All we ever do is have meetings

An alliance meeting in our kitchen
An alliance meeting in our kitchen

Setting up the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (we’re still waiting for someone to come up with a better name….) is exciting, fun, stimulating, inspiring and reinvigorating for us old farmers, but mostly, it’s a lot of meetings!

On the phone, by Skype, in person, at offices in the city, here on the farm—we have been talking to a lot of people about this project over the last few weeks.

Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!
Meeting with Clare from Sorted4Business (in our kitchen) to work out the finer details of where all the alliance members will fit!

We’ve been going through a thorough process of interviewing and getting to know each of the applicants for the orchard lease, as we’re keen to choose the person who will be the best fit for the opportunity. We’ve had multiple meetings with other alliance members as they start to work through the detail of setting up or expanding their businesses. We’ve had regular meetings with our business consultant, Clare, to work through the many layers of complexity involved with our business development plan, we’ve met with professionals to get advice on various aspects of our plans, and had meetings with the funding body to report on our progress and discuss next steps. We almost don’t have time to farm any more!

We’ve also had some welcome interest from the media about what we’re doing, and are now starting to get inquiries from other farmers and farming groups interested in doing something similar on their farms. As part of our mission here is to develop a replicable model that can be implemented all around the country, we’re happy to share our progress so far, but all this talking is keeping us from our fruit trees!

Spring is such a crucial time of year in the orchard, when it’s more important than any other time of year to keep our eye on the ball so we can anticipate and respond to the weather to protect the trees while they’re flowering and the fruit is setting. If we stuff up now, we pay for it for the rest of the season!

gala blossom

So we’re feeling a little distracted by nurturing two completely different ‘babies’ at the moment—this year’s fruit crop, and our fledgling alliance. Both promise great things and deserve our full attention, but we can’t wait until we’ve steered them through these early, risky stages and can stand back a bit and take a breath!

Getting Up Close and Personal

If you follow us on Facebook, you might be seeing a bit more of our faces in coming weeks, because we’ve started doing Facebook Live videos.

Thumbnail of this week's Facebook Live video showing Katie talking about apricots in spring
Thumbnail of this week’s Facebook Live video showing Katie talking about apricots in spring

We need to put in a little disclaimer right at the start—don’t expect anything too professional, we’re definitely better farmers than we are videographers, and this first video is a bit ropey, especially the sound. We didn’t realise what a difference a bit of wind would make and it sounds like there’s a jet engine firing up in the background, but we’ll get that sorted before we do the next one!

So, why are we putting ourselves through the mild torture of videoing ourselves regularly when we could be quietly going about the business of growing organic fruit?

Doing a home visit to help someone get the most out of their fruit trees
Doing a home visit to help someone get the most out of their fruit trees

Because even though we’ve been teaching organic fruit growing for a few years now, we got a sharp reminder last week about how many people out there are still not aware of why it’s so important that as many people as possible learn how to nurture the soil and grow their own food.

It’s easy for us to get complacent because we’re often surrounded by people who ‘get’ that our food system is under serious pressure, so we were pretty shocked and saddened when we attended a function recently where one of the drawcards was the ‘sustainable’ food supplied for morning tea—every item was imported, out of season, or highly processed! And there was no organic produce at all! What was worse was that the organisers knew they had organic growers present and made a point of letting us know they’d put some thought into the food. Their version of ‘sustainable’ was to include some fruit and a couple of salads alongside the highly processed deep-fried offerings.

We could have wept…

But, instead, we went back to the drawing board and thought about what else we can do to help to get the message out there about the many, many benefits that come from growing at least a small portion of your own food organically, as well as sourcing food that has been grown in a regenerative farming system. People need to understand that these simple choices are incredibly powerful, and can make a real difference to your health and well-being, your family budget, and the health of the planet. And we decided we need to do it in a way that’s easy for people to access, free, and not too hard for us to produce. Hence, Facebook Live!

We’re probably also influenced by a dinner we had recently with some close friends who told us—almost in passing—that they’ve decided to pull out their fruit trees because they’re sick of putting in all the work of looking after the trees and not getting any fruit year after year, and why should they bother any more when they can just buy beautiful organic fruit from us?

