper articles.

All that energy resulted in loads of interest (literally thousands of hits on the webpage), which led to three firm expressions of interest. We then sent out an information bundle and invited applications, and all three people applied.

Next came an application process which included interviews, asking for statements of intention, CVs and referees, as well as more casual get-togethers to give the applicants a chance to see the farm, ask questions, and meet the other HOFA members. At the end of an exhaustive process we chose Ant Wilson as our successful applicant, and he was pretty happy about being offered the chance to get his farming career started!

How we’ve funded it
Meanwhile, in the background, a lot of time and energy has gone into sourcing funding. Here’s a summary:

  • Regional Development Victoria saw a story about us in the local paper, contacted us and arranged a meeting on the farm, where they told us about the Food Source Victoria grants and invited us to put in an Expression of Interest
  • We put in the EOI and were asked to apply for a Planning Grant
  • We applied for the Planning Grant to do a Business Development Grant, with Clare Fountain from Sorted4Business as our consultant. After a wait of several months we found out we were successful.
  • We applied for Farming Together (federal) funding, and were approved and allocated 3 hours of free expert consulting services. We’ve used this as part of the business development plan and it’s been fantastic to have access to consultants who “get” what we’re trying to do and can provide useful advice.
  • We’ve just put in an EOI for the next stage of Farming Together funding to do the next stage of the business development (deciding the legal structure, individual business plans for each farmer, feasibility of value-adding, etc.). We’re waiting to hear back whether we need to put in a formal application.
  • Regional Development Victoria have invited us to apply for the next stage of the Food Source funding, a Growth Grant. We’re currently working on this application.
  • We’ve also decided to apply for a Landcare ‘Farm Smart Small Farms’ grant because it’s perfectly aligned with what we’re trying to achieve with our radical new collaboration, and are currently working on this application.

Working out the nuts and bolts
Working through the business development plan with Clare has been a brilliant, structured way of figuring out the details of how this will work (though we’re still in the early stages and feel like we still have more questions than answers).  Starting only with our successful experience with Gung Hoe, our optimism and a blank canvas, first we had to figure out what the model would look like.

Another day, another white board
Another day, another white board

Along the way we’ve considered everything—insurance, legal structures, dispute resolution, how to attribute fair lease payments to very different farm businesses, sharing equipment, whether we have enough land and water, and, most importantly, whether the whole thing will be economically viable! Even though sometimes it seems overly risk averse to be trying to anticipate every little thing that might go wrong, we’re sticking to the idea that the more planning and thinking we do now, the more smoothly things will go later.

This model is so new (we haven’t found the same model anywhere else in the world) that many of the things we want to do are challenging the existing paradigm. For example, we want to get the whole farm certified under one certification number (because we’re all on the same farm and intricately involved with each other’s business, and it’s much cheaper), even though each enterprise is a separate business. NASAA has indicated they’re happy to talk about it, but it will no doubt involve a lengthy negotiation process. We’ve also started having similar conversations with the Victorian Farmers Market Association, our local council, and insurance companies. Everyone’s been helpful and enthusiastic about our idea, but the whole process is incredibly time consuming.

We’re currently deep in the throes of (i) finishing the business development plan, (ii) working on the details of the lease arrangements (which we’ll then get legal advice on), and (iii) applying for more funding! Next we’ll need to work out the legal structure of the collective entity, which will no doubt be another big conversation weighing up the pros and cons of co-ops versus companies (having first learned what the bloody hell they are and how they differ to one another!).

Some days we look at each other and wonder if we’re overcomplicating our lives, and in fact creating a monster out of what started as a simple idea, but then we remind ourselves that we’re going through all of this to birth this strange new idea—that a bunch of landless organic farmers can come together on a patch of dirt owned by someone else and all harmoniously make a living side by side. So on we go!

Surely on the other side of all these funding applications, all these meetings and all this bloody hard thinking, life will become simple again.

Conferences and Field Trips!

Hugh and Katie at the NASAA conference
A full house at this year’s NASAA Conference

One of the challenges for farmers is to find the time and resources for professional development. For most of us, there’s no defined career development pathway, so it’s something we have to figure out for ourselves.

First, find the conference, workshop or course that will give you quality information you need to help you grow and learn in the appropriate areas to match the direction you’re trying to grow your business.

Next, juggle your farm obligations to free up enough time both for travelling and attending the conference itself. This might involve finding (and paying) someone to do your work, working longer hours before and/or after the trip to make sure everything gets done, or resigning yourself to the fact that some jobs might not get done, or not at the right time.

Finally, check the budget to figure out how you can pay for the travel, accommodation and food, as well as the expense of the conference or workshop itself. Not many farmers have a budget allocation for professional development!

But over the years we’ve decided it’s really important to prioritise ongoing learning – in fact it’s something we made a commitment to many years ago, when we first did our Sustainability Plan.

Which is why we’ve left the farm today to come to the NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia – our organic certifier) conference, even though it’s spring, we totally don’t have time, and it means we’re leaving our thinners to do the work without us! As part of the conference we also hosted a field trip of NASAA delegates to our farm yesterday, which was another half-day of work we didn’t get done!

Dr Bruno Giboudeau presenting his fascinating Obsalim system for monitoring herd health
Dr Bruno Giboudeau presenting his fascinating Obsalim system for monitoring herd health at the NASAA Conference

But it’s so worth it! In our experience, whenever we make the effort to get off the farm, or to host a field trip for that matter, we always learn something, and many times we’ve come away from conferences or field trips with a piece of new information that has fundamentally changed the way we farm and do business. One of the speakers we’re really excited about at today’s conference is Dr Christine Jones, a soil ecologist and carbon hero of ours whose work we’ve been following for years.

But quite aside from new stuff we might learn, the best part – always – is the people we meet, the connections we make, and feeling like we’re part of a bigger community with common goals. Farming can be a solitary career, and getting together with our “tribe” – in this case other organic farmers – is refreshing, renewing, inspiring and totally worth the extra effort involved to get here!