New Blood in the Orchard

A couple of years ago I gave up being “busy”. It was when I was doing the project for the RIRDC Rural Women’s Award and had a lot on my plate – you can read about it here.

Here’s what I had to say at the time about being busy…

“My theory is that “busy” is a code word that l (and lots of other people) use when what we really mean is overworked, stressed, under-supported, tired, financially burdened, worried, over-committed, important, in demand, or worthy of your sympathy! For me, busy had become my not-so-subtle way of saying to people (a) look how popular and ‘in demand’ I am; (b) isn’t the life of a farmer hard; (c) don’t expect me to take on anything else; and (d) look at me, I’m superwoman! None of which is actually true.”

Well, old habits die hard! Lately I’ve heard myself not only talking about being busy, but slipping back into the old mindset as well.

It comes with the territory of a fruit season; most farmers with seasonal crops have to cope with the sometimes extreme workloads imposed by harvest (as opposed to dairy farmers, for example, who have a more steady work pace all year).

Harvest is definitely crunch time. It’s arguably the most important part of our farming calendar, because if we don’t get this part of the process right – where we convert produce to money – the rest of it is kind of pointless, unless you’re content for your farm to just be an expensive hobby (and we’re not!).

At this time of year our workload is imposed on us, not just by the demands of picking and storing produce at peak condition, but also packing and selling it, and maintaining all the systems and processes to make everything run smoothly. We’ve been recording our work hours lately, and are averaging 60 hours per week! It’s easy to feel that it’s out of our control – but of course, that’s not true.

Yes, during the peak of the fruit season there is no extra time to have regular business meetings or down time without sacrificing fruit to do so, but as the season starts to slow down into a more manageable pace, it’s easier to find the time to start reflecting on the season and noticing what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and where we could introduce more efficiencies. It’s also when we usually remember that we chose not only this lifestyle, but also every aspect of our business.

As we prepare to hand over the orchard to our intern Ant on 1 July, we’re very conscious of the need to teach him as much as we can about the fruit business, as quickly as possible. But we’re also hoping that his new energy will bring a different perspective to the orchard and lead to new initiatives, new ways of doing business and new efficiencies we’ve never thought of.

We could easily have made different choices: grow fewer varieties to shorten our harvest season, simplify our marketing, use chemicals to reduce our workload, expand the size of the orchard, or even grow different crops. We could even choose day jobs where we work 9 to 5, go home in the evening and leave work behind!

But none of those choices would have matched our values or made us feel good about our careers, and where would be the fun in that?

Are we eating real food?

Hi there – hope this finds you well and enjoying somewhere cool as this hot weather takes us on again. Looking forward to the slight reprieve on Sunday and Monday!
All goes well here in Gung Hoe land at the moment – it feels good to be picking, packing, and getting the goods out there!
Last week saw us selling veg in a few new places, which was rather exciting! Katie has been taking some produce with her to our local Saturday market at Wesley Hill, and we’ve also got a new display fridge which means you can see and then take home beautiful greens and cool cucumbers, whatever takes your fancy really, at the farm shop that is also stocked with lots of fruit.  The farm shop is open Wednesday to Saturday 10am-4pm, at 69 Danns Rd, Harcourt.
It was also our first official box pick up, quite a landmark for us.  Even though we’ve been doing casual boxes for 2 years, this was our first sign-up for a month box season.  We are getting better (we hope!) at planting in successions and variety so boxes can last longer and have a good range of seasonal goodies.  Last Tuesday saw us waddling on down to the Theatre Royal courtyard in Castlemaine laden with produce in boxes and a few other things on the side, like our watermelons!!! woah!!! And some preserves that our friend Tess and Sas made last year with excess produce towards the end of the season.  It felt a bit strange to us to sit down for a few hours and chat with people as they came to get their box.  Tell you what though, Mondays and Tuesdays are proving to be very long, big days this season so surely sitting in the shade with a ginger beer spider and a cold beer is permissable!  Thanks to everyone who has signed up and for those who are interested, we will open some more spots for March season soon. Yay!
It’s an interesting thing selling veg. A  lot of care and attention and sorting goes into getting produce from the ground to either a shelf or a box.  Something we have been talking heaps about between ourselves over the last few weeks is the cosmetic quality of food and our stance on it all.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a quick peek at these links, I tried to find the full episode of ABC’s War on Waste Episode 1, but could only find a snippet – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjl6js1_hkQ
This is from a similar program by BBC about carrots…
 

