Buds are starting to swell and seeds are beginning to germinate…a call to action in the heritage fruit tree nursery. Merv has been busy preparing the soil in the new nursery patch. Katie has been busy selling the last of the beautiful fruit trees that we grew before they come out of their winter sleep and need to be planted in the ground properly again. But now that our saved apple, quince, pear and peach seeds are starting to shoot, its all hands on deck.
This week we planted our cherry rootstock and acquired some compact apple rootstock varieties to experiment with. Along with grafting the cherries in September and budding the apples we’re hoping to experiment with creating a ‘stool bed’. Katie and I haven’t ever done a stool bed so we’re excited to learn this technique from Merv. A stool bed (from my limited understanding) is a way of trench layering a ‘mother plant’ in order to grow multiple root stock trees from a small number of ‘mothers’. This is important for cherry rootstock, which don’t grow readily from seed, and special varieties of rootstock, which you want to multiply true to type.
The plum cuttings are starting to ‘heel up’ (grow a heel/scab over them from which the roots will sprout) which means we’ll plant them out soon . The apple, peach and quince seeds are sprouting so we’ve begun to plant them out in rows. These we will grow up over summer and ‘bud’ in February with a number of different varieties for sale the following year.
We have also been cutting back the trees we budded last February, to the bud union. These trees (see pic) with different colored pipe cleaners are the plum rootstock we budded multiple varieties of plum and apricot onto. Another experiment, which so far seems to be going well…as long as we can keep track of which branch has which variety budded onto it!!
Soon it will be time to sow our green manure crop in the resting nursery patches and sow some more citrus seed in the hot house (yet another experiment). Most of the rootstock we grow, except for our experiments with cherries, citrus and small apple rootstock, we have grown ourselves. We either collect seed or take cuttings to create them, and like Merv always marvels, “it doesn’t cost you anything”! There is a lot of time and care that then goes into turning that seedling into a good fruiting tree, but Merv’s right, it doesn’t cost you anything to give it a go!
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!