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!

Orange blossom oil – a new venture

One of our Grow Great Fruit members is busily starting a venture harvesting orange blossom from trees on their property to distill to produce neroli, the beautiful scented orange blossom oil. Here’s her story of their first crack at it this season (and by the way, we’ve smelled the oil and it’s divine!).

Our first morning’s harvest of orange blossom from the orchard was on 19th Oct 2016. Each morning for 14 days we would take the ute up to the orchard and lay the harvest cloths under each tree.

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In all we picked over 350 kg of blossom over the 14 days. We estimate this to be around 50% of blossom available. If we had more pickers and a very efficient still we could process an estimated 600 kg of blossom from this orchard. But that is in the future.

From the orchard the blossom is transported back to the oil room to be sorted ready for distillation the next day. We have let the blossoms sit for 24 hrs as advised by distiller Guenther. Average 25 kg per day.

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The Harvest cloths are fantastic.

Pickers’ notes.  Socks with the toes cut out and used as forearm protection proved mighty good. The area between the wrist and the hand often gets scratched and this helped prevent the damage to the arms.

Long-sleeved shirts, sturdy boots and good thick gloves add further protection from being scratched and also from being bitten by mosquitoes and bugs. Face nets were used to keep bits of nature from falling onto the eyes and face.

Bees were well behaved and we were mindful not to get in their way.

We used yellow irrigation hoses to secure the harvest cloths down on windy days.

Digging sticks were the perfect length and shape to reach and tap the taller limbs so that ripe blossoms fell on the harvest cloths.

We note the need for opening up the trees for ease of access to the blossoms. Will undertake a pruning course and begin to prune trees to suit.

We also noted the need for being able to identify when a tree had been harvested. Will develop a form that shows each numbered tree so that we can comment as we harvest.

Harvesting after 11.30 am is not sensible here as the heat is building and the blossom seem to wilt a tad in the middle of the day. So early starts are the go.

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After the sorting, the blossoms are placed in the still in the water ready for hydro distillation. This is the first time that we have used the still with no column.

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Wood is collected each day for the firebox which is the source of heat. We noted the need for smaller pieces of wood that burn quickly so that we can maintain 100º C and create a good head of steam.

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Weighing the blossom now after the sorting and just prior to putting into still so that we get a more accurate account of blossom weight.

Cleaning the still became an issue. The separator, the condenser and the bowl all were cleaned with citric acid and came up a treat. This stopped the oil being darker than we wanted. I need to ensure that the still is cleaned thoroughly with citric acid between each different plant species being distilled. It is all a learning curve.

Overfilling the still with water, i.e. over 120 liters, led to a very long warm-up time. One day we started at 9.30 am with 160 liters of water and 30 kg of blossom and we did not get hydrosol coming out until 5.30 pm! This was the longest day and a great lesson in finding the balance of water to blossom.

Recommend 120 liters with 25–30 kg of blossom. Less than 20 kg of blossom only requires 100 litres.

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Applying the spelt flour paste.

In all we have produced 190 litres of Neroli hydrosol and 160 ml of Neroli essential oil. Our ratio will improve as we get more knowledgeable and intuitive about the distillation of Orange blossom flowers. Each plant has its own character when distilling. Citrus aurantium certainly is a heady aroma and is not easily coaxed out of the flower petals.

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By day 8 our team was satiated with Neroli qualities. We were too tired to go on so we had a day’s rest to enable us to smell nothing except the Australian bush.

We called it a Nerolized stupor.

So, all done and dusted until next October when the blossoms bloom for a few weeks and we begin the story once more. Great harvest and thanks to all. Now to find a good home for the lot.


If you’re interested in finding out more about buying neroli oil or hydrosol get in touch here, and we’ll pass on your contact details.

Don’t panic – have a party!

Spring on an orchard is traditionally a time of high tension. As the sap in the trees rises, so does the blood pressure, because it’s make or break time in many ways. Fruit trees are at their most vulnerable when they’re flowering, and a frost, or too much rain at the wrong time, or a disease outbreak, can severely impact the crop for the year. On top of that there are a million and one jobs to do, and it always seems to be the season when a crucial piece of equipment goes AWOL. This year the pump has decided to die, a few days before the first hot spell of the year!

Can you tell spring can sometimes not be much fun? We were describing the sense of spring panic to a friend a couple of years ago, and they pointed out that the word ‘panic’ comes from ‘pan’, and Pan is the god of spring! In Greek mythology he’s the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, of fields, groves and wooded glens, and is connected to fertility and the season of spring. So we decided to reframe our panic and to invoke Pan to reclaim spring as a time for gratitude, feasting, celebration, and welcoming in the new season.

METADATA-START

We decided if we were having a celebration, it would be an excellent time to thank the community of people – our village – who help us to run the farm. It’s a long list that includes Katie’s dad Merv who grows our trees for us in the on-farm nursery; the pruning crew of Lucy, Vanessa, Ruth, Peter and Mog (some of whom are also the market crew, along with Tegan); a different Lucy, who has been working with us on designing the new farm shop; Mel and Sas who have added a whole new dimension to the farm’s production with the Gung Hoe Market Garden; Lizzie and David, who lend us their car once a month to do markets on that tricky weekend where we have three markets on the same day; our fabulous intern Victoria; and Evan, who takes our fruit to the wholesale market each week.

It’s a long list, isn’t it? Then there’s all the people who do one-off or occasional things, like Katie’s mum Marcie who acts as our reliable proofreader, all the lovely people who have volunteered for our working bees or donated plants for our new farm shop, and Tom and the other lovely Wwoofers who share our lives. And of course we’re also very grateful for all our Grow Great Fruit members, our appreciative and loyal customers, and the thousands of people who follow us on Facebook. It’s a pretty big village!

In keeping with the spring theme we had an egg-based feast, with eggs appearing in entree, main and dessert, and oh boy, it was delicious. We also had a bonfire (which was just as well, because the evening was freezing cold), so the evening finished with wine and marshmallows around the fire while we were entertained by Victoria’s angelic singing. It was a great night, and a satisfying way to declare season 2015/16 officially launched!

METADATA-START

 


RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – week 28

Meanwhile my RIRDC project has been marching on. The past fortnight I’ve:

  • been on the judging panel for the Rural Ambassador Award for the Victorian Show Association
  • ended the competition for stallholders to see who could get the most new Facebook ‘likes’ and win $300 of stallholders at their market
  • been working on stage 2 of the project, getting feedback from the Farmers Market strategy, and also developing the model of how to implement social media at farmers markets for the most effective outcomes
  • been talking to some other women who are interested in applying for the award

My project, called “Growing Communities Around Farmers Markets” has been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Rural Women’s Awards.  Nominations for the 2016 awards have just opened.