From the archives – Our annual organic audit

Last week we had our annual organic audit by NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia), our certifying body, and as always, it got us thinking about why we bother going through all the palaver. Don’t get us wrong – we’re huge supporters of organic certification, and we’ll tell you all about the reasons why in our next post. We just question a food system that requires organic producers to carry the burden of proof that we’re doing everything by the book, while chemical farmers have no obligation to tell their customers anything about how their food is produced!

But first, here’s one from the archive about our audit in 2011, to share the audit experience with you. Sorry about the quality of the photos – phone camera technology’s improved a lot since then. Hope you enjoy it!

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mt alexander fruit gardens in harcourt - organic audit day

All certified organic producers are audited every 12 to 14  months to ensure we comply with the Organic Standards, a comprehensive document that regulates every aspect of our business to ensure we maintain the high standards required to qualify as an organic producer in Australia.

We started the audit with a farm walk, showing Plamen (the inspector) the whole farm, including all the orchards and our boundaries; we have the Mt Alexander Regional Park on the east border (as you can see in the photo above), open farm land to the south, a disused quarry to the north and a mix of open pasture and a small patch of conventional orchard to the west. (NOTE 2014: this orchard has now gone).

Groundcover plants in the new orchard, including clover
A young tree with groundcover plants around it
Some of the things Plamen asked about while we were walking around included how we control our weeds, the weed mat we’ve used in the new orchard and the types of ground cover plants we have in the orchards. Before we planted the new orchard (including this happy baby plum tree in the photo above), we sowed a green manure crop, and we’ve been happy to see the amount of clover and herbs that have come up. These plants help to provide the trees with free nitrogen from the air, and other minerals that the plants mine from the ground.

our organic audit checked for property signs like this

Plamen had a good look at the trees that form a buffer zone between us and our neighbours, and the signs erected at our borders to alert visitors to our organic status.

bare fruit trees in winter

We explained that we prune the trees in the buffer zone differently to trees elsewhere on the property, to make them bushy and leafy as you can see in the photo below, to create an effective spray buffer. We don’t have a fence, just several rows of this variety of plums (President), which are NOT certified organic because of the spray drift. They’re kept completely separate from all our other fruit, and sold separately through the conventional wholesale market.

our organic audit checked packing and sorting equipment

The packing shed (NOTE 2014: it’s good to be reminded of the bad old days of the old packing shed – eeek! Hard to believe we managed in such cramped quarters for so many years!). We showed Plamen our packaging materials, and explained how we transport fruit to our various markets.

Next we had a look at the spray shed, with lots of questions about the contents of each shed, cleaning schedules, cleaning materials and our harvest, storage and packing systems.

organic audit checked for allowable inputs such as lime sulphur

organic inputs for growing fruit

An explanation of the contents of the spray shed took a while, as each input that we use on the orchard (such as lime sulphur, calcium, fish hydrolysate, kelp and humic acid) must be individually checked to make sure it’s an organically allowable input. We have to supply details of each farm input so NASAA can be sure we’re not introducing any contamination into the farm.

The coolroom came under scrutiny next…

fruit in the coolroom

Once the outdoor infrastructure had been inspected, we retired to the warm kitchen for a cuppa and to do the paperwork.

First, we went through our updated Organic Management Plan, which is sent to us before to the audit, and is our chance to let NASAA know of any changes we’ve made to the farm since our last audit. This year we told them about having planted the new orchard containing 1,000 apricot, peach, nectarine and plum trees, as well as a minor change to the way we input harvest records into our accounting program.

organic audit checks our paperwork trail

We supplied information about the size of our harvest (broken down by type of fruit), and the value of the crop this season, and provided examples of our harvest record book (see above) and our marketing records. Whenever we pick (most days during the fruit season), we record the date, variety, number of kilograms and which orchard it came from. Once the fruit has been packed we also record the number of first grade, second grade and third grade fruit.

Once packed, the fruit then goes off to a variety of markets – the wholesale market in Melbourne, our various weekend markets or sent off by courier for the online sales, all of which get recorded on our different sales records and then recorded into our financial software.

