Spring Fever

Cherries, one of the earliest crops we pick
Cherries, one of the earliest crops we pick

Our new orchard intern Ant will be starting in a couple of weeks – and we’re super excited! But we’re very conscious that he will have missed all of spring, which is the ‘engine room’ of the fruit season, when most of the important stuff that determines how the season will turn out happens.

Along with the intensive training we’ll be providing Ant, we want him to get a good understanding of what each season on the farm is like, to help him with his planning. So while it’s very fresh in our mind, we thought it a great time to sum up what spring on a busy organic orchard looks like. (All these jobs need to be done whether you have 6 trees or 6,000, so hopefully this list should be useful for everyone with fruit trees!)

As we move from winter to spring, the way we prioritise our jobs gradually shifts from those jobs that are good for the trees (and next year’s fruit) in the longer term, like compost and fertiliser, to what’s most crucial for looking after this year’s fruit (short-term) like netting, taping and thinning. Once the fruit is ripe and ready for picking, top of the list every day is, what needs picking today?

It looks like a big list and it can certainly feel overwhelming while you’re in the middle of it,  but as long as you’re prepared for the fact that spring needs your full-time attention it’s all quite doable – though wherever possible it’s great to lighten the load by having friends or volunteers to help out, and in our case employing people where necessary, to make sure the jobs all get done.

Spraying
Hugh wearing appropriate Personal Safety Equipment (even though we use organic fungicides, you can't be too careful!)
Hugh wearing appropriate Personal Safety Equipment (even though we use organic fungicides, you can’t be too careful!)

This one starts way back in August, when we have to start monitoring for the first signs of budswell in the peaches and nectarines, and from then on we’re monitoring regularly for two things (the trees as they flower, and the weather) to make sure all trees have an organic fungicide on at the right time.

Depending on which trees need to be sprayed, this job can take anything from 2  hours to all day, and depending on the weather, it might need doing a couple of times a week, or not for weeks!

Weed control
It's important to whipper snip around any trees that will be taped
It’s important to whipper-snip around any trees that will be taped

With spring comes rain and warmth, and the grass starts growing. This is basically a good thing because all these lovely annuals start pumping carbon into the soil, but we can’t let the weeds get too long around the trees, so it means we need to start slashing – and keep slashing regularly, right through summer until the grass slows down. It’s mostly a tractor job (until we introduce some animals into the orchards), with some back-up work with the whipper-snipper around any young trees.

Taping
Hana and Helle (awesome volunteers) helping to tape the nectarines
Hana and Helle (awesome volunteers) helping to tape the nectarines

This job is simple and quick (just putting a bit of double-sided tape around the trunk of the tree. It only takes a couple of minutes per tree), but its one of the most important jobs we do for trees where the main fruit-eating pest are earwigs and garden weevils (cherries and nectarines in particular). One of the tricks we’ve learned over the years—don’t put it off! It’s really good to get this job done nice and early, before the earwigs are in the tree, because if you put the tape on after they’re in the tree then you’re trapping them up there! It’s also a sticky job, so it’s definitely worth gathering a couple of buddies, getting hold of some disposable gloves, and going for it!

Irrigation system
It's important to test all the drippers at the start of the season
It’s important to test all the drippers at the start of the season

Watering itself needs to start happening as soon as the weather is warm enough and the soil dry enough to warrant it, which will be different each year (but was in mid-spring for us this year). But before that, there’s lots of little maintenance jobs that can practically be done in late winter, so you get them out of the way before spring craziness happens—checking the pump, checking and cleaning out all the filters, flushing out the irrigation lines in each orchard, and then turning the system on and checking every dripper. Admittedly, this is a job that’s much more pleasant to do in warm weather (yep, you’re gonna get wet…), but from a time-management point of view, the earlier the better!

Thinning
Thinning in the mixed block
Thinning in the mixed block

Thinning is one of those jobs that you can’t start until the fruit is big enough, but as soon as you start it should have been finished yesterday (before the fruit gets too big)! Luckily this job is also quite spread out, because there’s usually time to finish thinning the apricots by the time the peaches and nectarines are ready, and then we move onto the plums, the apples and the pears. It’s a big job because most trees need thinning (except cherries) and each tree can take a long time. It’s definitely one job where many hands make light work. Here on the farm this is one of the main jobs we employ people to help with each year.

