The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!

New Blood in the Orchard

A couple of years ago I gave up being “busy”. It was when I was doing the project for the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award and had a lot on my plate – you can read about it here.

Here’s what I had to say at the time about being busy…

“My theory is that “busy” is a code word that l (and lots of other people) use when what we really mean is overworked, stressed, under-supported, tired, financially burdened, worried, over-committed, important, in demand, or worthy of your sympathy! For me, busy had become my not-so-subtle way of saying to people (a) look how popular and ‘in demand’ I am; (b) isn’t the life of a farmer hard; (c) don’t expect me to take on anything else; and (d) look at me, I’m superwoman! None of which is actually true.”

Well, old habits die hard! Lately I’ve heard myself not only talking about being busy, but slipping back into the old mindset as well.

It comes with the territory of a fruit season; most farmers with seasonal crops have to cope with the sometimes extreme workloads imposed by harvest (as opposed to dairy farmers, for example, who have a more steady work pace all year).

Harvest is definitely crunch time. It’s arguably the most important part of our farming calendar, because if we don’t get this part of the process right – where we convert produce to money – the rest of it is kind of pointless, unless you’re content for your farm to just be an expensive hobby (and we’re not!).

At this time of year our workload is imposed on us, not just by the demands of picking and storing produce at peak condition, but also packing and selling it, and maintaining all the systems and processes to make everything run smoothly. We’ve been recording our work hours lately, and are averaging 60 hours per week! It’s easy to feel that it’s out of our control – but of course, that’s not true.

Yes, during the peak of the fruit season there is no extra time to have regular business meetings or down time without sacrificing fruit to do so, but as the season starts to slow down into a more manageable pace, it’s easier to find the time to start reflecting on the season and noticing what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and where we could introduce more efficiencies. It’s also when we usually remember that we chose not only this lifestyle, but also every aspect of our business.

As we prepare to hand over the orchard to our intern Ant on 1 July, we’re very conscious of the need to teach him as much as we can about the fruit business, as quickly as possible. But we’re also hoping that his new energy will bring a different perspective to the orchard and lead to new initiatives, new ways of doing business and new efficiencies we’ve never thought of.

We could easily have made different choices: grow fewer varieties to shorten our harvest season, simplify our marketing, use chemicals to reduce our workload, expand the size of the orchard, or even grow different crops. We could even choose day jobs where we work 9 to 5, go home in the evening and leave work behind!

But none of those choices would have matched our values or made us feel good about our careers, and where would be the fun in that?

Phew, it’s the fruit season!

 

This season we are having one of the busiest, most productive fruit seasons we’ve had in years, and people keep asking us why….

The truth is, we’re not sure! It doesn’t come down to a single factor, but a perfect mix of everything going right, for once—and you don’t hear farmers say that very often! (I was going to write ‘perfect storm’, but despite the fact that we’ve had two major storms this year, we’ve escaped with no major damage.)

Considering that our new intern Ant joined us at the beginning of December (you can follow his new Facebook Page here), the fact that December and January have been among our busiest ever has been both good and bad.

Picking apricots in the summer sun

It’s been a bit of a trial by fire for him—getting thrown immediately into the 6-day a week, 10-hour a day kind of craziness that is the fruit season—but on the other hand, at least he’s seen it at its peak, so he’ll know what to expect next year. If he’d started his fruit-growing journey in a quiet year (like we had last year) he wouldn’t have known what hit him next season!

Beautiful mixed boxes of this year’s fabulous fruit bounty

Though a big part of this year’s success is just luck with the weather, it’s also partly the culmination of many years of hard work. We’ve had a replanting program for the last few years and many of those trees are finally coming into full production, we’ve been steadily working on improving the health of our soil, and we’ve been building up the on-farm biodiversity that’s so important to keeping pests and diseases in check.

Plus, we managed to get all the spring sprays on at just the right times, which is so important for preventing key diseases that can be devastating.

Hugh being proud of his nectarines!

It’s incredibly satisfying knowing that we’re bequeathing a healthy, productive orchard to Ant when he takes over next year, and fingers crossed that he has an even BIGGER season in 2019!