Springy Excitement

While we continue to look for the right person to join our organic farming alliance and lease the orchard from us, we’ve committed to keep the orchard going strongly as usual. We’re suddenly in the thick of spring, and it’s as fun and exciting as ever!

Beautiful Anzac peach flowers in spring
Beautiful Anzac peach flowers mark the start of spring

We spend most of our time being serious business people, but to be honest at the moment we’re feeling like little kids, wanting to jump up and down and wave our hands around and shout ‘Over here, come on, come and join us, this is fuuuun!’ (but we don’t want to look un-cool).

Hugh wearing his spray suit for putting out organic fungicides
Hugh and Oscar looking very excited about spring

We’re a little surprised that there’s been so much caution about taking on our orchard, but I guess until you’ve experienced the actual process of watching trees that you’ve nurtured produce money for you, it’s kind of easy to be nervous about the challenge of taking on something big and new, rather than excited about the joys of being involved in such an incredible process. Of course there are risks, and many low points when things go wrong and you feel responsible, but every year we feel like its an absolute privilege to caretake the trees as they do their thing.

Almonds coming into full bloom

Spring is such an active and changing time of year, the trees literally look different from day to day, almost hour to hour. We’re feeling very aware that whoever will be taking over the orchard from us is missing this beautiful and interesting time in the orchard-this is like the ‘engine room’ of the whole season, when we’re on high alert monitoring the weather and the trees so we can be as responsive as possible with our organic fungicides.  Getting them on at the right times is crucial, especially in wet weather like we’ve had the last couple of weeks, and can make a huge difference to the outcome of the season. It’s a time when we could be teaching our new orchardist(s) a lot!

Bee working hard in an Anzac peach flower
Bee working hard in an Anzac peach flower

The Anzac peaches are out in beautiful flower, and lots of the other peach and nectarine varieties are rapidly approaching budswell.

The first of the blood plums are about to flower (the first few flowers are just appearing), some almond varieties are in full flower, and the first variety of apricots burst into flower yesterday, virtually as we were watching them out the kitchen window. Every couple of hours a bit more of the deep crimson of the swollen buds burst into patches of pink along the row as the flowers opened. I know, it’s just nature and it happens every year, but we never get sick of watching it, it’s such a miracle to see little dry-looking buds turn into flowers, and then into fruit. This job never gets old!

Meanwhile other parts of the orchard are still in deep winter! We’ve only just finished planting trees (a winter job), we’ve just finished cutting last year’s grafts back to the bud (a winter job), and we’re still finishing the winter pruning, which we try to do while the trees are still dormant because it’s the the best way to get a nice strong growth response from the trees.

So we’re straddling two seasons, having fun, and waking up excitedly each morning to see what looks different!

Viva la spring!

Organic farmers get thrown out of organic cafe!

Australian Network of Organic Orchardists ANOO conference
Rowdy organic orchardists tearing it up at this year’s ANOO conference

Yes, it’s true, this year’s Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference (yep, all of us) was asked to leave the cafe where we were holding our meetings (you can see from the photo what a rowdy bunch we are) after the management decided we were taking up too much room!  It was much funnier and less dramatic than it sounds, and actually one of the least interesting thing that happened over the 2-day gathering.

This was the third conference, and was held this year in the Adelaide Hills, where there are quite a few organic orchardists, mainly growing apples and cherries. The field trips are always a highlight of the conference – we always learn a lot through seeing other people’s orchards, asking questions and comparing notes. One of the biggest differences (in our eyes) is that they have vertical orchards (man, those hills are steep), but they’re completely used to it and don’t even seem to rate it as a challenge!

Kalangadoo Organics farm door stall
Chris and Michelle from Kalangadoo Organics showing us the simple stall they use for farm door sales

On the way over we stopped to visit Chris and Michelle at Kalangadoo Organics (you might have seen them last year on Gardening Australia), and had a fantastic tour of their property. They showed us how they’ve set up fencing to keep chickens in the orchards with their guard Maremmas, the clever farm-door sales stall they’ve built, and their fabulous arboretum, where they’ve been testing about 90 different apple varieties for black spot resistance for a number of years (we also brought home some wood from the most resistant varieties!). They’ve also leased some of their land to a young couple to start a market garden, so there’s a lot of similarities in our future plans as well; we had lots to talk about and they were very generous with their time.

ANOO has purposely been set up very informally with a completely flat structure, the organisation of each year’s conference shifting to a new area and person each year. Any certified orchardist is welcome, as long as they’re willing to share and participate. Most are apple growers, but quite a few also have stone fruit. Part of the conference is a round-table discussion about everyone’s season, their successes and failures, trials that have been implemented, new business ideas, and pest and disease management challenges. It’s probably the most valuable part of the event.

