How much diversity is too much?

This is a dumb question, because the answer is obviously ‘there’s no such thing as too much’. The health of our planet depends on it, healthy farming systems depend on it, your garden depends on it!

seed the untold story movie

Last week I was lucky enough to be asked to sit on the panel to discuss the profoundly beautiful (and profoundly depressing) movie called ‘Seed: The Untold Story’ at the Environmental Film Festival Australia (EFFA). If you get the chance, see the movie, it will move you (and hopefully inspire you to learn how to save seed!).

The movie is about the shocking and rapid loss of biodiversity within our food systems (more than 90% of some varieties of vegetable have already disappeared, for example), the risks that poses for our food supplies, and the heroic efforts some groups and individuals are making to save our seed heritage.

Diversity is one of the guiding principles of our farm – we strive to achieve ever greater diversity in our crops (the number of fruit varieties we grow); the weeds and understorey plants in our orchards; the number of species of insects, birds, and other animals on our farm; and the microbes in the soil. We’re very aware of how vital this is to the health of the organism that is our farm.

midgen berry heronswood-270x480But we limit ourselves to growing deciduous fruit, because we’re also aware that it’s going to take another lifetime to really get good at just doing that, and there’s a risk in spreading ourselves too thin of doing lots of things badly.sisters at Heronswood-800x449So when I visited the beautiful garden at Heronswood with the family the other day, I was buying for our garden, not the farm. Heronswood is a wonderful multi-site nursery that specialises in a huge diversity of heritage food plants, and it was extremely difficult to not buy everything I’d never heard of (or had long lusted after) to bung in the garden!

nina heronswood-800x449I contented myself with the following list:

  • passionfruit
  • goji berry
  • pecan tree
  • samphire
  • choke berry

Now, to find somewhere to plant them….

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What Do You Call a Gathering of Organic Orchardists?

A couple of weeks ago we got to do something we hardly ever do – hang out with a bunch of other organic apple growers.

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Chris Ellery from the Soil Foodweb Institute giving a presentation about soil biology

It may seem strange that this is a rare and unusual event, but it’s the result of a couple of slightly unfortunate circumstances. The first is that even though there are at least 40 of us Australia-wide (no-one knows what the actual number is), we’re scattered all around the country and few of us are lucky enough to live within coo-ee of each other.

The second reason is because of the generally unconnected nature of the organics industry. With more than 6 different certifying organisations, there’s no central register of who’s certified and who’s not. Each certifying body regulates the whole gamut of organic farmers and processors, from apple growers through to beef producers and organic skin care manufacturers, so they don’t function as a connector for producers within industries.

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The new organic seal

And then there’s the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) which is the umbrella organisation for the whole industry and plays a great advocacy role for the industry, for example finally achieving a national mark or logo (that’s it on the left) which can be used by any certified producer regardless of who they’re certified with. Overseas experience has shown that introducing this type of unifying symbol should go a long way to achieving better consumer awareness for organics across the entire sector, so start watching out for it on your organic produce!

But membership of the OFA is voluntary, and so this organisation doesn’t function to connect producers within specific industries.

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Field trip to our place

Hugh and I have long bemoaned our lack of a peer group, which might seem strange when we live and grow fruit in Harcourt, the “apple centre of Victoria”. We’ve long been members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers’ Association, and in fact I was secretary for more than a decade. While obviously we have much in common with conventional growers, we also have many differences. The very basis of our growing systems – the soil – is handled quite differently between the two systems, as are pest and disease control, weed control, and even irrigation. The two paradigms can be so different that we sometimes feel we speak a different language.

So it was really a treat to find ourselves finally in a room with 10 other organic growers, who all essentially have the same issues, challenges, problems and understandings as us.

It’s long been on my “to do” list to try to organise this type of event; I even got as far as starting to compile a list of other organic fruit growers a few years ago, but that’s as far as it went.

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Michelle McColl, Tim Neilson and Hugh on a field trip to our farm

Luckily the very dynamic Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics (she and husband Chris were recently featured with their organic orchard on ‘Gardening Australia’) beat me to it last year. She took the initiative of finding and contacting as many organic apple growers as she could find and organising a get together in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. Luckily, we were on the list and were invited to the event.

It was fantastic! Michelle had the foresight to organise a facilitator for the growers’ round-table discussions, and to put a few topics on the table to get the ball rolling, which meant that discussion was lively, frank and very useful as growers shared their problems, solutions, tips and resources.

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Compost tea demonstration in a very cold barn!

Field trips to 3 organic orchards were also illuminating – there’s nothing quite as interesting as actually seeing and experiencing what other people are doing. Another highlight was the conference dinner at a restaurant in Salamanca Place in Hobart. All in all Hugh and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we offered to host this year’s conference in Harcourt.

Following a similar format worked well, the only addition being two really interesting and relevant speakers who gave presentations on soil biology and insect and bird interactions in organic orchards.

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Mount Alexander Shire Council Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford giving the conference welcome

We were really pleased that our local Mount Alexander Shire is taking an active interest in the potential for growth of the local organics industry, and Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford gave a great welcome and opening address for the conference. It was also fantastic that a few local orchardists accepted the offer to attend the session on soil biology, a topic with relevance to anyone growing anything!

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Some of the fantastic value-added product that growers brought to share

Two jam-packed days of talking, sharing ideas and experience, eating, field trips, cider tasting, getting to know each other – and lots more talking – left us feeling refreshed, revitalised and very grateful to be part of a new group of people who are not only professional colleagues, but also rapidly becoming friends.

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