All we ever do is have meetings

An alliance meeting in our kitchen
An alliance meeting in our kitchen

Setting up the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (we’re still waiting for someone to come up with a better name….) is exciting, fun, stimulating, inspiring and reinvigorating for us old farmers, but mostly, it’s a lot of meetings!

On the phone, by Skype, in person, at offices in the city, here on the farm—we have been talking to a lot of people about this project over the last few weeks.

Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!
Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!

We’ve been going through a thorough process of interviewing and getting to know each of the applicants for the orchard lease, as we’re keen to choose the person who will be the best fit for the opportunity. We’ve had multiple meetings with other alliance members as they start to work through the detail of setting up or expanding their businesses. We’ve had regular meetings with our business consultant, Clare, to work through the many layers of complexity involved with our business development plan, we’ve met with professionals to get advice on various aspects of our plans, and had meetings with the funding body to report on our progress and discuss next steps. We almost don’t have time to farm any more!

We’ve also had some welcome interest from the media about what we’re doing, and are now starting to get inquiries from other farmers and farming groups interested in doing something similar on their farms. As part of our mission here is to develop a replicable model that can be implemented all around the country, we’re happy to share our progress so far, but all this talking is keeping us from our fruit trees!

Spring is such a crucial time of year in the orchard, when it’s more important than any other time of year to keep our eye on the ball so we can anticipate and respond to the weather to protect the trees while they’re flowering and the fruit is setting. If we stuff up now, we pay for it for the rest of the season!

gala blossom

So we’re feeling a little distracted by nurturing two completely different ‘babies’ at the moment—this year’s fruit crop, and our fledgling alliance. Both promise great things and deserve our full attention, but we can’t wait until we’ve steered them through these early, risky stages and can stand back a bit and take a breath!

Nutrition, open day, and more…

Well, don’t you love how nature runs by its own clock, not our boxed squares of dates? Spring has certainly begun to unfurl but with the hail, threats of snow, and icy winds you’d never think it!! We are watching with wonder the splendour of bulbs and flowers breaking through the grey skies! And brassicas happy with life as you can see…!!

Sas and I are busy out at the patch weeding before it gets out of control, but mostly turning our attentions to the new patch that we had made up and Yeoman ploughed in autumn, thanks to Dave Griffths.

We need to make sure the soil has as much as it needs, so when we put the plants in there, they have enough food to grow us delicious tomatoes and tasty eggplants, and corn, melons, lettuce, potatoes…the list goes on (but I’ll leave some as a surprise 🙂

Our soil is old, no wonder really, and its still got some structure, but not very many of the essential nutrients and minerals that the plants need. It takes time to build soil that holds these nutrients and getting it to a point of balance where they coexist on their own is our long-term plan and what we began in the first patch from day 1. And so it goes with this new piece of land too, but we don’t have as much time! So we have been researching the best ways to feed our soil with local, organic (or to standard) materials…this is tough!! (Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener goes into way more detail!)

I (Mel) am most excited about installing some kind of fertigation system that we install at the main tap of our irrigation lines. Very basically it means we can administer liquid forms of goodness to the entire area with the turn of a tap, rather than by hand via a watering can. Hunter Harvest’s Kat is making us an appropriately strong dilution of her collected rabbit poo (very high in nitrogen) tea. The rabbits names are Alice Cooper, Willie Nelson, Norman, Jerry, Daria, and Quinn. They eat organic feed and sometimes our weeds and live an incredibly happy life.

​There’s also other activities brewing up here in Harcourt – of course one of the major ones is this! Please share it high and wide! (see picture below!)​

We are also trying to get ready for a bumper season by putting the call out for rubber bands! We don’t want to buy them as we can’t find any rubber sources that we ethically agree with and they take forever to break down…currently we’re using Mel’s Mum’s stash but it’s quickly running out! SO, we’re happy to take any you don’t use off your hands! We have set up a jar at ‘The Local’ as a collection point (thanks legends!), let the re-using, recycling begin…

Finally! Gung Hoe Growers are having an open day! Sunday, 24 September, 10 am-12 pm. We’re hoping there’ll be some blue skies we can sit under, share a cuppa and cake as we meet each other looking onto the patch and apricot blossoms! It will be your chance to pick up Chuffed perks, see your perks in action (not naughty, promise! we’ve painted our row signs!) and preorder garlic for Christmas as well as order T-shirts and grab any left over teatowels. WOW! Please click here for all the details.

Now that you’re fully informed, go outside and feel the fresh wind on your face and breathe deep.

Grow well, Mel & Sas x

Making delicious organic yummy things – value-adding for fun and profit!

What does “value-adding” make you think of? Sounds like something to do with economics, doesn’t it? But in farming terms, it’s used to describe any process where you turn raw product (like fruit) into something else (like juice).

The grader at The Wild Apple where juice apples are separated from high-grade eating apples, before being pressed for juice

It’s something we’ve always done at home for our own use, aiming to store as much fresh produce as we can over summer, to eat in winter.

And despite dabbling in value-adding on a commercial scale, we’ve never managed to do it on any scale. To do that would take a real commitment and quite a bit of time, investment in equipment and training, and all the other things involved in launching new products like market testing, labelling, sourcing and logistics.

But the idea still excites us, and remains one of the great untapped potential directions that we (or someone else) could take our farm business. It was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference we went to in South Australia. Nearly every other grower was value-adding, and in every case it was making a big difference to their bottom line.

Super delicious mixed dried stone fruit from O’Reilly’s organic orchard, first dried then frozen for longer storage

Here’s just some of the things other organic orchardists are making/doing that are inspiring us:

  • Juice – some growers are making and pasteurising their own juice, some are selling it fresh and unpasteurised, and some are sending fruit to processors who do the whole process for them;
  • Dried fruit – we saw (and tasted) some beautiful examples of dried fruit (and vegies), and again, growers are processing in a variety of different ways. Some of cutting whole, unpeeled fruit with an automatic mandolin and then drying in a heat-controlled electric machine that rapidly dries fruit to a pre-set moisture level (see the picture of this very cool machine below); some are processing by hand and drying in the sun, and others have semi-automated fruit prep and solar drying systems;
  • Cider – most growers at the ANOO conference grow apples, and lots of them are experimenting with cider and it’s close cousin…
  • Apple cider vinegar – this product has so many uses that any grower that’s making it says they can’t produce enough for their markets (plus it also makes a great basis for a variety of fruit-based vinegars);
  • Frozen – some creative growers have found an excellent market in frozen fruit, using specific varieties known to be high in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and aiming squarely at the health food market. Clever!
  • Jams – apple jelly (with all manner of different flavourings like rosemary, or lavender), apricot jam, plum jam – you name it, someone’s making it (and it’s racing out the door at farmers markets);
  • Preserved/canned fruit – nobody at the ANOO conference is doing this commercially, but several have done trials and are interested in taking it further;
  • Apple pies/pastries – a couple of growers have expanded into the related area of turning fruit into pies and pastries. It’s more fiddly and requires a much higher skill level (you actually need to be able to cook!), but the returns are worth it.
Inside view of electric dehydrator

We’re resigned to the fact that we’re probably never going to start a value-adding business ourselves, but we’re very excited about the possibility of a new member of the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance that we’re setting up (either leases the orchard from us, or someone else) taking up the challenge of developing this side of the business, which promises to not only provide LOTS more ways that we can feed local families with healthy organic food all year round, but also make a healthy difference to the bottom line of the business!

Small scale solar dryer