How to Grow Fruit The Organic Way…part three

We love telling the story about how we became organic, so here’s part three. (Click here if you want to have a look at part one or part two  of this series. We also told you about the organic certification process here.) Learning how to grow fruit organically has been our passion for years now, but boy, did we make some mistakes in the early days (and still do, we’re proud to say—we reckon making mistakes is key to learning how to grow fruit really well!).

Hugh and Katie teach you how to grow fruit with no chemicals
We’ve made a whole lot of mistakes in our journey to organic fruit growing – so hopefully you don’t have to!

However, there’s no need for everyone to make the same mistakes we did, so here’s a list of all the things we wish we’d done differently. One of the problems for us (still is, really), is that we didn’t have much of a peer group. I mean, we were always part of the local fruit growers association (Katie was secretary for years), but a lot of the reason that group got together was to go to an information session put on by one of the chemical companies spruiking for business in the district. We weren’t quite speaking the same language, if you get our drift! Sure, we all grow fruit, but we sort of come at it from different angles.

Anyway, we didn’t have any peers or mentors when we started to grow fruit organically; someone with experience, who had been there before and could tell us what to do, and how to avoid all the worst mistakes. And so that’s at the top of the list of “How to Grow Fruit the Organic Way”, which could also be called “How to Avoid all the Mistakes that Hugh and Katie Made”.

1. Find a mentor

We’ve been very lucky in finding mentors in fruit growing, but they’ve all used chemicals to grow fruit. A lot of experienced growers have been really generous with their time over the years, in teaching us about different tree training systems, varieties, rootstocks, marketing and all sorts of other useful things. But none of them were organic.

There just aren’t any certified organic fruit growers in our district, and because the organic certification system in Australia is quite fragmented, with 7 different organisations that provide organic certification, we’ve met very few in other areas.

Don’t get us wrong, we’ve met lots of fantastic organic farmers over the years, and are lucky enough to call some of them friends now, and it’s wonderful to have a peer group on that level, because we really do have lots in common. But none of them grow fruit. So we still don’t have anyone we can call or visit and say, “how did you manage your curly leaf/brown rot/grasshopper infestation….(or whatever)….this year?”

This is one of the reasons we started the Grow Great Fruit Program for home fruit growers, because it’s exactly the sort of info we were looking for – but couldn’t find – when we started to grow fruit without chemicals. (And also, it’s been a great way to build a peer group around us of people who love to grow fruit!)

Hugh teaching an organic pest and disease control workshop
Building a peer group by holding workshops

2. Improve your soil before you go cold turkey from fertilisers

What we know now is that everything—yes, everything—depends on the quality of your soil when you want to grow fruit (or anything, really). Who knew? (not us, clearly!)

Building healthy soil is key to learning how to grow fruit
Building healthy soil is key to learning how to grow fruit.

We sort of knew about the importance of soil, at least in theory, as we started to do courses with wonderful scientists like Elaine Ingham, Arden Andersen and Martin Staapper, where we learnt mountains of useful info about soil microbes, compost tea and soil health. But without anyone to advise us, we didn’t realise just how long it would take, or how much work it would be, to build our soil from its very damaged and depleted condition that we started in, to the point where we had restored a natural fertility system.

The mistake we made was to go cold turkey on the artificial fertilisers, before we’d restored the health of the soil. And that just left our poor fruit trees stranded! There were no microbes to speak of to provide their nutrition (only pathogenic disease-causing microbes that made them sick), so when we stopped giving them the artificial fertilisers they’d been relying on, they basically had nowhere to go for the nutrition they needed!

[In case you don’t know what we’re talking about here, “natural fertility” means the nutrition needed to grow fruit comes from healthy soil microbes, which break down organic matter in the soil into a form of nutrients that allows the trees to absorb them. It’s a healthy, sustainable system that’s been around since Adam was a boy. Modern chemical farms however use artificial fertilisers that provide the nutrition in a form the plants can take up directly – it’s sort of like hydroponics in soil. Unfortunately, the artificial fertilisers kill the soil microbes that are needed in a natural system.]

Use compost to improve the soil under your fruit tree
Use compost to improve the soil under your fruit tree

So anyway, guess what happened? Our fruit trees stopped growing! The fact that our epiphany about natural soil fertility and the decision to stop using artificial fertilisers coincided with the beginning of a long drought certainly didn’t help. Which leads us on to the next major mistake you can avoid.