Well, we were honoured, but also deeply saddened. These guys are great gardeners, take a lot of pride in it, and produce almost enough vegies to feed their family all year. But they were giving up on their fruit trees. They’d never joined any of our teaching programs because they didn’t want to muddy the waters of our friendship, they hadn’t wanted to impose on the friendship by asking for free advice, and we hadn’t wanted to offer unsolicited advice either. But we know they’re “that close” to getting a great crop from their fruit trees, there’s just small gaps in their knowledge that mean they’ve been missing a few small crucial jobs each year that have made the difference between success and failure.

Katie getting some spring jobs done in the orchardSo, we’re making it personal! We’ve realised we need to step it up a notch and provide a heap more information that touches people in a different way to get our message out there more effectively. We want to bring people onto the farm (without actually bringing them all onto the farm…) so you can see for yourself in real time what’s involved with producing your food, and that with the right guidance it’s really not that hard!

Look out for us in coming weeks and months—you’ll be seeing our faces a bit more often from now on (and please don’t judge us on our lack of video skills!).

Hugh standing near the fruit trees doing a site visit

Making delicious organic yummy things – value-adding for fun and profit!

What does “value-adding” make you think of? Sounds like something to do with economics, doesn’t it? But in farming terms, it’s used to describe any process where you turn raw product (like fruit) into something else (like juice).

The grader at The Wild Apple where juice apples are separated from high-grade eating apples, before being pressed for juice

It’s something we’ve always done at home for our own use, aiming to store as much fresh produce as we can over summer, to eat in winter.

And despite dabbling in value-adding on a commercial scale, we’ve never managed to do it on any scale. To do that would take a real commitment and quite a bit of time, investment in equipment and training, and all the other things involved in launching new products like market testing, labelling, sourcing and logistics.

But the idea still excites us, and remains one of the great untapped potential directions that we (or someone else) could take our farm business. It was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference we went to in South Australia. Nearly every other grower was value-adding, and in every case it was making a big difference to their bottom line.

Super delicious mixed dried stone fruit from O’Reilly’s organic orchard, first dried then frozen for longer storage

Here’s just some of the things other organic orchardists are making/doing that are inspiring us:

  • Juice – some growers are making and pasteurising their own juice, some are selling it fresh and unpasteurised, and some are sending fruit to processors who do the whole process for them;
  • Dried fruit – we saw (and tasted) some beautiful examples of dried fruit (and vegies), and again, growers are processing in a variety of different ways. Some of cutting whole, unpeeled fruit with an automatic mandolin and then drying in a heat-controlled electric machine that rapidly dries fruit to a pre-set moisture level (see the picture of this very cool machine below); some are processing by hand and drying in the sun, and others have semi-automated fruit prep and solar drying systems;
  • Cider – most growers at the ANOO conference grow apples, and lots of them are experimenting with cider and it’s close cousin…
  • Apple cider vinegar – this product has so many uses that any grower that’s making it says they can’t produce enough for their markets (plus it also makes a great basis for a variety of fruit-based vinegars);
  • Frozen – some creative growers have found an excellent market in frozen fruit, using specific varieties known to be high in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and aiming squarely at the health food market. Clever!
  • Jams – apple jelly (with all manner of different flavourings like rosemary, or lavender), apricot jam, plum jam – you name it, someone’s making it (and it’s racing out the door at farmers markets);
  • Preserved/canned fruit – nobody at the ANOO conference is doing this commercially, but several have done trials and are interested in taking it further;
  • Apple pies/pastries – a couple of growers have expanded into the related area of turning fruit into pies and pastries. It’s more fiddly and requires a much higher skill level (you actually need to be able to cook!), but the returns are worth it.
Inside view of electric dehydrator

We’re resigned to the fact that we’re probably never going to start a value-adding business ourselves, but we’re very excited about the possibility of a new member of the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance that we’re setting up (either leases the orchard from us, or someone else) taking up the challenge of developing this side of the business, which promises to not only provide LOTS more ways that we can feed local families with healthy organic food all year round, but also make a healthy difference to the bottom line of the business!

Small scale solar dryer