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!

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

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!