The key message for you, if you want to learn how to grow fruit organically at home?

Start working on your soil first, before you completely get rid of artificial fertilisers. In fact, there are ways you can phase out fertilisers slowly, while you build up your soil microbes. If you’re trying to grow fruit in soil that has previously had lots of chemicals and artificial fertilisers (like we are), it’s important to learn about all this stuff first.

3. Give your tree enough water, at key times!

water is a precious resource to be used wisely to help grow fruit.
Water is a precious resource to be used wisely to help grow fruit.

So, when we started learning to grow fruit without chemicals, we’d gone cold turkey on the artificial fertilisers, and we were also facing a drought. The mistakes we made were:

(a) not knowing the key times to use the small amount of water we had to get the most benefit (turns out it’s in spring, and just before harvest), and

(b) trying to grow too much fruit with too little water—we would have been better to use the water to grow a small amount of fruit on a few trees, and let the rest of the trees  put the small amount of water available to them into growth, rather than fruit.

4. Keep your crop separate from the local wildlife

Separate your fruit trees from pests like rabbits and hares.
Separate your fruit trees from pests like rabbits and hares.

If you’re going to try to grow fruit in the same habitat as birds, kangaroos, rabbits and moose (do moose eat fruit?), then guess what? They’re going to try to eat this delicious, available new food source.

We’ve lost our entire apple and pear crop on more than one occasion to birds…including just last season, so this one has taken a while to really sink in! Why do we resist doing what it takes to protect the crop? Because it’s a nuisance, and expensive, and time-consuming. But you know what? It’s not nearly as expensive as not picking a single apple! We’ve finally learned this lesson, and now have enough net to cover most of our fruit trees next season, including all the apples and pears!

Excluding the birds from your fruit trees is the only way to make sure you'll get some fruit!
Excluding the birds from your fruit trees is the only way to make sure you’ll get some fruit!

If you’re just getting started with learning how to grow fruit, then take our advice, and put the protection in place first. Good fences, and a decent netting system are both crucial to getting a yield.

There you have it—the main mistakes we’ve made. Hopefully you’ll be able to get started with your fruit growing right from the get go, without having to make the same mistakes as us. Though for your own sake, we hope you make your fair share of your own mistakes, because that’s how you learn, all the very best lessons you need to know!

About us…

We’re in the middle of overhauling our website (yes, again!) and have just updated our ‘about us’ page. Which got us to thinking that a lot of the stuff on that page – what motivates us, our backgrounds, the training we’ve done over many years, and the actual jobs we do on the farm – are probably things we don’t talk about very much!

So today, we bring you “About Us” – everything you didn’t even realise you wanted to know about Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, and us! Hope you enjoy it…

* * * * * * * *

WeHugh and Katie Finlay draw on over 15 years’ experience as orchardists at our farm, Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, to bring you the Grow Great Fruit Program, the farm-proven system for home fruit growers.

The farm

Since we came home to the farm in 1998, we’ve seen some pretty wild conditions—from drought to flood and everything in between—so we have learnt HEAPS about growing fruit in a wide variety of conditions.

Nestled at the foot of Mt Alexander in Harcourt, our farm is planted like an old fashioned “garden” (the early name for an orchard) with small plantings of more than 90 varieties, providing an extended season of fresh fruit off the tree for almost 6 months.

With a combination of careful planning, looking after the trees well, appropriate storage, and a range of preserving techniques, our farm is a working demonstration of how to keep your family supplied with delicious organic fruit all year round.

We use organic growing methods – and teach them – not only because it’s better for everyone’s health, but because we’re acutely aware of how fast the climate is changing, and we want our farm to be part of the solution, not part of the problem! (read below to find out more about our Sustainability Plan).

The family

As well as our background in farming, and experience running our own farm, we regularly do more training to learn new stuff—we reckon it’s important to stay up-to-date and keep increasing our skills, so we can keep adapting quickly!

Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens is a family-run business, and we also value the 50 years-plus of fruit growing experience from Merv (Katie’s Dad), even though he’s retired since we branched out on our own (pun intended) and took the farm in the new direction of organic certification and biological farming methods. (“Retirement” means these days Merv only runs the tree nursery for the farm, does a bit of pruning, grows all the farm vegies and generally watches our backs. Oh, and he runs his own farm – that’s a farmer’s retirement!).

