We know it’s winter when…

We know it’s winter when…we stop rushing to harvest the salad as early as possible before the sun makes the delicate leaves wilt and instead we switch to harvesting it when our hands have warmed up enough to have the dexterity to pick it! We know it’s winter when we pack away all our veggie shade netting and pull out the frost cloth to protect our delicate green leaves from freezing. We know it’s a dry winter when the skin on our hands is as cracked and dry as the soil itself and when we are still watering the vegetables in July (we would normally stop in April)! And we know it’s winter when we can take a holiday.

Things never stop needing to be done on the farm, we harvest and sell vegetables every week of the year, but one of the beauties of being in a business partnership is that you can step away every now and then and know that everything will keep on ticking and being cared for while you’re away.

This time last year we were just starting to prepare the ‘new patch’ with a run over by Dave Griffiths and his Yeoman’s plough. We grew our first crops on that fresh ground in summer and are now almost finished getting everything for winter and spring in the ground. The first caulis and brocs are ready for harvest and we may actually even get some brussel sprouts this year!

This winter we’re putting in our first rhubarb and asparagus crowns, cape gooseberries, and globe artichokes, which is very exciting. The thought of permanent rows of perennial edibles warms my heart. We’re also starting to put in some edible wind and roo breaks to protect our patch—pomegranates, citrus, elder flowers, and maybe even an avocado or two.

With the help of our lovely vollies we have also planted loads of spring flowering bulbs like daffodils, jonquils, irises, freesias and ranunculus. Just coz they’re beautiful and just coz by the time spring comes we’re all really hanging out for those bursts of colour to remind us the soil is warming up!

Grow well

Sas

When farmers get help, magic happens…

We had the pleasure this week of speaking at a conference in Canberra about being part of the Farming Together (federal) funding program designed to encourage collaboration between farming groups.
We were speaking about setting up the co-op here on the farm, and our “succession + growth” model generated a lot of interest, because there’s a lot of farmers in the same situation as us, i.e., thinking about retirement or at least wanting to step back, but not wanting to sell the farm or stop it being productive.
Previous generations solved this problem by handing the farm down to the kids, and 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation family farms are not uncommon. But things are rapidly changing and it’s no longer a given that the next generation will come home on the farm. So, we’re hopeful that the model we’re creating will be of use to lots of other people.
The sort of innovation that we’re demonstrating here was very much the tone of the conference. We came away feeling totally inspired by the other farming groups we heard from, and brought lots of new ideas back to Harcourt with us. Here’s some of the highlights:
  • Braidwood Garlic Growers Co-op, who are helping more than 30 members make a living from their very small holdings by learning and marketing together.
  • King Island Beef Producers Benchmarking Group, who told the story of taking a field trip to another group of farmers who were already experienced in benchmarking, and being amazed to find they had totally overcome their fear of sharing their financial and production information with each other! They went on to develop the list of shared values (in the photo) that has led to increased profitability for the whole group.
  • The berry growers co-op (who are way bigger than we’ll ever be, but still had great ideas to learn from), who presented the financial analysis showing the value of investing in crop-protecting infrastructure.
We’re not in the business of being the mouthpiece for government, but this was a really good program. In just 1 year they fostered 224 co-ops, worked with 750 groups, and helped more than 28,500 primary producers.
Inspiring stuff, but behind the numbers is the fact that this program worked really well for us, the farmers.  We got into the program after an initial assessment (by phone) and were assigned a business consultant, and after that it was their job to understand what we needed and apply for the funding to deliver it. We got great service and the professional advice we needed to develop our co-op with a minimum of our time taken up with bureaucracy, leaving us time to actually work on our idea.
In accordance with the unfathomable way that government sometimes works, this effective, bloody good-value program didn’t get funded in the last budget, so we’d like to give a big thanks to the Farming Together team and the team of consultants who helped us, especially the indomitable Clare Fountain.

The joy of growing your own fruit trees

Katie in front of what’s going to become the Harcourt heritage fruit tree nursery

As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.

Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.

Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.

Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!

Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?

Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.

We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.

But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!

We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.

A successful bud on one of our experimental citrus trees

He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.

Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!

Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.

The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.

From little things…