Proactive active optimism

The concept of hope is too passive for farmers. We can hope that the weather will be perfect, that our soil has all the right nutrients to grow a healthy crop and that the kangaroos won’t jump on our tomato seedlings, but hope alone is not enough. We have to cultivate a proactive active kind of optimism, perhaps a foolhardy kind, one rooted in thoughtfulness, knowledge, a healthy dose of finger crossing and action.

This week we had beautiful (if a little abrupt and severe) rain to soak the ground. Along with that rain which came in horizontally through our shed window and after three hot and humid weeks, we have lost half of our garlic crop to rot (feel guts sink and tears fall at this point). It could have been much worse, and given the strength of the winds, all our tomato trellises are still standing. We’ll clock that as a win.

The hope of a farmer is in the tiny seed she plants, hoping that the beauty and strength within that tiny speck will be unlocked to grow and reach its full potential. We never know if it will, but we do all we can to help it along.

May your solstice and festive season be restful and full of beauty. May your new year be like a seed planted, full of hope and wonder waiting to be realised.

Grow well

Sas and Mel

Water and Winter

Winter's day in Harcourt
Another rainy winter’s day in Harcourt

For the first time in a while, we’ve been having a wet winter. It’s been raining so much that paddocks are starting to feel very wet, and orchards are starting to get really muddy. Luckily we haven’t been bogged – yet; getting bogged in the orchard in winter used to just be a matter of course, but since we converted the farm to organic production and changed the way we manage the soil and weeds, it’s become a rarity even in wet years.

cumquats in rain
Mandarines enjoying the rain

Despite the wet conditions,  a couple of months ago Coliban Water (who provide our irrigation water) told us we’d only be getting 30% of our allocation, so we’ve had a nervous couple of months, as have the Gung Hoe Growers, who run their market garden on our farm and access their water through our water entitlement. Our policy is that we pass any water restriction on to them – if we get 30%, they get 30%.

What’s an ‘allocation’, you may be asking? Each farming enterprise may own a water right giving them entitlement to access a certain amount of water from the storage dams each year. In our case, we own the right to use 21 ML (that’s 21 megalitres, or 21 million litres) each year.

But though we own the ‘right’ to access the water, Coliban Water can only supply their customers if the water is actually present in the reservoirs. If storages are low, they issue water restrictions.

Then a couple of weeks ago the allocation went up to 50% – a bit better, but still not enough water for either us or Gung Hoe to reach full production for the year, and it was getting close to the time when Gung Hoe had to make some decisions about how many seedlings to start in their hothouse for the approaching growing season. We’ve been surprised to learn how many months in advance the planning for a market garden has to happen!

rain event 2013
Drainage outside the kitchen door working well!

We’ve been watching the Coliban Water website closely as the water storage levels have been creeping up … 50%, 52%, 60% … and then it reached 61.8%, the same amount as last year (when we had a 100% allocation). We waited with bated breath for the announcement, and watched while the amount kept creeping up….

And then on Wednesday they let us know we’re on 100%! Yay, what a relief, life can go on as normal. The reservoirs are now up to 66.2%, and still rapidly increasing every day. The whole catchment is now so wet (finally) that even a small amount of rain leads to a large inflow of water – yesterday morning there was just 3mm of rain over the catchment, but a huge 1.2 gigalitres of water flowed into the storages, whereas when the catchment is dry (as it was all last season), 20mm of rain is just soaked up by the landscape and there’s no inflow into the reservoirs at all.

Very wet conditions in 2011

Trying to grow food in an arid landscape is indeed fraught, particularly as our climate and rainfall continue to change so rapidly. In the last 5 years, we’ve experienced both the wettest (remember 2011?) and the driest years on record, and all the predictions say this climate variability is likely to be the new ‘norm’ – in other words, nothing is normal any more.

As farmers this is our new ‘norm’ – expect the unexpected, plan for the worst, and aim to be as resilient as possible! And guess what’s the single biggest factor that makes us resilient in both wet and dry years? Healthy soil with a high carbon content holds way more water than depleted soil (making us more drought resistant), plus it drains much better (making us more flood resistant)! Good farming always comes back to the soil.

How to grow apples – the wrong way!

Pretty much everything about our new heritage apple orchard is “wrong”— at least in the world of large-scale commercial apple growing.

Merv Katie planting last apple tree-480x281
Katie and Merv planting the new heritage apple orchard

As usual, we’re straddling two worlds—the modern world of commercial horticulture that tends to be focused on high production, export, and monoculture; and the slower, more old-fashioned world of small-scale organic farming that aims to meet the needs of the people and the community who support our farm, is responsive to the climate, and empowers other people to become self-sufficient in food production.

So, what are we doing wrong?

  1. Planting more than 60 varieties, including lots of heirloom and heritage varieties you’ve never heard of…

How many varieties of apples can you name? Most people know Pink Ladies, Fuji, maybe Gala or Granny Smith, but for many, that’s as far as it goes—after that it’s “red apples” or “green apples”. If you can name 10 varieties you’re doing really well.

