Girls can be farmers too!

Having been a woman farmer for almost 20 years, and being around so many other awesome women farmers all the time, it’s easy to forget that most people still think of the stereotypical farmer as a man.

Luckily Kate Keegan, who is a producer at ABC ME, is aware that these stereotypes can make it harder for girls to choose some careers and came up with a brilliant idea for a television series to celebrate the International Day of the Girl called ‘If you see it, you can be it’.
Katie and Miley in the kitchen being filmed for ABC ME series If you see it you can be it
Katie and Miley in the kitchen being filmed for ABC ME series “If you see it you can be it”

The series matches young girls with interests and aspirations in particular fields with mentors, and Kate got in touch to see if I’d be interested in being involved in a ‘Farmer’ episode of this series.

Of course I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to simultaneously promote organic farming and farming careers for girls, so I said yes, and got to spend the day today being filmed with Miley, who is 8 and wants to be a farmer.

Being involved in the process of making a TV series was absolutely fascinating, and a real eye-opener. Kate and the production crew were incredibly friendly and non-intimidating, but they were also aiming for a great result, so Miley and I had to go through our paces LOTS of times for each little section of the production to make sure they had enough material for just the right combination of sound and video for each shot. It was pretty nerve-wracking at the beginning but as the day wore on we both got a bit more relaxed, and while we were making a cuppa in the kitchen Miley even came up with a great orchardy joke (hopefully it will be included in the final cut – look out for the joke about her friend Max).

Miley was accompanied by Mum, Lisa, and Dad, Adrian, who run a horse, cropping and sheep farm in western Victoria. They lead what sounds like a very exciting life breaking in horses and competing in rodeos (which explains all the cowboy boots at the door), though they assured me it has its fair share of mud, horse manure and repetitive jobs, just like all types of farming.

 

If Miley does decide to become a farmer she’ll be the sixth generation of her family to do so, and will be following the proud examples set by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, all of whom took active roles on their farms.

It’s all too common for women on farms to think of themselves as the ‘farmer’s wife’, so it’s terrific for Miley to have the proud support of her family to think of herself – even at the tender age of 8 – as a potential farmer in her own right. I really hope she does go on to become a farmer, because farming’s an important job and we need farmers to feed the world!

All three episodes of the series (the other two are about a scientist and a firefighter) will air on October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child, on ABC ME. Now that I’ve seen the back end of the filming process, I can’t wait to see the finished product!

Cheers, Katie

Wicking beds and vegies

Despite my years of experience in the orchard growing fruit, I don’t have a gardener’s elbow, let alone  a green thumb. I missed out on Mum’s passion for roses, and while I share Dad’s fascination with all things edible, am envious of the ease with which he seems to produce enough vegies to feed the family, and frequently have a surplus.

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I see the amount of hard work that goes into producing the Gung Hoe Growers’ year-round parade of delicious vegies, but at the same I know it’s about more than just hard work – some people seem to have a knack for knowing when and how to do things, and I’m not one of them!

However, common sense says it can’t be that difficult, and since studying permaculture we’ve learnt lots of tricks and techniques to make growing vegies easy. Plus, Hugh’s started taking an interest in growing vegies, so I’m off the hook!

making new wicking beds-360x480A few years ago we converted part of the garden that had been little more than a dusty dog playground just outside the kitchen window into…

new wicking bed-360x480… a very productive (and much more attractive) wicking bed. In permaculture terms this is Zone 1 – close to the kitchen and path, and the right place to grow the things you need most often, like herbs, salad greens and vegies.

After a while we made some modifications, and we now have four beds in this area. The wonderful Victoria (the intern who was with us last year) planted them up with lots of perennials like Vietnamese mint, asparagus, stevia, comfrey, rocket, mint, marjoram, thyme, and some other herbs. This is such a lovely warm sheltered spot that we even have thriving lemongrass and a very happy lime tree in its own wicking bed built out of an old water tank.

Hugh-vegie-garden-cauliflower-490x275Since adopting these beds as his own, Hugh has filled every available space with vegies, keeping us supplied over winter with cauliflower, brocolli, brocollini, brussels sprouts, cabbage, chillies, celery and rhubarb.

He’s started the summer planting with tomatoes (under the glass covers to get them started), sweet corn, pak choi, silver beet, kale, celery, coriander, and more chillies. There’s still a few spots left, so there’ll no doubt be more going in soon.

This is a great spot for wicking beds, being right next to a 150 year-old, 100 m high cypress tree growing nearby, that has roots everywhere! The wicking beds are lined, which stops nearby roots sucking all the water out of them.wicking-bed-tank-lined-490x367

The principle of a wicking bed is that the water is delivered into the bottom of the bed (via the upright pipe) and then the plants ‘wick’ the water up from the bottom, so no water is lost to dehydration – a great trick for our dry summer landscape!

To make sure the wicking principle works, the beds must be level – as this spirit level shows (well, actually it shows that it’s not quite level yet, but you get the idea).

spirit-level-wicking-bed-490x367Every year we add some nutrition from home-made compost, our helpful worms, and chooks, and occasionally a boost from the neighbour’s horse or cow.

The weeds and left over plants get piled up near the chook shed at the end of each season, waiting for me to clean out the chook shed and start the next compost pile. Then they’ll be returned to the garden – gardening is just so cyclical!

For the time being, I’m leaving growing the annual vegetables to other people (thanks Hugh and Dad), and concentrating on the garden we started last year near the farm shop, where I’m planning to add passionfruit, pecan nuts, brambleberries, and choke berries.

custard apple-seed-490x275I’ve also got seed from a couple of different varieties of cherimoya (custard apples) to try – they’re not traditionally grown in this climate, but one of the great things we’ve learned from permaculture training is how much you can ‘stretch’ a plant’s natural inclination by creating micro-climates.

Here’s to a bountiful summer of home-grown vegies!

Cheers, Katie

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.

National organic mark
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.