There was lots of interest in our organic farming alliance idea, with several other farms currently looking at or interested in similar ideas. It was surprising for example how many are either already using animals in their orchards or looking at doing it, like Matt and Coreen from Our Mates Farm who are experimenting with pigs, sheep and chickens in the orchard at their place in Geeveston (Tas.). The benefits for both health and fertility in the orchard, as well as providing extra income streams, seems to be clear, and it’s one of the things we’d love to see come out of our Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance. It was great that there was enough experience within the group to be able to discuss the relative merits of Shropshire sheep vs Wiltshire Horns, for example!

Dried organic fruit from O'Reilly's Orchard
Dried organic fruit from O’Reilly’s Orchard

Value-adding was another hot topic of discussion, and again most orchards are already value-adding or planning to do so. David O’Reilly from O’Reilly’s Orchards brought some of his dried fruit medley and dried tomotoes along for people to try, and they were delicious! He struggles to keep up with demand, which highlighted another theme—that demand for organic produce keeps outstripping supply.

Other people are making everything from juice of various descriptions (both pasteurised and non-pasteurised) to cider, apple pies, pastries and frozen fruit. There was lots of discussion about equipment, techniques, markets, packaging and prices – an absolute goldmine of ideas!

As well as sharing the considerable wisdom and experience within the group, we also heard from a few speakers, including the guys from NASAA who tried to clarify the very confusing picture of organic standards in Australia for us! One of the chemical companies who service the organic industry came along to tell us about some new certified organic products, which led to some really interesting discussions among the group about “input” organics vs “true” organics, for want of a better way of describing it. Most ANOO members are small to medium-sized growers who share a deep understanding and appreciation of active soil biology as the basis for their healthy orchards;  we value our weeds and think of them as an integral part of our ecosystem, so it was kind of weird to hear about a new organic herbicide – we were all left wondering who it was aimed at…

Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory
Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory

More in line with our philosophical approach to farming was the tour of the Neutrog factory, where they make a range of certified organic fertilisers from chicken waste. We were all impressed with the talk from their soil biologist which went beyond the basics of soil biology (which everyone was familiar with) deep into things like the regionality of different soil organisms. Even though certified organic fertilisers like this support biological farming, it still raised some interesting questions about the ethics of using waste products from factory-farmed chickens – so few decisions in farming are simple!

Another great joy was to spend time with Victoria, our intern from a couple of years ago, who lives in Adelaide. You may remember that since she was with us Victoria was diagnosed with and has been battling Lyme disease, and has had a pretty rough trot. She’s recently got onto a new treatment that seems to be making a real difference to her, so she was able to join us for a few sessions, where she immediately fitted right in, clearly demonstrating that she has the soul of a farmer!

Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year's ANOO conference
Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year’s ANOO conference

On the way home we were talking about the highlights and what we’d learned and it’s clear to us that the very best thing to come out of these gatherings is the gathering! Being part of a group, making new friends (especially friends who are as nerdy about fruit growing as us), and feeling like we’re not alone in this farming caper is absolute gold!

Wild Boars in Vietnam

 

Everywhere we go as we travel through Vietnam (where we’re currently taking a short break) we’re constantly looking at the landscape through farmers’ eyes as we try to make sense of the farming systems we’re observing.

It’s completely fascinating seeing the rich tapestry of rice paddies, ducks, cows, water buffalo, aquaculture, corn fields, orchards, vegetable plots, jungle, chickens and various mystery crops – and of course houses, villages, and tombs dotted throughout the landscape, that fills pretty much every inch of the countryside between cities.

Our heads are full of dozens of questions, making us acutely aware of how little we know about farming outside our own specialty and climate: are all those people in the rice paddies weeding, planting or harvesting? Do they own the land, or do they work for someone else? How on earth do they get the water to move exactly where they want it in such a flat landscape (there’s a huge amount of water, at different depths in different paddies, and we can’t see any pumps or infrastructure)? What are those trees (we ask ourselves that question a lot)? Why are some cows tethered and others seem to roam free? Why are there fences in some areas but not in others – is it all one big farm or lots of little ones cheek by jowl? Are those things that look like haystacks actually haystacks, and if so what’s the crop and what are they used for (and how on earth do they get them so high?)

Whenever we’re lucky enough to find a local that speaks enough English we pepper them with questions, learning a bit more each time. (We speak only about ten words of Vietnamese, enough to order a beer but not enough to ask anything at all about farming.)

We came a small but meaningful step closer to understanding what’s going on this week by spending half a day with a farmer on his farm. Cuong runs the Wild Boar Eco Farm in Bong Lai valley, a 10 ha mixed farm on the edge of the jungle, that is also a fledgling ecotourism enterprise. We visited his farm while we were staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, near the Phone Nha – Ke Bang National Park,  which contains a massive and incredible cave system, including what has been recognised as the largest cave in the world — Son Doong.