So Sas and I have been talking a lot about the need for food education.  For example, we have grown a lot of green capsicums this year. If left on the bush they will turn sweeter and become red! However, we need to pick some green so the plant can put energy into producing red ones and if there’s too many on one plant it might break the whole thing! It’s like thinning a fruit tree. The thing is, as you know, it’s been a hot summer, some of the fruit has been burnt, which is a natural repercussion of growing produce outside, in the elements. The other thing is, we probably wouldn’t be able to sell them to anyone because of the look of it, even though it is a perfectly good capsicum, if just a little burnt. Perhaps I don’t give “the people” enough credit and am worried that when they see it, they’ll assume it’s “bad” and then won’t want to eat our food anymore. See, we’re all responsible, I too am bowing down to what we’ve been told is the “proper” way something should bloody look. I’m excited about actively stepping out of that.

 

I’m not sure if it’s a chicken or egg situation, or just the way everyone complies with a system that doesn’t support real food. The supermarkets say they can only sell straight carrots and cucumbers, and slightly arched bananas, for example, because customers will only buy the food that looks beautiful and perfect. Is this true? Or will they only buy it because they potentially have no other option or no idea that just because a vegetable is ‘wonky’ it still tastes as good? I think it’s about education. In no way am I suggesting below-standard food is what should be on offer; what I’m suggesting is that our concept of what the standard of food cosmetics is needs to be challenged. By everybody. It isn’t just the growers who should be doing this education, it’s the retailers and the customers too.

It actually gets me a bit excited and, for want of sounding naff, it adds to the whole story of real food. Education is not justifying something; it’s explaining it. It must give you a better appreciation of the entire production line that it takes (even from small-scale like Gung Hoe) for a vegetable fully grown and eatable to end up in your hands. It’s had a life that’s taken it from surviving as a seed, to a seedling, to a flower that got fertilised, to a developing vegetable to finally a full-grown piece of food on your plate. That my friends is a big journey, with lots of episodes along the way. For every single thing we eat!

We are endeavouring to step it up in this education process and challenge the mainstream “perfectness” that in reality isn’t real. I love pictures, pretty ones especially, don’t get me wrong! But the way we are stimulated these days with all these pictures of things looking perfect and easy gives you the false idea that that’s all there is in the picture. If there’s a perfect pumpkin, there’s bound to be a half-dead straggling vine around somewhere too. They go together.

We are grateful that in our local community we have retailers that are happy to take the first flush of baby eggplants and Roma tomatoes that are uneven sizes – mostly small – but still tasty as. However, as a mob of people that make up our community – growers, retailers, customers – bloody we’re just people at the end of the day, if we’re talking about local food and food systems and ‘real food’ we need to be talking about this stuff too, in a way that creates change. Education creates understanding of the reality of food and where it comes from.

I’ll sign off now, have a great weekend and we’ll see your faces soon enjoying veg whether it be straight or bendy 🙂

Cheers, Mel (and Saasa)

Farming, resilience, and a changing climate…

I feel like every blog I write lately is about some sort of extreme climatic event that we or our crops have just survived. It’s like this season is showing us all of the extremes that climate change is bringing on a more and more frequent basis, i.e., weekly! As I walked along the corn row this week looking at the shrivelled up and crispy growing tips that have been burnt by wind and sun (certainly not for lack of water and love!), I must admit I began to wonder…can we really grow food in this place? The strong answer that always comes whenever I have these kinds of doubts is, ‘We have to’.

This week’s climatic event was a fast and furious grass fire that came very close to where we stood watching as the flames lapped at the fruit trees. The house, sheds, cars, tractors, orchard and our market garden (and us!) all stood in its way and were it not for 13 trucks full of amazing CFA volunteers and ‘Elvis’ dropping water bombs from the sky, we would have lost everything. A sobering thought. We can’t express enough gratitude to those nameless volunteers who swept in and did the job.  Katie, Hugh, and Ant had damage to 300 trees, fencing and irrigation, right in the middle of the busiest part of the season, but it really could have been so much worse if not for the quick actions of the CFA.

Mel’s last blog was about resilience, and it would seem this one is too. Resilience of people, crops and environment. It’s amazing isn’t it how nature responds to such seemingly catastrophic things as fire. If we want to grow in this climate and feed the local community with food that hasn’t travelled thousands of kilometers, we have to accept this changing climate, know it and plan for it.

Grow well folks and stay cool

Sas (and Mel)

P.S. Our Summer Veggie boxes will start in first week of Feb. Order your first month’s subscription by 3 Feb by going to our online shop here: https://gung-hoe-growers.myshopify.com/collections/produce