Making delicious organic yummy things – value-adding for fun and profit!

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).

The grader at The Wild Apple where juice apples are separated from high-grade eating apples, before being pressed for 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.

Super delicious mixed dried stone fruit from O’Reilly’s organic orchard, first dried then frozen for longer storage

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.
Inside view of electric dehydrator

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!

Small scale solar dryer

Everyone wants in – RIRDC Rural Women’s Award Week 7

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Spending some much-needed quiet time in the tree nursery

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!

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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!

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Many thanks to RIRDC for supporting rural women through the Rural Women’s Award

What should my fruit trees look like in spring?

As new fruit growers get to know their fruit trees, they’re often unsure what’s ‘normal’ in the different seasons – that was certainly the case for us as we learned our trade! Gradually we’ve learned by experience what to look for at different seasons to tell us what’s going on in the trees and the soil, so we know whether we’re on the right track. This year, it looks like we are!

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This heritage Goldmine nectarine is showing excellent growth in early spring.

We’re pretty happy with how all our orchards are looking at the moment. Our farm was pretty knocked about by the drought (like so many others) and the flood that followed, which led to a number of disease issues and even some tree deaths.

But this year the orchards are looking vital and healthy, and any trees that have experienced problems in the last couple of years are recovering well.

Most trees have a good crop, and even better, have put out good spring growth, which is one the main signs we look for to tell us that the tree is happy and the soil is doing its job.

What to look for

If you’re looking at your fruit tree and wondering if it’s looking the way it should, firstly look at the leaves – they should be big, a bright green colour (though the growing tips will often be orange, red or pink), and nice and shiny, like the healthy looking leaves on this plum tree.plum-leaves-healthy

This early in the season there shouldn’t been too many holes or blemishes on the leaves (though they often accumulate a lot of damage by the end of summer) and they should be looking pretty sparkly.

Depending on where you live, the flowering will have finished on most fruit trees, and you should be able to see small fruit forming, like this Bramley apple tree.

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The other main thing to look for early in spring is whether any of the leaf buds are starting to extend into new shoots. The ability of the tree to grow this new wood each year is key to the ongoing health of the tree. Here’s a few examples of new shoots on different types of fruit trees:

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New shoot on peach tree
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The numerous orange growing tips on this healthy young plum tree show how healthy it is.
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A vigorous 30cm new shoot on a pear tree.

Crop load

Mid to late spring is also the time when you start to get an idea of how much fruit your trees will bear this year (we call this the ‘crop load’). Here’s how our trees are looking at the moment.

Apples

Most varieties have set a good crop, the only exception being Golden Delicious. Gala are quite light, but will still pick a lot more than last year. Gravensteins, Bramley, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Snow, Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Jonathon all look good. Having lost most of the apples and pears to birds the last two years, the key to our success this year will be to get our newly acquired netting out over the trees and secured nice and early in the season.

Apricots

Most varieties have a medium to heavy crop, though Castlebrite were very light in one block (see below). In the house block where we have two rows of most vareities, our pruning strategy last year was to cut one row back hard to start bringing the height down. As we expected, the row that was pruned hard has much less fruit on it (through a combination of losing fruit buds to the hard pruning, and shocking the trees into growth as opposed to fruit production). However we’re happy to see that the heavily pruned trees are responding well with growth throughout the tree, not just at the tops of the trees.

Pears

Nearly every variety has set a good crop, though both Josephines and Nashi are on the light side. Trees have responded really well to the harsh pruning we gave them this winter, putting out a lot of their new growth nice and low in the tree where we want it, rather than up high where it prevents us netting the trees!

Peaches and nectarines

Our new orchard (planted in 2010) will pick a healthy crop this year, which means all of the 18 varieties of peaches, and 7 varieties of nectarines we grow should be well represented at markets. Several of these (for example Wiggins, Peacherine, Stark Earliglo and Redhaven)  haven’t yet yielded a marketable crop from these 3 or 4 year old trees, so we’re really looking forward to getting to know them.

Plums

Nearly every variety of plum has a good crop this year, the only exception being the European plums (President and Angelina) in the Plum Block. Luckily the Angelina trees in another orchard have set heavily, so we’ll still have plenty to sell over summer. We’re particularly happy to see most of the trees in the Plum Block, which are carrying phytophthora as well as other fungal diseases, are growing really well, and have large, shiny green leaves. Again, this is a really good indication to us that the soil is doing what it should, and has an active soil microbe network that is providing the right conditions for the tree to grow well. We’re also happy to see varieties like Amber Jewel, Satsuma and Ruby Blood all carrying strong crops, as each of these varieties has been a shy-bearer over the last couple of years.

Cherries

Our only disaster so far this year (we’d be completely shocked if there wasn’t one!) is the massive losses in the 90 cherry trees we planted in the new cherry block. We planted the bulk of the block last year, and most trees are growing well, but about two thirds of the the three new rows we planted this year have died. Having ruled out all the obvious things like the trees getting too dry, a problem in the soil, rootstocks, the trees drying out when planted etc etc, we’ve narrowed it down to a dodgy smelling fish emulsion we added to the dipping water we used to innoculate the roots of the trees when we planted them. It’s a pity we can’t prove this theory one way or the other, it’s much easier to learn from our mistakes when we can categorically establish what the mistake was!

Pests and diseases

Some of the main pests and diseases might already have made their presence felt. Here’s a few things we’ve noticed…

Aphids

We’ve seen a minor aphid outbreak in the peaches – really just a few odd limbs here and there, not enough to cause much damage, and just enough to attract the many predators that will clear this pest up for us.

aphids and predators
aphids and predators

Phytophthora

This root rot disease took hold in a lot of our peach and nectarine trees after the flood, and we lost many trees and a lot of limbs. This winter we pruned out all the dead wood, and we’re happy to see most trees that have shown sypmptoms in the past have started the season well and are putting on new growth – an excellent sign that the ‘good’ fungi in the soil are thriving and outcompeting the phytophthora.  We’ve still had a little dieback, and some trees are so badly damaged that even though they’re trying valiantly to recover, we may have to pull them out and start again in that spot with a different type of tree.

Earwigs

There’s already quite a bit of earwig damage in the nectarines, which led to a rapid change of plan to temporarily abandon the thinning and scramble to get all the banding of the trees finished to keep the earwigs out of the trees. They’re an easy pest to prevent, as long as the banding is done early enough before they’ve already taken up residence. Next year we’ll be changing our routine to get the banding done much earlier, before we even start thinning. We’ve also made a modification this year to do the banding much higher in the tree, of individual limbs rather than around the trunk. This will help to prevent earwigs getting at the fruit by using the grass to bypass the tape.

Blossom blight

The House block experienced moderate blossom blight in some varieties this year, despite looking early in the season as if there was none! Rainy conditions at the wrong time led to this minor outbreak, which reduced the size of the crop in the Castlebrite. Luckily our other main apricot orchard had almost no blossom blight (thank heavens yet again for microclimates!!), and between the two orchards we have a good crop of every variety including Castlebrite.

So there you have it, the 2014/15 season spring update! Hope your fruit trees are bringing you lots of joy.