Eeek – hail!

Yesterday it hailed just down the road from our farm, luckily not at our place, but too close for comfort! And there’s more predicted today, and for later in the week. Eeek!!

Hail is a fruit growers’ nightmare. It can do untold damage to fruit in a short space of time, and has been responsible for the ‘wipe-out’ of whole crops many times before. Here’s what our neighbour’s place looked like after a hailstorm a few years ago.

hail-mcleans

and this is how big the hail stones were right outside our door in a storm last year…just like little rocks, being hurled out of the sky onto our fruit. No wonder we worry, right?

hail-stones

Here’s a selection of some hail-damaged apples at maturity, to give you an idea of how bad it can be…

hail-damaged-apples-600x449

Hmm, not very attractive. But there’s no sense complaining, or worrying, is there? It’s one of those things we have no control over. Or…do we?

Here’s what some apples looked like just after a hail storm. You can see the little marks on them, that grow into the bigger deformities as the apple grows.

hail-damaged-fruit

Being an organic farm, we do all our thinning by hand (as opposed to the chemicals used on chemical orchards to do the same job). It costs us more in labour to thin by hand, but apart from the benefits to the environment (and our health!) of not using the chemicals, it also lets us manage hail (or other) damage by choosing the most damaged ones to remove. This way we can at least produce the least damaged crop as possible.

Because of the very unpredictable nature of growing fruit, we have a Risk Management Strategy (it’s so important, it even has its own capitals!). We reckon that we might not have any control over the weather, but we’ve got plenty of control over how we plan before the bad stuff happens, and how we respond, after the bad stuff happens.

For us, risk management is all about diversity. We reckon the more diverse our farm is, in every possible way, the more we can spread the risk.

So, for example, we grow 7 types of fruit (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears), and more than 90 varieties, and we add more varieties every year. In all our years of growing, through every dire weather event we’ve experienced (drought, hail, flood, bird plagues, a fire at the local coolstores, heat waves, incessant rain, storms, grasshopper plagues…do you need us to go on?) we have NEVER been completely wiped out. Some years we’ve lost all the apricots, or all the plums, or most of the apples and a few pears and some of the peaches…but never everything all at once.

Because we grow many different types of fruit, they are all at different stages of development in spring, and will therefore be affected differently by any given weather event (except something catastrophic, like fire). If we do get a hail storm this week, the apricots will be really vulnerable because a lot of them are already thinned, they are already quite large, and they are pretty exposed because the leaf cover develops after the fruit. The apples, on the other hand, are still flowering and therefore very protected, and the pears are tiny, and would be hard to hit with a hail stone, and they both have good leaf cover!

If we go back to the hail damaged apples from a few years ago, when we managed to turn a severely damaged crop into a moderately damaged crop by hand thinning, next we had to decide how and where to sell the fruit. We were obviously not going to get fantastic prices if we sent less than perfect fruit to the wholesale market, but we didn’t have to take much of a cut by selling them at Farmers Markets, because we could explain to our customers in person why there’s a mark on the skin, and how it barely affects the quality of the fruit under the skin. Farmers Markets also give us a good chance to sell our second grade fruit at a reasonable price, because we have lots of customers who appreciate a bargain!

We also have an online market, and because we can accurately describe the fruit, we can get a fair price for each grade of  fruit, because people know exactly what they’re getting! Diversity of markets is a blessing in situations like this!

We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t control the weather, but in the end we’re grateful, because it has meant we’ve had to get real about managing our risk, and these days we feel a bit more secure, knowing we’re doing everything we can to take matters into our own hands! (But we’d still rather we didn’t have a hail storm, so keep your fingers crossed for us…)