We’ve become very aware of the double-edged sword that tourism represents, as are many of the locals we spoke to. This region used to be very poor, and some of the locals working at Phong Nha Farmstay have memories of hungry childhoods and extreme poverty, even Hung, a supervisor at the farmstay,  whose father is the head man of his village.

The district around Phong Nha is now experiencing a huge tourist boom, largely due to the caves which receive an average of 3,000 visitors a day! It’s providing heaps of local employment and helping to lift the region out of poverty. Much of the wealth going into local communities seems to be put immediately into improved housing, and we saw prosperous-looking houses being built everywhere, much of it replacing simple wooden shacks that people lived in previously.

The development of rural tourism is also providing an alternative to the trend of young people leaving rural districts to find work in the big cities so they can send money home to support their families. After experiencing life in a large, modern, cosmopolitan city, many don’t then want to return to take over the family farm when the time comes. However, most of the young people employed at Phong Nha Farmstay are from the local area, and it’s providing them with the means to stay. While we there, Huong, one of the bar staff, was looking a bit bleary-eyed for a day or two because it was corn harvest season, and she was rushing home from work to help with the family corn harvest, which extended well into the nights until it was all finished. Though university educated (nearly every young person we’ve spoken to is), Huong plans to continue both her career in tourism and the family farming tradition.

The downside of this economic boom is the same as it always is – loss of cultural identity, changes to traditional family life, big business moving in, and destruction of natural resources. We were pleasantly surprised at how sensitively the Vietnamese government seems to be developing the cave region, but 3,000 visitors a day takes its toll nonetheless, and while the locals welcome the new opportunities that are opening up, several also mentioned aspects they find distressing.

Change is always difficult, and it’s easy to form quick judgements about whether something is “good” or “bad” through our priveleged western eyes. Meeting Cuong gave us more food for thought.

Cuong is a young farmer with a very entrepreneurial glint in his eye! He can see the opportunity created by the flood of tourists to his district, and is keen to grab the chance with both hands so he can raise his family out of subsistence farming, give his kids a good education, and employ people to do his farm work!  He’s working on creating a farm tourism experience for foreign visitors (despite the huge rise in domestic tourism Cuong isn’t aiming for this market, as he thinks they are too demanding and leave too much rubbish around!).

We were the first visitors to take up his offer of a farm tour, and he couldn’t quite believe we really wanted to see it, thinking it a very poor example compared to the huge and pristine farm he seemed to imagine we had (if only he knew!). It was fascinating, and we really valued the chance to see it close up and ask loads of questions. We had to resort to smartphone translation a few times, but were able to get a good level of detail. (I know this is a long blog post, but his farm was too interesting not to share!)

Cuong’s staple crops are:

  • Rubber- Cuong has recently expanded his plantation and has many trees not old enough to tap yet.

  • Bananas – we had our first ever experience of eating a banana direct from the tree – delicious! (The cutie is Cuong’s daughter, who traipsed around the whole farm tour with us).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Wild boar – he catches adult boars in the jungle, then domesticates and breeds them, selling piglets at about 10 months old. He also has plans to use his own pig meat for his restaurant. The pigs forage for most of their feed, with supplementary sweet potato greens harvested from the banana plantation and a few pellets for the piglets.

  • Peanuts, which were used for the absolutely delicious peanut sauce we had with the wild boar Coung’s wife cooked for lunch;

  • Cassava, harvested mainly for noodles
  • Sweet potato, used both for human and animal food
  • Acacias, or “paper trees”, harvested for paper making. They grow quickly (the speed of growth of trees was enough to make us weep with envy), and are then coppiced and allowed to regrow.

In his move to eco-tourism Cuong’s adding all sorts of new features:

  • two simple homestay accomodation rooms;
  • a beautiful little restaurant (complete with hammocks) overlooking the jungle and meandering river that forms one boundary, which can be accessed for a pre-lunch swim via the stairs he’s built into the riverbank;
  • an amazing tropical mixed orchard of about 100 trees including mango, “breast milk fruit tree” (a kind of sapote), papaya, lychee, jackfruit, coconut, orange and guava. He’s aiming for a big diversity of fruit to add to the farm tour and homestay experience.

There were a lot of diferences between his farming experience and ours, for example he has no mechanisation at all, relying on water buffalo for ploughing (which he assured us are very, very, very slow), and very little infrastructure, meaning he has to water his trees by hand with a hose, which takes several hours every couple of days.

There were also lots of similarities, including the constant need to be building and maintaining fences, and frustration with various pests such as wild boar eating the trunks of young trees (he was intrigued by our tales of kangaroos doing the same thing to our young apple trees!).

Cuoung and his young family work incredibly hard, for a fraction of the return on his crops that we receive, and has no control over the price he receives for many of his crops – like so many farmers the world around. Eco-tourism gives him the chance to develop his own market, set his own prices, value-add, and have a real chance to escape the cycle of poverty that so many small scale farmers experience. If you’re going to Vietnam any time soon, drop in and say g’day to him.