NASAA needs to test that the producer can track their produce from the point of sale, right back through the system to harvest. It’s important to be able to prove that we are not selling more of any one type of fruit than we are growing, as that would raise the question of where the extra fruit had come from. This is one of the ways the certifying bodies prevent misuse of the certification system; otherwise it would be possible to use the cover of organic certification to sell conventional produce as organic.

our nasaa certification number

All certified organic products in Australia must carry the logo of the certifier (here’s our label), and the use of these logos is also strictly controlled. As a shopper buying anything organic, check for the logo and the word “certified”–anyone can label something as “organic”, but only producers and manufacturers that have been through the rigourious certification process can use a “certfiied organic” label.

Clearly organic certification in Australia is a comprehensive exercise, and is one which can give us all confidence in the organic produce that we buy!

About us…

We’re in the middle of overhauling our website (yes, again!) and have just updated our ‘about us’ page. Which got us to thinking that a lot of the stuff on that page – what motivates us, our backgrounds, the training we’ve done over many years, and the actual jobs we do on the farm – are probably things we don’t talk about very much!

So today, we bring you “About Us” – everything you didn’t even realise you wanted to know about Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, and us! Hope you enjoy it…

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WeHugh and Katie Finlay draw on over 15 years’ experience as orchardists at our farm, Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, to bring you the Grow Great Fruit Program, the farm-proven system for home fruit growers.

The farm

Since we came home to the farm in 1998, we’ve seen some pretty wild conditions—from drought to flood and everything in between—so we have learnt HEAPS about growing fruit in a wide variety of conditions.

Nestled at the foot of Mt Alexander in Harcourt, our farm is planted like an old fashioned “garden” (the early name for an orchard) with small plantings of more than 90 varieties, providing an extended season of fresh fruit off the tree for almost 6 months.

With a combination of careful planning, looking after the trees well, appropriate storage, and a range of preserving techniques, our farm is a working demonstration of how to keep your family supplied with delicious organic fruit all year round.

We use organic growing methods – and teach them – not only because it’s better for everyone’s health, but because we’re acutely aware of how fast the climate is changing, and we want our farm to be part of the solution, not part of the problem! (read below to find out more about our Sustainability Plan).

The family

As well as our background in farming, and experience running our own farm, we regularly do more training to learn new stuff—we reckon it’s important to stay up-to-date and keep increasing our skills, so we can keep adapting quickly!

Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens is a family-run business, and we also value the 50 years-plus of fruit growing experience from Merv (Katie’s Dad), even though he’s retired since we branched out on our own (pun intended) and took the farm in the new direction of organic certification and biological farming methods. (“Retirement” means these days Merv only runs the tree nursery for the farm, does a bit of pruning, grows all the farm vegies and generally watches our backs. Oh, and he runs his own farm – that’s a farmer’s retirement!).

Our experience and training

Hugh’s farming experience started on a cattle station in Western Australia (which he ended up managing), followed by a stint as a supervisor on a broadacre wheat farm in Saudi Arabia. Travelling around the world for fun turned into 16 years as a writer and editor for Lonely Planet, an exotic lifestyle he eventually gave up to return to his farming roots and settle down in Harcourt.

Since coming back to the land, the training Hugh’s done has significantly steered MAFG towards its current path of organics and biological management:

  • “Monitor and manage soils” and “Pest, disease and weed management” units of the Diploma of Agriculture in Organic Farming, Organic Agriculture Association/Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE.
  • “Sustainable and Biological Farming Course”  with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
  •  “True Fertility Compost Tea Course” and “Microscope Course”, with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Institute
  • “Compost & Compost Tea Workshop”, with Paul Taylor, Woodend
  • Irrigation Management Course”, Department of Natural Resources and Sunraysia TAFE
  • Cherry Short Course”, Department of Primary Industries, Shepparton
  • Soil and Agronomy Workshop”, Dr Arden Andersen PhD DO FS
  • Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine

Hugh’s a self-confessed soil and microbe nerd, and spends a fair bit of time looking down a microscope! His jobs on the farm are many and varied, but include:

  • Nutrition—making compost tea brews, looking after the worms (his babies), soil testing, leaf testing, fertigation and foliar sprays
  • Irrigation—keeping the pumps and irrigation systems in top condition, monitoring soil moisture, deciding when and how much to water the trees
  • Pest and disease control—predicting the weather and putting on preventive organic sprays at exactly the right time!
  • Weed control
  • Machinery fix-it guy
  • IT and website fix-it guy

Hugh cleaning the compost tea brewer

Katie’s a third-generation orchardist and grew up on the farm, but bolted to the city after school and mis-spent a good deal of her youth getting a Bachelor of Science at Monash Uni (which as it turns out gave her a solid grounding in botany and genetics that came in very handy when she came home to the farm 15 years later).

Since coming home Katie’s also done a fair bit of training—in slightly different areas to Hugh—that has helped shaped the direction of the farm.

  • Permaculture Design Certificate” with Cydonia Permaculture
  • Permaculture Certificate 3” with Cydonia Permaculture and Eltham College
  • “Soil and Agronomy Workshop” with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS.
  • “Footprints to Sustainability” course taught by Jane Knight
  • “Biodynamic Field Day”, Daylesford
  • Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine
  • “Holistic Management” with Kirk Gadzia, Woodend
  • “Soil Microbes for Healthy Soil & Improved Vineyard Quality, Department of Primary Industries, Knoxfield
  • Carbon Farming 101”, Carbon Farmers of Australia
  • “Carbon Farmers of Australia conference”, Dubbo

We find it works best for us to divide up the jobs according to our main areas of interest (we both have more fun that way), which sees Katie spending most of her days managing the trees, and looking after the fruit all the way from picking to marketing.

Katie and friends doing soil testing

Katie’s jobs on the farm are as many and varied as Hugh’s, and include:

  • Pruning—5,000 trees and 4 different tree training systems means this is a big job every year
  • Fruit picking—choosing the right time to pick each of our 90 varieties, supervising pickers and wwoofers, making sure the fruit reaches the shed (and the markets) in perfect condition
  • Packing and marketing—fruit is graded and packed to suit the market for which it’s destined (wholesale, online or farmers market)
  • Thinning to manage crop load and quality
  • Orchard hygiene—an important defence against disease
  • Pest and disease control—preventive tape, netting, pheromones etc.
  • Orchard planning—keeping tabs on what new varieties are needed, grafting and pollinisers

Other Farm-y Stuff

We started the process of getting certified organic with NASAA in 2008. Being certified organic means everything we do (and everything we use on our farm) must comply with the Australian Organic Standards. We’re audited once a year by a NASAA officer, who has the legal right to look at EVERYTHING we do, including all our bookwork and procedures. We wholeheartedly support organic certification, and love that it’s such a rigorous process, because we think that gives you – the consumer – the confidence that we actually are doing everything the right way, and not just saying that we are. It’s too easy for people to say they’re organic when what they mean is spray-free, or almost spray-free. When you’re shopping, if someone is claiming to be organic – ask them who they’re certified with, and if they’re not, ask them why not!

Being certified organic means (amongst other things) that no artificial fertilisers are used on the farm. We rely instead on natural fertility (you know, the sort that fed the entire human race before about 1920 when superphospate was invented, and our soils were ruined!). Natural fertility relies on using compost, compost tea and other forms or organic matter to create healthy soil, full of microbes that provide the trees with nutrients.

We’ve also set aside 4.5 hectares of the farm as a revegetation zone, creating a wildlife corridor from the Mt Alexander Regional Park (which borders the farm on the eastern side) through to remnant vegetation on the western side. The zone has been planted with local species, and is slowly being restored to its original condition.

In many ways, the farm still looks as it would have 100 years ago. The property was owned by W.L. Williams and sons, who began planting orchard in the 1880s. By 1909 they had an orchard or ‘garden’ (hence the farm name) of 60 acres, making them Harcourt’s largest fruit growers. They successfully grew apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears and cherries – as we still do today!