Our experience and training

Hugh’s farming experience started on a cattle station in Western Australia (which he ended up managing), followed by a stint as a supervisor on a broadacre wheat farm in Saudi Arabia. Travelling around the world for fun turned into 16 years as a writer and editor for Lonely Planet, an exotic lifestyle he eventually gave up to return to his farming roots and settle down in Harcourt.

Since coming back to the land, the training Hugh’s done has significantly steered MAFG towards its current path of organics and biological management:

  • “Monitor and manage soils” and “Pest, disease and weed management” units of the Diploma of Agriculture in Organic Farming, Organic Agriculture Association/Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE.
  • “Sustainable and Biological Farming Course”  with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
  •  “True Fertility Compost Tea Course” and “Microscope Course”, with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Institute
  • “Compost & Compost Tea Workshop”, with Paul Taylor, Woodend
  • Irrigation Management Course”, Department of Natural Resources and Sunraysia TAFE
  • Cherry Short Course”, Department of Primary Industries, Shepparton
  • Soil and Agronomy Workshop”, Dr Arden Andersen PhD DO FS
  • Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine

Hugh’s a self-confessed soil and microbe nerd, and spends a fair bit of time looking down a microscope! His jobs on the farm are many and varied, but include:

  • Nutrition—making compost tea brews, looking after the worms (his babies), soil testing, leaf testing, fertigation and foliar sprays
  • Irrigation—keeping the pumps and irrigation systems in top condition, monitoring soil moisture, deciding when and how much to water the trees
  • Pest and disease control—predicting the weather and putting on preventive organic sprays at exactly the right time!
  • Weed control
  • Machinery fix-it guy
  • IT and website fix-it guy

Hugh cleaning the compost tea brewer

Katie’s a third-generation orchardist and grew up on the farm, but bolted to the city after school and mis-spent a good deal of her youth getting a Bachelor of Science at Monash Uni (which as it turns out gave her a solid grounding in botany and genetics that came in very handy when she came home to the farm 15 years later).

Since coming home Katie’s also done a fair bit of training—in slightly different areas to Hugh—that has helped shaped the direction of the farm.

  • Permaculture Design Certificate” with Cydonia Permaculture
  • Permaculture Certificate 3” with Cydonia Permaculture and Eltham College
  • “Soil and Agronomy Workshop” with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS.
  • “Footprints to Sustainability” course taught by Jane Knight
  • “Biodynamic Field Day”, Daylesford
  • Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine
  • “Holistic Management” with Kirk Gadzia, Woodend
  • “Soil Microbes for Healthy Soil & Improved Vineyard Quality, Department of Primary Industries, Knoxfield
  • Carbon Farming 101”, Carbon Farmers of Australia
  • “Carbon Farmers of Australia conference”, Dubbo

We find it works best for us to divide up the jobs according to our main areas of interest (we both have more fun that way), which sees Katie spending most of her days managing the trees, and looking after the fruit all the way from picking to marketing.

Katie and friends doing soil testing

Katie’s jobs on the farm are as many and varied as Hugh’s, and include:

  • Pruning—5,000 trees and 4 different tree training systems means this is a big job every year
  • Fruit picking—choosing the right time to pick each of our 90 varieties, supervising pickers and wwoofers, making sure the fruit reaches the shed (and the markets) in perfect condition
  • Packing and marketing—fruit is graded and packed to suit the market for which it’s destined (wholesale, online or farmers market)
  • Thinning to manage crop load and quality
  • Orchard hygiene—an important defence against disease
  • Pest and disease control—preventive tape, netting, pheromones etc.
  • Orchard planning—keeping tabs on what new varieties are needed, grafting and pollinisers

Other Farm-y Stuff

We started the process of getting certified organic with NASAA in 2008. Being certified organic means everything we do (and everything we use on our farm) must comply with the Australian Organic Standards. We’re audited once a year by a NASAA officer, who has the legal right to look at EVERYTHING we do, including all our bookwork and procedures. We wholeheartedly support organic certification, and love that it’s such a rigorous process, because we think that gives you – the consumer – the confidence that we actually are doing everything the right way, and not just saying that we are. It’s too easy for people to say they’re organic when what they mean is spray-free, or almost spray-free. When you’re shopping, if someone is claiming to be organic – ask them who they’re certified with, and if they’re not, ask them why not!

