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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Grow Heritage and Heirloom Apples

planting-cherriesFinally, 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.

young-apples-gala-295x221The 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

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Keith in his amazing nursery garden

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.

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Merv at home in the tree nursery

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!

Common Apple Variety
Akane
Fuji
Gala
Golden Delicious
Granny Smith
Jonafree
Jonagold
Jonathan
Pink Lady
Red Braeburn
Red delicious
Rosy Glow
Sundowner
Lady William
Cider Apple Variety
Bulmers
Chataignier
De Bouterville
Improved Foxwhelp
Kingston Black
Michelin
Yarlington Mill
Heritage/Heirloom Apple Variety
Caville Vlanc D’Hiver
Cleopatra
Court Pendu Plat
Cox’s Orange Pippin
Dayton
Dorset Golden
Dougherty
Dunn’s Seedling
Ein Schemer
Empire
Five Crown
Geeveston Fanny
Gravenstein
Irish Peach
James Grieve
Anna
Blenheim Orange Ex-Normandy = Woodstock Pippin
Bonza
Brabrant Bellefleur
Bramley
King of Pippin
Lord Derby
Lord Lambourne
Menagerie
Mt Alexander
Mutsu
Peasgood Nonesuch
Ribston Pippin
Richer Red
Rome Beauty
Snow
Spartan
Stayman’s Winesap
Striped Beefer
Sturmer Pippin
Tasman Pride
Twenty Ounce
Worcester Permaine

One year later …

Around this time a year ago, I was just about ready to throw up.  I was full of nervous anticipation, and had written, and was rehearsing, the acceptance speech for the Rural Women’s Awards, “just in case” I was lucky enough to win. We stayed in Melbourne the night before the announcement, and I can remember being in our hotel room feeling absolutely sick and getting a pep talk from Hugh – he told me just to assume I’d already won, so that I’d be completely ready when my name was called.

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Amazingly, he was right, and when my name was announced I reckon I fooled everyone into thinking I felt confident. Now, 52 weeks later, I’m writing my speech for the ceremony on April 14 where I’ll hand over to this year’s winner. So technically I’m only on the job for another couple of weeks, but it’s had such a lasting impact on my life that I’m not expecting things to change too much after the announcement.

hugh-katie-mayor-big-chequeFor a start, I’m very aware of the investment that RIRDC (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, who run the Rural Women’s Awards) have made in me, particularly by funding me to do the AICD (Australian Institute of Company Directors) course. I figured that seeing as how I passed the course, I’d better use it, and so I’ve just accepted a role on the board of the Maldon and District Community Bank. I know a sum total of nothing about the banking industry, but I know lots about community, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity for me to put my training to use, get some new skills, and learn about something completely outside my normal life.  Except it’s not, is it? Unless you live under a rock, banking and the financial sector actually has a big impact on us all – and what attracted me to the community bank model is that it was set up specifically to return the profits (made from OUR money) directly back to the community – banking with heart!(I sound like a slogan, I know, but I’m actually really excited to learn about it!)

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So that’s one of the more concrete things to have come out of this year, plus the fact that as part of the RWA alumni, I am now part of a community of women who get asked their opinion about stuff, like at the recent Women in Agriculture Forum held by Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford, where past RWA winners were well represented along with lots of other rural women leaders and emerging leaders. There was a lot of discussion at the Forum about how hard it can be for women to find the confidence to step up and find their voice, and that’s one of the main differences I feel from this time 12 months ago. Directly after I won the award I suffered from a big dose of Imposter Syndrome, feeling terrified that someone might find out what a complete fraud I was!  That feeling still pops up at times (like when I find myself invited to Parliament House, for example!), but I can now recognise it and put it back in its box where it belongs, so I can get on with the business at hand.

Of course running my project has also been a big part of this year, and I’ve learnt lots about both project management and about the topic (using social media to connect farmers at farmers markets directly to their customers). It’s yielded some interesting results and is still ongoing. Two of my big passions are farmers markets and farmers using social media to improve their marketing, and the chance to work on a big project around it was why I applied for the award in the first place.

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What else? Along the way I’ve also had lots of opportunities to inflict my fledgling public speaking skills on unsuspecting audiences, I’ve been to numerous conferences and forums, and I’ve made some really great contacts and friends, particularly with the other RWA state winners.

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But I think the most important part of the whole experience has been an internal one (inevitably). It’s hard to articulate, but I think I feel different now because I’ve been treated like a leader all year, by everyone I’ve come into contact with as part of the award, from the wonderful people at RIRDC and the Dept of Economic Development (who help run the award) to the Minister of Agriculture.  They’ve all seemed to assume that not only did I deserve to win the award, but that I’d have the skills and qualities I needed to manage everything that was asked of me along the way – and that’s been a very powerful and transformative process.

And do you know what? I think they were right!


RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award

My project, called “Farmers Markets Building Communities” has been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Rural Women’s Awards.