Sustainability Plan

Sustainability and resilience come from diversity, and this principle is applied constantly to all parts of our business. So, rather than growing a monoculture of just one type of fruit (which is very vulnerable to environmental conditions), we grow 7 types of fruit, and more than 90 varieties, with more added every year. (The house garden has another 20 or so varieties including nuts and citrus, but these are just to add to the diversity of their own food supply rather than for commercial sale). Growing lots of varieties spreads the risk, reduces disease pressure, improves food security by providing fresh fruit off the tree for almost half the year, spreads the workload and costs, and makes sure the fruit is picked, sold and eaten while it’s fresh.

The diversity principle is also applied to everything else, including for example:

  • markets – pick-your-own, wholesale, online and Farmers Markets
  • water sources – irrigation (Coliban Water), on-farm storage and increasing the amount of organic matter to store more water in the soil
  • income – on-farm (fruit, trees), online (Grow Great Fruit training products) and off-farm (Hugh’s alternative income)
  • sources of organic matter – compost, manure, worm food, humates, seaweed and other soil additives come from multiple sources to ensure adequate nutrients are returned to the soil
  • biodiversity – we encourage as many different types of birds, insects, arthropods and microbes as possible by having as many different types of plants as possible

We’ve documented every aspect of the business, including our carbon-neutral status, in our Sustainability Plan which includes:

* the principles that guide the business
* strategy and goals
* challenges to sustainable practice
* summary of carbon emissions & sequestration
* key performance indicators including production, profit and satisfaction
* marketing and transport analysis
* pest, disease and environmental conditions review
* water and soil management

You’re welcome to read the whole plan – click on this link to go to Farmnotes and eBooks in our online shop to download it for free.

(Of course as soon as you produce any sort of business document it needs updating, so we aim to update the Sustainability Plan every 2 years, but being human, and busy, it can take a bit longer than that…)

Community Stuff

We are both involved with the local scene in all sorts of ways—because it’s so much more fun and interesting than going it alone! Plus it adds to the resilience of our business, as well as helping to build an active community.

Some of the things we’re doing at the moment include Hugh’s membership of Coliban Water’s Harcourt Water Services Committee, and both of us are members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers Association (of which Katie was Secretary for 10 years, and is now the Community Liaison Officer). Katie’s also passionate about the Growing Abundance project—a food relocalisation project based in Castlemaine (and not only because it involves lots of cake!)

Katie’s also involved each year in the local Harcourt Applefest, a celebration of our district’s long association with the mighty apple (that’s a photo of the crowd enjoying the ferret races at the Applefest).


Media and Speaking Stuff

MAFG has been featured many times in the media, and Hugh and Katie have spoken at various events over the years…here’s some of the recent highlights:

  • Katie was on the panel at a community forum called Get the Dirt on Food Security at Wesley Anne in Northcote in 2011
  • Hugh and Katie were featured speakers at the Organic Agriculture Association Future Farming conference in Bairnsdale in 2010
  • In 2009 MAFG was one of 4 orchards chosen for orchard walks for delegates to the 2009 Australian Fresh Fruit Company (AFFCO) Training Workshop, as part of their Annual Conference in Melbourne
  • In 2011 MAFG was featured in articles in both Australian Horticulture magazine and Good Fruit and Vegetables magazine
  • In 2012 MAFG was used as a case study in the report “Many Publics. Participation Inventiveness and Change” by Kate Auty, the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability in Victoria (you can read the report at:
  • In 2012 Katie was a speaker in the Keynote session at the Growers and Eaters Conference in Bendigo
  • In 2010 MAFG was part of the FarmVIEW video series featuring our response to the challenges of farming in a changing environment: (ep 2.1 ‘Climate and Planning’)
  • In 2014 we were included in a short video about waste in the food system called Waste Deep, made by the passionate people at Sustainable Table – watch the video here.
The film crew in the shed making the Waste Deep doco

Awards’n stuff

  • In both 2010 and 2011 we were Medallists in the ‘From the Earth’ category, delicious (ABC) magazine Produce Awards
  • We were runners-up in 3 categories of the Carbon Farmers of Australia Carbon Cocky Awards in 2011: Outstanding Best Practice, Outstanding Innovation or Invention and Encouragement Award.