Well its been an interesting fortnight, that’s for sure! How is everyone out there? The season has definitely started to turn—I see fat buds waiting for their chance to burst and the golden blush of the first wattles across the land. I (Mel) have been away in NSW, in a little bush shack. I had the company of two dogs—Scallywag and a kelpie named Pickle—an arrangement of chooks, bellbirds, bower birds, whip birds, wombats, poetry, the beach and a hearty fireplace. Oh! and my new favourite tipple—Maidenii Vermouth.
This year has still had its ripples from the years that came before it and I knew I needed Mel solo time. I was surrounded by green and lush and life, as well as slow, quiet, and a chance to really rest and give myself some time (I’m aware this opportunity is a big privilege and precious and view it as such). I also had moments of exploration to nearby towns for op-shops and coffee and record hunting, discovering old friends and new. I sat with solitude and ate it up, and have taken away learnings, not the least being how important it is to care for yourself and even one step further—give yourself love (might sound hippy-dippy, but it’s straight down the line true!).
This poem penned by Judith Wright (Aussie lady yiew!) was the stand out to me of how the seasons around us change, but also how the seasons in ourselves change in their own, right, and beautiful time. As with nature, it is within us…I hope you can take a moment and read the words of The Cedars.
On the way back to Victoria I had an unfortunate meeting with a corner, wet roads, and some trees. It wasn’t a good experience and we’re (Scally and me) totally lucky we’re all ok. The towtruck guy amongst others said I “shoulda bought a lottery ticket” that day… So arriving home shaken and sore, we hit the ground running with the Harcourt Alliance vision day (not as flouncy as it sounds i promise you. We worked hard!) and it was bloody amazing and reassuring how each individual around that table was thinking along the same lines as their neighbour and as it continued the whole way round. An alliance of farmers and primary producers standing tall and strong. It was awesome.
And so I’m left here, at the end of another week (but what does Friday mean really….not much for those of our ilk) with a feeling of almost a reset. It’s weird, and I’m not holding my breath, but coming back and working in the dirt, surrounded by the possibility and people involved both here in Harcourt, but all over Australia, I have a renewed sense of gratitude that growing food is what I get to do. It’s bloody hard work, and we’re not there yet (who is though!) but for now, this is absolutely the best.
May your buds burst at just the right time (even if it doesn’t seem like it to you—trust them, they know better than us).
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!
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!
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…
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!
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!
What do farmers do on holiday (when they take them)…!? Visit other farms of course! After two years of heads down bums up, Mel and I decided it was time to pull our heads out and visit some rock star farmers that we’ve heard about and connected with via the various social media pages for market gardeners. What tools do they use? How do they plant and harvest their salad mix? Do they use poly tunnels, what kind of irrigation, how do they work out how to price their veggies, who do they sell to? Direct sown or seedlings, are their beds really as weed free as their Instagram would have you think …? So many questions had we!
Gung Hoe is at a stage where we have grown our growing area to a size that means we have to get a whole lot smarter and more efficient with how we do things. There are so many that have gone before us, made mistakes and had brilliant successes, and the beautiful thing about the small-scale market gardening community in Australia is that everyone is so open about sharing their learning and tips…shoulders of giants and all that.
So we hit the road. iPods charged and questions at the ready. First stop was Erin at RAD Growers in Albury. She grows on 1.5 acres of land in a climate similar(ish) to us and sells most of her produce via weekly mixed boxes to the local community, also supplying yummy stuff to restaurants. Erin has her business smarts sorted and is unapologetic about the quality of her produce and the price it should return. She has been farming about the same amount of time as us and has worked incredibly hard to make her farm beautifully productive and diverse in that time, despite massive floods that saw her canoeing over her submerged crops!
Half a day’s drive up the road we stopped in to see Emily and Michael at Bright side produce in Captains Flat (near Canberra). These guys are getting seriously close to the tree line (at least that’s how it felt with frozen dams, snow gums and a standard morning temperature of -10!) These guys, same as us, are growing on ¼ acre but in such a different climate…two weeks frost free a year! Even so they manage to make a living growing and selling their mountain fresh produce and eggs to the local and Canberra communities and restaurants. We had such a nice time hanging out with them in their quiet mountain home, picking each other’s brains and eating soup. Running backwards in the dark with Mel and Michael down a steep, rocky hill in front of a slightly out of control chook mobile while Ninja the dog ran in circles under our feet trying to round up the chooks was an exciting moment.
Last stop was with Lizzie Clay at Baw Baw organics in Piedmont. What a woman. The daughter of a market gardener, she has been growing organically on her property for 30 years. While the rain bucketed down outside, Lizzie offered us so much wisdom, encouragement and insight from her amazing and diverse experience. We hardly left her kitchen table for the 24 hours that we were there! This is a woman who thinks big but knows the power of planting a single seed, always learning, always pushing the boundaries and finding new ways of doing things that also benefit the wider community and the land on which she grows.
Our roady has left us with lots to process and some clear ideas for our next steps and how we can shift things up a gear (scuse the pun). We were so grateful and humbled by the generosity of our fellow farmers, offering so much of their time, knowledge and patience amidst their busy days. Thanks dudes, its so nourishing to know there are others out there doing what we’re doing, thinking about the same things and finding creative solutions to the challenges of growing good food for local communities.