The joy of growing your own fruit trees

Katie in front of what’s going to become the Harcourt heritage fruit tree nursery

As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.

Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.

Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.

Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!

Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?

Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.

We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.

But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!

We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.

A successful bud on one of our experimental citrus trees

He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.

Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!

Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.

The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.

From little things…

Celebration and business growth (and how to combine the two)

Our first ever bushdance (called the Gung Hoe Down) will be held on the farm next Saturday (28th) along with a mighty harvest feast to mark the end of an incredibly successful season.

It’s the brainchild of the inimitable Mel and Sas from Gung Hoe Growers, and they’ve put heaps of planning into it, from organising an excellent local band known for calling a good dance tune, to designing a delicious menu based on food grown here on the farm, to sourcing local wine and cider to sell at the event.

As the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance (HOFA) continues to take shape, feasting and celebration has been one of the consistent themes that shows up on everyone’s ‘wishlist’ of what they want out of being part of this farming collective, so we hope it becomes an annual event – or even better, just one on our calendar of celebrations!

But there’s another reason the Gung Hoes are putting so much effort into creating a fabulous event. We’ve watched in awe as they’ve built their business rapidly over the 3years since they started, doubling and then redoubling the size of their patch, and steadily building up their customer base.

They’ve applied themselves to the back-breaking work with diligence, grit and barrow-loads of determination, doing everything by hand because they haven’t had access to equipment.

 

But like so many small businesses just starting out, they’ve been doing it on a shoestring, particularly as part of their mission statement is to provide affordable food to local people, which has meant they’ve kept their prices very sensible.

The rapid growth means they desperately need more physical space for storage and packing, but without capital behind them that’s a big ask.  In their typical thrifty fashion they’ve found an incredibly low-cost way of providing the infrastructure they need – but they still need to fund it.

Rather than follow the traditional business route of going into debt, they’re applying the same innovative spirit that’s seen their business grow and gain huge community support so rapidly into exploring new ways of funding business growth. And what better way to do it than combine it with a huge celebration – hence, the Gung Hoe Down!

It’s a big risk for them, as they have to commit to a whole bunch of expenses up front, but they have faith that by putting on a great party for the community they’ll be able to achieve their financial goal. They’re aware that not everyone likes to dance, and some people can’t afford a feast, so there’s a wide range of ticketing options. Check them out here.

And we have faith in them.  This event just perfectly sums up everything that Hugh and I love about welcoming these enthusiastic young farmers onto our farm – the determination to provide delicious and nutritious food to local people at a reasonable price, the innovative and clever approach to doing business, and the impulse to have a party at every opportunity!

See you on the dance floor or at the feasting table.

 

Let’s fight the fly

After a long fruit-growing history, Harcourt has come up against a new foe. Queensland Fruit Fly is on our doorstep and threatens to abruptly end our fruit production heritage by decimating home gardens and commercial crops alike.

On Thursday 5 April Megan Hill, the project officer for the Fruit Fly Action Plan, and Ali Brookes of Maldon Cherry Farm organised a series of information sessions in the local area to educate the community. A small crowd of farmers and gardeners gathered at the Harcourt Anglican hall for the final 1 hour session of the day.

We discussed the history of the Queensland Fruit Fly and its march south over the eastern states, the life cycle of the insect, the diverse range of fruit it will affect, what to do with infected produce and of course, a range of potential defense mechanisms.

Netting, baiting, trapping and hygiene were all discussed at length but the prominent message from the day was that it will take a unified effort from the entire community to safeguard our veggie gardens and our orchards. Every backyard fruit tree and garden must be managed properly or removed. That means installing traps to monitor the population, netting plants or bagging fruit, using baiting sprays if necessary (there are organic and nonorganic options available), and even having some chooks or ducks to reduce fly numbers. If any fruit is found to be infected it must be collected immediately and solarised (placed in a garbage bag and left in the sun for a few days) or frozen. Infected fruit can NOT be composted as this is the perfect environment for the larvae to pupate and hatch.

As a new fruit grower in the area, I was keen to attend the session so that I could improve my knowledge of the fly and better understand all the options available to defend my new orchard. It is daunting to be starting a farming enterprise in the face of this insidious pest but I have faith that we can collectively protect ourselves. Also, my current farming mentors, Hugh and Katie of Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens, hold a wealth of experience and knowledge that I can glean and add to my pest control tool belt.

I am passionate about farming, love growing food for my local community, and feel proud to be the next generation of custodian for Harcourt’s fruit production history. These are the things that motivate me to ‘fight the fly’. Spread the word, educate your friends, properly manage or remove your fruiting trees/plants and help us farmers stay fruit fly free.