The joy of growing your own fruit trees

Katie in front of what’s going to become the Harcourt heritage fruit tree nursery

As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.

Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.

Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.

Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!

Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?

Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.

We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.

But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!

We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.

A successful bud on one of our experimental citrus trees

He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.

Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!

Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.

The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.

From little things…

What Will We Do Next?

As the reality of life post-orcharding looms large, Hugh and I spending a few days off the farm and starting to think about what comes next for us.

You’d think we’d have thought about this long ago, before we put this whole train of events in motion – and we did – but it was just theory back then, and now it’s about to become reality.

On 1 July, the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (HOFA) will come into being, and we’ll sign the orchard lease over to Ant. He’ll officially become responsible for growing the fruit.

In fact, we’ll still be helping him, not just in an abstract mentoring capacity, but hands-on, in the orchard and packing shed, at least for his first year of operation.

Our role in HOFA will be property managers, which means we’ll be overseeing the job of building new infrastructure (like staff room, toilet facilities, etc.), applying for and managing grants, and making sure everything runs smoothly so the important people – the farmers – can get on with their jobs.

I’ll also still be getting my hands dirty running the Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery with Sas (of Gung Hoe Growers fame), under the watchful eye of my dad Merv.

Add to that Hugh’s part-time editing job for the Asian Development Bank, and our various community service roles, and the week suddenly looks very full. In fact I suspect we’ll be wondering how on earth we had time for farming at all!

That sounds like a week’s worth of work, doesn’t it? Oh hang on, the main reason we wanted to put our succession plan in place was so that we could concentrate more on the teaching side of our business. Where are we going to fit that in?

Grow Great Fruit (our online organic fruit growing home-study program) is too useful to the world to stay small any longer. We always said our mission was to teach the whole world how to successfully grow their own organic fruit, and the time has come (well, maybe not the whole world, but we want to extend our reach much further).

So you can expect to see GGF grow in coming months, and you needn’t worry about whether we’ll have enough to occupy us!

Giving birth is just the beginning

As our group of enthusiastic new farmers comes together and we breathe life into HOFA (the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance ), I was reminded this week that giving birth to this brand new model of farming—the thing we’ve been planning for, working towards and anticipating keenly for many months now—is just the beginning.

Like having a baby, it’s all too easy when starting a new project to focus solely on having a successful birth, which is kind of analagous to the planning process we’ve been going through together to bring our idea to fruition.

What many people fail to anticipate is that it’s after the birth when shit gets real. Suddenly, you have a baby, and a whole new world of learning abruptly begins, one that has much higher stakes because other lives are involved, and are depending on you to get it right!

What reminded me was having a long chat with an old friend last weekend. We worked together in a big community project; she helped to get it off the ground, and I joined just a couple of years later. We were both involved for many years, and together witnessed the growth, tantrums, milestones, break-ups and—finally—evolution into the stable and grown-up organisation it is today.

I  observed at the time how similar an organisation is to a child; we had to carefully steer it through the early stages, tore our hair out during those difficult teenage years, and then watched with pride as it finally grew beyond needing us at all.

Unfortunately many new projects don’t survive to adulthood, but stumble and fail, often within 5 years of starting. The main reasons for lack of success are

  • poor communication
  • relationships failing
  • lack of financial viability
  • lack of capital
  • not being flexible and able to change and evolve
  • burnout
  • inexperience

In our planning process we’re doing our best to avoid all these pitfalls by establishing great systems, processes and group dynamics, but experience tells us that the real work is done by actually getting started, and then hanging in there for the next 18 or so years.

New farm resident Roberta will also be giving birth in coming months, and in turn paving the way for a brand new enterprise on the farm.

Cows don’t do a lot of planning for giving birth, or probably give much thought to what happens afterwards. They don’t have meetings, do visioning sessions, or write business plans, they just automatically know what to do, and get on with it.

Laying great foundations for the birth is a great start – but come 1 July, we’re going to have to start just getting on with it.