Katie selling organic apples at market

That’s largely because the number of varieties grown commercially (and therefore sold in supermarkets) has been steadily shrinking over the last few generations. And while there’s lots of research being done into new varieties, most will not end up in large-scale production, and it’s likely you’ll never hear of them.

Why has the number of varieties shrunk? As with every other area of food production, it’s a response to the commercialisation and globalisation of our food systems. For a variety to maintain its position on a supermarket shelf (and therefore on a modern farm) it has to meet certain criteria: it must be increasingly productive, withstand many months of cold storage with no loss of quality, have a long shelf life, be able to travel well, and be very consistent in appearance. And as farms get bigger and bigger, it’s just a lot more practical and cost-effective to grow 100 (or 1,000) hectares of the same variety.

Sorting different varieties in the nursery

So, you might be surprised to hear that there are literally hundreds—and in fact thousands—of different apple varieties. When we were gathering the grafting wood to grow the trees for our new orchard, we had to make ourselves stop at 60 (it was VERY tempting to keep going). And we must admit, some of them were only included because they have such fantastic names—who could resist growing Geeveston Fanny or Peasgood Nonesuch? You can read the whole list here.

So, why are we swimming against the tide and planting exactly the opposite of a monoculture?

A huge diversity of different varieties in the tree nursery

If the wild weather conditions (drought, flood, hail…) we’ve experienced over the last 12–15 years have taught us anything, it’s that diversity is our best bet of bringing home a crop every single year, regardless of the weather conditions. The variability between different varieties in things such as timing of flowering, harvest times, and resistance to diseases all increase the chance that when something bad happens it won’t affect all varieties to the same degree, and therefore we have a bigger chance that at least some of our varieties will safely reach maturity each year.

2. Planting on seedling rootstock 

You’ve probably heard of dwarfing rootstocks, right? Well, all modern apple orchards are planted on some type of dwarfing rootstock, from the MM111, which grows to about 80% the size of a seedling tree, down to the M26, which is only about 40% the size of a seedling tree.


Merv (Katie’s dad) planting apple seeds

But not us! Nope, we’re planting our trees on seedling rootstock, which are trees grown straight from an apple seed, and are the biggest possible size an apple tree can become (in fact, this is what sets the benchmark standard of 100% that other rootstocks are measured against). In a modern orchard, this is crazy behaviour!

Seedling trees can get huge, which means they can be harder to prune, harder to thin, harder to pick, and pretty much everything has to be done up a ladder.

So, why are we apparently making life so much harder for ourselves? Well firstly, we’re pretty sure that by diligent pruning and careful management we can stop the trees from becoming too huge.

Seedling apple rootstocks being transplanted in the nursery, ready to graft

But the main reason is that we’ve just been through the worst drought in living memory, and with the climate variability that has so quickly become a way of life for farmers, we’re anticipating the next drought any time soon. And what we observed was that while trees on dwarfing rootstocks really struggled, most of the remaining few trees in our district that are on seedling rootstock—even the ones that had no irrigation—survived the drought. Wow, they are one tough tree, which makes them the perfect tree for the future climate we should be preparing ourselves for if we want to maintain food security.

3. Not fumigating our soil or killing the weeds

Standard practice in commercial orchards is to fumigate the soil before planting new trees. This is a process where chemicals are pumped into the soil to sterilise it, particularly to kill any root-eating nematodes or other pathogens that might have built up in the soil which would cause replant disease in the new trees. New trees are normally also “supported” by killing any weeds growing under them with herbicides to reduce competition for water and nutrients, and by the addition of various artificial fertilisers.


Nuh. Not us. We’re not doing any of those things.

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Clover is a great plant to include in the green manure crop because it’s a nitrogen fixer

Don’t get us wrong, we also want to support our new trees as much as possible, reduce competition, and make sure we don’t get replant disease. We’re just going about it a completely different way, which inevitably is slower, more expensive, and more time consuming to put in place.

For a start, we’re relying on building healthy soil to make sure we don’t get replant disease. The best defense against root-eating nematodes is nematode-eating nematodes, so we inoculate the soil with them and make sure we provide the right soil conditions to keep them happy.

Second, we work consistently to build a strong natural fertility system to make sure the soil contains all the macro and micro nutrients that the trees will need, and that we have plenty of bacteria and fungi present to transform them into a plant-available form.

Using organic oaten straw as mulch

Third, we reduce competition from weeds by mulching our trees for the first couple of years and, as the mulch breaks down, encouraging a wide biodiversity of plants to grow under the trees, thereby providing a multitude of benefits, from taking nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil to providing habitat for beneficial predator insects.

Just because we lean towards the “old” way of doing things doesn’t mean we’re not interested in being as modern, efficient, and productive as possible. In our new block we’ll be participating in some ground-breaking research to test different types of mulch and different types of groundcover to see which system can achieve the best results as quickly and cheaply as possible.

We actually believe that by doing all these things “wrong” we’ll be able to demonstrate in the long run how much more sustainable, ecologically viable, and less reliant on artificial inputs our organic orchard will be.

Wish us luck!

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The new heritage apple block taking shape