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.
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!
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.
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.
Pretty much everything about our new heritage apple orchard is “wrong”— at least in the world of large-scale commercial apple growing.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, we’re ready to start planting our new apple orchard. It’s replacing the old cherry orchard, which died in the big floods of 2010/11 – you can read the sad story of how we lost 1,000 beautiful cherry trees here.
The really exciting thing about our new orchard (apart from getting a previously productive area of the farm back into production after a few years fallow), is the incredible diversity of more than 60 varieties that we’re planting.
Why so many varieties? Well it fits with our bigger farm and business strategy in a number of ways:
We’re on a mission to teach as many people as possible how to grow their own organic food and become self-sufficient for food, and our new orchard is going to be a great teaching resource.
We aim for diversity (as opposed to monoculture) in every aspect of our farming operations. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s our best protection against the risks of farming!
Since we decided to open our farm shop last year, we’re keen to extend our season and the number of varieties we grow so we can keep the shop open for longer, offer more opportunities for people to pick their own fruit, and educate people about heritage and heirloom varieties.
It will give us more variety on the table, and a longer season at the Farmers Markets we attend.
A farm is also a community, so we want to thank a few important people who have helped us get this new venture off the ground:
Keith Robertson, from the Creswick Garden Club Keith has the most amazing collection of more than 700 apple varieties in his suburban backyard in Creswick. He was generous enough to allow us to follow him around for a wonderful day gathering scion wood to graft the trees we’re about to plant. We had to stop at 60, or Keith would cheerfully have given us all 700! However, he dutifully followed our brief that we wanted varieties that (a) he knew something about, e.g. whether they’re for eating, cider, cooking etc.; (b) will have some commercial appeal; and (c) extend our season – either by being earlier or later than existing varieties in our orchard.
Merv Carr (Katie’s Dad) Despite having theoretically retired many years ago, Merv still manages the farm’s tree nursery, growing several thousand trees each year, including all the trees we plant in the orchard. Though they’re not certified organic, growing our own trees means that we can be confident they’ve been grown without any GMOs. We treasure Merv’s involvement and the chance to learn his fabulous skills. Plus, the fact that he grows all our trees for us saves us thousands of dollars every year!
So, are heritage and heirloom apples grown any differently to modern apples? Well it’s a funny thing (and a long story), but partly as a result of deciding to go down the road of preserving heirloom and heritage varieties, we’ve also decided to revert to a more old-fashioned way of growing as well, and in the process have ended up doing almost everything “wrong” according to modern orchard practice – but that’s a story for another day!
So, without further ado, here’s a list of some of the varieties we’ll have in the new orchard (this is not an exhaustive list, because despite our best intentions to stop at 60 we already have new varieties coming on in the tree nursery). We look forward to introducing you to them in about 3 years!