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!

Getting Up Close and Personal

If you follow us on Facebook, you might be seeing a bit more of our faces in coming weeks, because we’ve started doing Facebook Live videos.

Thumbnail of this week's Facebook Live video showing Katie talking about apricots in spring
Thumbnail of this week’s Facebook Live video showing Katie talking about apricots in spring

We need to put in a little disclaimer right at the start—don’t expect anything too professional, we’re definitely better farmers than we are videographers, and this first video is a bit ropey, especially the sound. We didn’t realise what a difference a bit of wind would make and it sounds like there’s a jet engine firing up in the background, but we’ll get that sorted before we do the next one!

So, why are we putting ourselves through the mild torture of videoing ourselves regularly when we could be quietly going about the business of growing organic fruit?

Doing a home visit to help someone get the most out of their fruit trees
Doing a home visit to help someone get the most out of their fruit trees

Because even though we’ve been teaching organic fruit growing for a few years now, we got a sharp reminder last week about how many people out there are still not aware of why it’s so important that as many people as possible learn how to nurture the soil and grow their own food.

It’s easy for us to get complacent because we’re often surrounded by people who ‘get’ that our food system is under serious pressure, so we were pretty shocked and saddened when we attended a function recently where one of the drawcards was the ‘sustainable’ food supplied for morning tea—every item was imported, out of season, or highly processed! And there was no organic produce at all! What was worse was that the organisers knew they had organic growers present and made a point of letting us know they’d put some thought into the food. Their version of ‘sustainable’ was to include some fruit and a couple of salads alongside the highly processed deep-fried offerings.

We could have wept…

But, instead, we went back to the drawing board and thought about what else we can do to help to get the message out there about the many, many benefits that come from growing at least a small portion of your own food organically, as well as sourcing food that has been grown in a regenerative farming system. People need to understand that these simple choices are incredibly powerful, and can make a real difference to your health and well-being, your family budget, and the health of the planet. And we decided we need to do it in a way that’s easy for people to access, free, and not too hard for us to produce. Hence, Facebook Live!

We’re probably also influenced by a dinner we had recently with some close friends who told us—almost in passing—that they’ve decided to pull out their fruit trees because they’re sick of putting in all the work of looking after the trees and not getting any fruit year after year, and why should they bother any more when they can just buy beautiful organic fruit from us?

Well, we were honoured, but also deeply saddened. These guys are great gardeners, take a lot of pride in it, and produce almost enough vegies to feed their family all year. But they were giving up on their fruit trees. They’d never joined any of our teaching programs because they didn’t want to muddy the waters of our friendship, they hadn’t wanted to impose on the friendship by asking for free advice, and we hadn’t wanted to offer unsolicited advice either. But we know they’re “that close” to getting a great crop from their fruit trees, there’s just small gaps in their knowledge that mean they’ve been missing a few small crucial jobs each year that have made the difference between success and failure.

Katie getting some spring jobs done in the orchardSo, we’re making it personal! We’ve realised we need to step it up a notch and provide a heap more information that touches people in a different way to get our message out there more effectively. We want to bring people onto the farm (without actually bringing them all onto the farm…) so you can see for yourself in real time what’s involved with producing your food, and that with the right guidance it’s really not that hard!

Look out for us in coming weeks and months—you’ll be seeing our faces a bit more often from now on (and please don’t judge us on our lack of video skills!).

Hugh standing near the fruit trees doing a site visit

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!