This season we are having one of the busiest, most productive fruit seasons we’ve had in years, and people keep asking us why….
The truth is, we’re not sure! It doesn’t come down to a single factor, but a perfect mix of everything going right, for once—and you don’t hear farmers say that very often! (I was going to write ‘perfect storm’, but despite the fact that we’ve had two major storms this year, we’ve escaped with no major damage.)
Considering that our new intern Ant joined us at the beginning of December (you can follow his new Facebook Page here), the fact that December and January have been among our busiest ever has been both good and bad.
It’s been a bit of a trial by fire for him—getting thrown immediately into the 6-day a week, 10-hour a day kind of craziness that is the fruit season—but on the other hand, at least he’s seen it at its peak, so he’ll know what to expect next year. If he’d started his fruit-growing journey in a quiet year (like we had last year) he wouldn’t have known what hit him next season!
Though a big part of this year’s success is just luck with the weather, it’s also partly the culmination of many years of hard work. We’ve had a replanting program for the last few years and many of those trees are finally coming into full production, we’ve been steadily working on improving the health of our soil, and we’ve been building up the on-farm biodiversity that’s so important to keeping pests and diseases in check.
Plus, we managed to get all the spring sprays on at just the right times, which is so important for preventing key diseases that can be devastating.
It’s incredibly satisfying knowing that we’re bequeathing a healthy, productive orchard to Ant when he takes over next year, and fingers crossed that he has an even BIGGER season in 2019!
What does “value-adding” make you think of? Sounds like something to do with economics, doesn’t it? But in farming terms, it’s used to describe any process where you turn raw product (like fruit) into something else (like juice).
It’s something we’ve always done at home for our own use, aiming to store as much fresh produce as we can over summer, to eat in winter.
And despite dabbling in value-adding on a commercial scale, we’ve never managed to do it on any scale. To do that would take a real commitment and quite a bit of time, investment in equipment and training, and all the other things involved in launching new products like market testing, labelling, sourcing and logistics.
But the idea still excites us, and remains one of the great untapped potential directions that we (or someone else) could take our farm business. It was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference we went to in South Australia. Nearly every other grower was value-adding, and in every case it was making a big difference to their bottom line.
Here’s just some of the things other organic orchardists are making/doing that are inspiring us:
Juice – some growers are making and pasteurising their own juice, some are selling it fresh and unpasteurised, and some are sending fruit to processors who do the whole process for them;
Dried fruit – we saw (and tasted) some beautiful examples of dried fruit (and vegies), and again, growers are processing in a variety of different ways. Some of cutting whole, unpeeled fruit with an automatic mandolin and then drying in a heat-controlled electric machine that rapidly dries fruit to a pre-set moisture level (see the picture of this very cool machine below); some are processing by hand and drying in the sun, and others have semi-automated fruit prep and solar drying systems;
Cider – most growers at the ANOO conference grow apples, and lots of them are experimenting with cider and it’s close cousin…
Apple cider vinegar – this product has so many uses that any grower that’s making it says they can’t produce enough for their markets (plus it also makes a great basis for a variety of fruit-based vinegars);
Frozen – some creative growers have found an excellent market in frozen fruit, using specific varieties known to be high in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and aiming squarely at the health food market. Clever!
Jams – apple jelly (with all manner of different flavourings like rosemary, or lavender), apricot jam, plum jam – you name it, someone’s making it (and it’s racing out the door at farmers markets);
Preserved/canned fruit – nobody at the ANOO conference is doing this commercially, but several have done trials and are interested in taking it further;
Apple pies/pastries – a couple of growers have expanded into the related area of turning fruit into pies and pastries. It’s more fiddly and requires a much higher skill level (you actually need to be able to cook!), but the returns are worth it.
We’re resigned to the fact that we’re probably never going to start a value-adding business ourselves, but we’re very excited about the possibility of a new member of the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance that we’re setting up (either leases the orchard from us, or someone else) taking up the challenge of developing this side of the business, which promises to not only provide LOTS more ways that we can feed local families with healthy organic food all year round, but also make a healthy difference to the bottom line of the business!
In a week where my project has dominated my life, I’ve learned – to my great delight – that the vast majority of stallholders at the pilot farmers markets want to be involved in the project. How cool is that? Plus I’ve written the first draft of the Social Media Strategy for Stallholders. Yay!! Double Yay!! And, I think the project finally has a name:
“Farmers Markets Building Communities“
What do you think?
One way and another, it’s been a week of learning new skills. I always find the process of getting my “good ideas” (which are a dime a dozen, and often turn out to be not that good) into a form that makes sense to other people and stand up to scrutiny, really difficult.
One of the challenges of this particular project is that it needs to be quite detailed, and full of “nuts and bolts”, while at the same time inspiring people with my vision of what fantastic results we can get if we all work together! It’s a great challenge, and is pushing me to develop new skills around clear communication and good design, which I guess is one of the many benefits of the RIRDC Award.
I’m also developing some great skills in project management and development, which this week has been all about adaptability. Up until now the project has been going according to plan – I’ve written the survey for growers, sent it out to them, and was pretty happy to get more than 10 responses from each market. However, my goal is 20 stallholders participating at each market, so I needed to recruit some more.
I took the opportunity last Sunday to chat to stallholders at Castlemaine Farmers Market (we had a stall ourselves, but Hugh looked after it for a couple of hours to give me time to talk to people. Endlessly supportive as usual. Bless him.). I had heaps of fun, learned two big things, and as a result the project has now changed direction.
I spoke to about 12 stallholders who hadn’t yet done the survey and, to my great surprise, all were keen — even enthusiastic — and wanted to be part of the project. They just hadn’t had time to do the survey. So, the first thing I learned is that survey results only tell a very small part of the story!
I came away from the day feeling so positive that I’ve changed the project to assume that everyone wants to be part of it! This means I’ll need a slightly different communication strategy. The second thing I learned is that stallholders are a diverse bunch, who want to get trained in a diverse range of ways – some want a workshop after the market, some want one on a different day, some want an e-book, some want a YouTube video – I can see myself acquiring several more new skills before this is over!
In the last fortnight I’ve:
Sent out the survey to farmers, and received 22 replies, 19 ‘yes’ they want to be included, and 3 ‘no’ (one of whom I converted to a ‘yes’ at the market!)
Had chats with lots of stallholders at Castlemaine Farmers Market and verbally went through the survey with them – and got another 12 ‘yes’ !!
Finished the first draft of the strategy for stallholders and sent it to the team of wonderful people who are helping me, for review
Set up a meeting at Coburg Farmers Market with the market manager and the various parents who want to come on board and help with the project
Had a board meeting with Melbourne Farmers Markets and updated them on the project
Attended a Women in Leadership forum in Bendigo
Interviewed our new farm intern
Brought stage one of the successful new farm pruning program to an end. Apricots – finished!
Many thanks to RIRDC for supporting rural women through the Rural Women’s Award