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….

bees heronswood-270x480

 

 

 

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.

Water and Winter

Winter's day in Harcourt
Another rainy winter’s day in Harcourt

For the first time in a while, we’ve been having a wet winter. It’s been raining so much that paddocks are starting to feel very wet, and orchards are starting to get really muddy. Luckily we haven’t been bogged – yet; getting bogged in the orchard in winter used to just be a matter of course, but since we converted the farm to organic production and changed the way we manage the soil and weeds, it’s become a rarity even in wet years.

cumquats in rain
Mandarines enjoying the rain

Despite the wet conditions,  a couple of months ago Coliban Water (who provide our irrigation water) told us we’d only be getting 30% of our allocation, so we’ve had a nervous couple of months, as have the Gung Hoe Growers, who run their market garden on our farm and access their water through our water entitlement. Our policy is that we pass any water restriction on to them – if we get 30%, they get 30%.

What’s an ‘allocation’, you may be asking? Each farming enterprise may own a water right giving them entitlement to access a certain amount of water from the storage dams each year. In our case, we own the right to use 21 ML (that’s 21 megalitres, or 21 million litres) each year.

But though we own the ‘right’ to access the water, Coliban Water can only supply their customers if the water is actually present in the reservoirs. If storages are low, they issue water restrictions.

Then a couple of weeks ago the allocation went up to 50% – a bit better, but still not enough water for either us or Gung Hoe to reach full production for the year, and it was getting close to the time when Gung Hoe had to make some decisions about how many seedlings to start in their hothouse for the approaching growing season. We’ve been surprised to learn how many months in advance the planning for a market garden has to happen!

rain event 2013
Drainage outside the kitchen door working well!

We’ve been watching the Coliban Water website closely as the water storage levels have been creeping up … 50%, 52%, 60% … and then it reached 61.8%, the same amount as last year (when we had a 100% allocation). We waited with bated breath for the announcement, and watched while the amount kept creeping up….

And then on Wednesday they let us know we’re on 100%! Yay, what a relief, life can go on as normal. The reservoirs are now up to 66.2%, and still rapidly increasing every day. The whole catchment is now so wet (finally) that even a small amount of rain leads to a large inflow of water – yesterday morning there was just 3mm of rain over the catchment, but a huge 1.2 gigalitres of water flowed into the storages, whereas when the catchment is dry (as it was all last season), 20mm of rain is just soaked up by the landscape and there’s no inflow into the reservoirs at all.

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Very wet conditions in 2011

Trying to grow food in an arid landscape is indeed fraught, particularly as our climate and rainfall continue to change so rapidly. In the last 5 years, we’ve experienced both the wettest (remember 2011?) and the driest years on record, and all the predictions say this climate variability is likely to be the new ‘norm’ – in other words, nothing is normal any more.

As farmers this is our new ‘norm’ – expect the unexpected, plan for the worst, and aim to be as resilient as possible! And guess what’s the single biggest factor that makes us resilient in both wet and dry years? Healthy soil with a high carbon content holds way more water than depleted soil (making us more drought resistant), plus it drains much better (making us more flood resistant)! Good farming always comes back to the soil.