The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!

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.

dam-overflow
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.