Netting

There’s not much point doing all these other jobs if then we let the birds eat the fruit (and they will, they always do!). So, as soon as the thinning and taping is done, it’s time to get the nets on.

Netting is another team effort. For us this means one person to drive the tractor forward to drape the net down over the row of trees, and two to hold the sides of the net to spread it out over the trees. Then we all help with tying the net down so the birds can’t get in underneath. Again, this job doesn’t take very long (only about 1/2 hour per row, plus the setting up time of getting the equipment and finding the right nets!).

Feeding the microbes
Putting compost tea into the irrigation system
Putting compost tea into the irrigation system

In early spring the trees get their energy from the nutrient they stored in their bark, roots and buds the previous season, but as soon as that runs out they need to be able to quickly access whatever they need from the soil via their roots, which means we need to make sure the soil microbes are active and well fed, so they can feed the trees. Compost tea (to top up the microbe populations), microbe foods (mainly liquid fish and kelp), organic matter (compost), and any manure we might get hold of—any or all of these are applied from early spring onwards, and we keep this going right through the growing and fruiting season.  Compost tea is great because it is a liquid and so can be injected straight into the irrigation lines. (On a backyard scale it’s an easy knapsack job.)

Picking, packing and selling

So, after all that, it’s kind of a relief when the fruit starts ripening, the cricket season starts (providing perfect packing shed easy listening) and the rhythm morphs into a more steady summer pace of picking, packing and selling all that delicious organic fruit we’ve been nurturing!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Well, maybe not in the moment when you look back and realise that if you had done things a little differently, or with a little more forethought, you might have saved yourself a whole lotta work. But there’s always next time, right?

We’re sure there was a really good reason we got Dave with his tractor to form up the long beds in our new patch in winter. We just can’t really remember what the reasons were. Maybe we had more ambitious ideas about actually planting into them in winter, or sowing a green manure crop that we’d dig in in late winter to feed the soil ready for spring and summer crops. All good ideas in theory, but actually what has happened is that all those beautiful long clean rows, carefully prepared in June, have grown a bumper crop of beautiful weeds and now in preparation for our spring plantings we have to deal with them! In hindsight, now would be the perfect time to have our once-off visit from Dave with his machine to form up the new beds, turning the beautiful lush winter weeds into the soil, green manure style at the same time… ready for mulching and planting out in a few weeks for summer.

With our glass-half-full brains on, the weeds that have grown in the new beds are a perfect, diverse green manure crop, just waiting to feed our soil. But 630 square metres of land is a lot to dig by hand! Our new patch is also critically low in nitrogen (amongst other nutrients) and so the last two weeks has seen us shift 10 cubic meters of organic cow poo by wheelbarrow onto the new beds and spend 10 hours straight on a rotary hoe and 10 hours straight on a whipper-snipper to slash, turn, and tuck all those weeds and cow poo back into the soil. This time without the big tractor!

Using a rotary hoe is not our preferred method, as over time and with overuse it can create a compaction layer in the soil. But coupled with our deep broadforking every time we plant a new crop and encouragement of life in the soil, we figure we can get away with it, just this once!

Mel and I are fairly well spent after the last few weeks, but all the babies in the hot-house are coming along nicely and will need planting out soon. So, clearing out the last of our spring crops, feeding and mulching the beds ready to receive them is the focus of the next few weeks. The patch is gorgeous at the moment, flowers everywhere…even some very early sunflowers that sowed themselves in the paths at the end of last summer and survived the entire winter. Ripe tomatoes can’t be too far off…Love it.

Organic farmers get thrown out of organic cafe!

Australian Network of Organic Orchardists ANOO conference
Rowdy organic orchardists tearing it up at this year’s ANOO conference

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!

Kalangadoo Organics farm door stall
Chris and Michelle from Kalangadoo Organics showing us the simple stall they use for farm door sales

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!

Dried organic fruit from O'Reilly's Orchard
Dried organic fruit from O’Reilly’s Orchard

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…

Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory
Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory

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!

Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year's ANOO conference
Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year’s ANOO conference

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!