Being certified organic means (amongst other things) that no artificial fertilisers are used on the farm. We rely instead on natural fertility (you know, the sort that fed the entire human race before about 1920 when superphospate was invented, and our soils were ruined!). Natural fertility relies on using compost, compost tea and other forms or organic matter to create healthy soil, full of microbes that provide the trees with nutrients.

We’ve also set aside 4.5 hectares of the farm as a revegetation zone, creating a wildlife corridor from the Mt Alexander Regional Park (which borders the farm on the eastern side) through to remnant vegetation on the western side. The zone has been planted with local species, and is slowly being restored to its original condition.

In many ways, the farm still looks as it would have 100 years ago. The property was owned by W.L. Williams and sons, who began planting orchard in the 1880s. By 1909 they had an orchard or ‘garden’ (hence the farm name) of 60 acres, making them Harcourt’s largest fruit growers. They successfully grew apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears and cherries – as we still do today!

Sustainability Plan

Sustainability and resilience come from diversity, and this principle is applied constantly to all parts of our business. So, rather than growing a monoculture of just one type of fruit (which is very vulnerable to environmental conditions), we grow 7 types of fruit, and more than 90 varieties, with more added every year. (The house garden has another 20 or so varieties including nuts and citrus, but these are just to add to the diversity of their own food supply rather than for commercial sale). Growing lots of varieties spreads the risk, reduces disease pressure, improves food security by providing fresh fruit off the tree for almost half the year, spreads the workload and costs, and makes sure the fruit is picked, sold and eaten while it’s fresh.

The diversity principle is also applied to everything else, including for example:

  • markets – pick-your-own, wholesale, online and Farmers Markets
  • water sources – irrigation (Coliban Water), on-farm storage and increasing the amount of organic matter to store more water in the soil
  • income – on-farm (fruit, trees), online (Grow Great Fruit training products) and off-farm (Hugh’s alternative income)
  • sources of organic matter – compost, manure, worm food, humates, seaweed and other soil additives come from multiple sources to ensure adequate nutrients are returned to the soil
  • biodiversity – we encourage as many different types of birds, insects, arthropods and microbes as possible by having as many different types of plants as possible

We’ve documented every aspect of the business, including our carbon-neutral status, in our Sustainability Plan which includes:

* the principles that guide the business
* strategy and goals
* challenges to sustainable practice
* summary of carbon emissions & sequestration
* key performance indicators including production, profit and satisfaction
* marketing and transport analysis
* pest, disease and environmental conditions review
* water and soil management

You’re welcome to read the whole plan – click on this link to go to Farmnotes and eBooks in our online shop to download it for free.

(Of course as soon as you produce any sort of business document it needs updating, so we aim to update the Sustainability Plan every 2 years, but being human, and busy, it can take a bit longer than that…)

Community Stuff

We are both involved with the local scene in all sorts of ways—because it’s so much more fun and interesting than going it alone! Plus it adds to the resilience of our business, as well as helping to build an active community.

Some of the things we’re doing at the moment include Hugh’s membership of Coliban Water’s Harcourt Water Services Committee, and both of us are members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers Association (of which Katie was Secretary for 10 years, and is now the Community Liaison Officer). Katie’s also passionate about the Growing Abundance project—a food relocalisation project based in Castlemaine (and not only because it involves lots of cake!)

Katie’s also involved each year in the local Harcourt Applefest, a celebration of our district’s long association with the mighty apple (that’s a photo of the crowd enjoying the ferret races at the Applefest).

 

Media and Speaking Stuff

MAFG has been featured many times in the media, and Hugh and Katie have spoken at various events over the years…here’s some of the recent highlights:

  • Katie was on the panel at a community forum called Get the Dirt on Food Security at Wesley Anne in Northcote in 2011
  • Hugh and Katie were featured speakers at the Organic Agriculture Association Future Farming conference in Bairnsdale in 2010
  • In 2009 MAFG was one of 4 orchards chosen for orchard walks for delegates to the 2009 Australian Fresh Fruit Company (AFFCO) Training Workshop, as part of their Annual Conference in Melbourne
  • In 2011 MAFG was featured in articles in both Australian Horticulture magazine and Good Fruit and Vegetables magazine
  • In 2012 MAFG was used as a case study in the report “Many Publics. Participation Inventiveness and Change” by Kate Auty, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria (you can read the report at: www.ces.vic.gov.au)
  • In 2012 Katie was a speaker in the Keynote session at the Growers and Eaters Conference in Bendigo
  • In 2010 MAFG was part of the FarmVIEW video series featuring our response to the challenges of farming in a changing environment: http://new.dpi.vic.gov.au/agriculture/climate/videos (ep 2.1 ‘Climate and Planning’)
  • In 2014 we were included in a short video about waste in the food system called Waste Deep, made by the passionate people at Sustainable Table – watch the video here.
The film crew in the shed making the Waste Deep doco

Awards’n stuff

  • In both 2010 and 2011 we were Medallists in the ‘From the Earth’ category, delicious (ABC) magazine Produce Awards
  • We were runners-up in 3 categories of the Carbon Farmers of Australia Carbon Cocky Awards in 2011: Outstanding Best Practice, Outstanding Innovation or Invention and Encouragement Award.

 

On the cusp of summer

zucchini-flower

It’s a beautiful time of year on the farm, the green of spring still lingering in the paddocks, the trees with their flush of new growth, and fruit on the trees.

But we’re expecting hot weather this week-really hot weather, and the landscape will no doubt change dramatically, as only the Australian bush can, going from lush and green, to crisp and brown in a few days.

At least being orchardists, we are surrounded by green all summer. In the old fashioned style, our orchards literally surround our house, so we see green trees in every direction we look, with the dry bush beyond.

young apples gala

 

Where we live is completely embedded in where we work, which is a good thing in so many ways… we don’t have far to go to get to work, we’re very connected to what’s going on in the orchard, and having irrigated orchard around the house gives us a bit of protection from heat and bushfires.

It’s also an important reflection of the way we choose to farm, that we create the type of environment we want to live in, which is beautiful, and healthy, and sustains us as much as possible.

We thought we’d take you for a tour around the farm, to see what’s happening at this change of season. First stop is the vegie garden, where thankfully Merv (Katie’s Dad) reigns supreme, so we get heaps of vegies (neither of us being very good gardeners…)

We’ve just eaten the first of the zucchinis, with the promise of plenty more to come (no-one ever complains about not having enough zucchinis!).

basil and tomatoes

The tomatoes are flowering, and the basil is big enough to start pinching bits for salads. We always interplant them because they seem to be good neighbours in the garden, as they are in the salad bowl. We grow enough tomatoes each year to eat all summer, and to bottle for cooking in winter. We ran out about a month ago, so we didn’t do quite enough last year, but almost. That’s one of our autumn jobs…

last of peasThe peas have just about finished. We picked about 12 buckets from them, and have heaps in the freezer, so we’re not too fussed that the last of them went a bit woody. They went straight to the chooks, so they weren’t wasted. Speaking of the chooks, our spring chickens are about half grown, but still being watched over very carefully by mama chook.

half grown chickens

It’s lucky they’re getting big enough to eat a fair bit, because they’re an integral part of our pest management system, helping to dispose of any fruit that’s unusable by us.

The apricot season has been going magnificently…we’ve picked more apricots already this year than we picked for the whole season last year! We reckon it’s probably a combination of good conditions, with rain at the right times (mostly), and good management (we hope!). We’ve been working a lot on improving the soil in the apricot block, and have been really fussy about cleaning up the fallen fruit. So even though the apricot pruning didn’t quite get finished last year, we went over most of them again in spring and removed any diseased wood, and the crop is both abundant and very clean.

Bebeco apricot

Meanwhile in the other orchards, the next variety of peach is starting to colour up and get close to being ripe…

redtop peach

and the plums are just starting to look like they’re growing. These in the photo are Amber Jewel; one of our favourites because they’re really sweet, and they hang really well on the tree, so they’re easy to manage.

amber jewel plumAnd lastly, a peek at the nursery, where we (well, Merv) grow all the fruit trees we plant in the orchards. This year we have cherries, growing magnificently (destined to fill the gaps in the cherry orchard we planted this winter)…

cherry tree nursery

as well as plums, growing from cuttings, that will be budded in February, and apples, grown from seed.

apple tree nursery

Apple seedlings make a big, strong tree, and are very unfashionable to plant these days, but we’re going to do it anyway, having learned over the past few years that the more resilient our trees are, the more resilient our farm is!