How’s the climate?

We’ve joined the new Mount Alexander Regenerative Agriculture Group (MARAG) and went to an interesting session this week about what’s been changing in our climate, and what we can expect in coming years.

The presentation was by Graeme Anderson, who’s a climate specialist at AgVic, and he introduced us to a number of cool new apps, fact sheets and resources designed to help farmers understand what’s happening with the climate.

First, Graeme was very clear that the evidence that the climate is changing due to man-made activities is undeniable (so much so that it’s quite bizarre that anyone is still denying it – and yet, they are!).

The first app he told us about is called CliMate (https://climateapp.net.au/ ).

You can either access the app from your phone or on your computer (HINT: I found trying to create an account from my phone quite glitchy, but it worked fine on the computer, as long as I used the suggested password rather than one of my own.)

The app is an easy way to keep track of the season compared with the average, and you can also ask a whole lot of “How…” questions, e.g.

  • How hot/cold?
  • How likely (e.g. is it that we’ll receive rainfall higher than the average)?
  • How often (e.g. do we receive frosts)?

The Bureau of Meterology have recently published a series of climate guides for most of the climate regions across Australia (http://bom.gov.au/climate/climate-guides ). Go to the website and click on the map to get the link to download the guide for your region.

The guides give a snapshot of what’s been happening with the weather and climate in the last 30 years, as well as comparing some of the results with the previous 30 years to identify trends.

A chart showing season rainfall variability at Castlemaine
A chart showing season rainfall variability at Castlemaine

Graeme made an interesting distinction between climate variability (which we’ve always experienced, as he demonstrated with charts of rainfall since 1873, above) and climate change which he demonstrated with this chart (below) showing the trend in “extreme” records being broken.

A chart demonstrating climate changes in Australia
A chart demonstrating climate changes in Australia

The climate change predictions for the future was one of the most alarming parts of the presentation.

Australia's temperature is likely to increase due to climate change
Australia’s temperature is likely to increase due to climate change

Even now with the changes that have already occurred, we’re essentially already getting an extra month of summer, and depending on the amount of warming that the planet experiences, this trend could continue.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen, but it seems almost certain that out climate here in central Victoria will become warmer, drier and experience more extreme weather events.

This news can feel very overwhelming, because as individuals there’s only so much we can do to reverse climate change. Of course it’s up to all of us to take whatever action we can (and we support the actions of groups like eXtinction Rebellion and others, who are taking action to the street in the face of almost complete inaction from all levels of government).

However as farmers we also take our responsibility of providing food for our communities (as well as making our living off the land) very seriously, so we’re doing everything we can to prepare for and adapt to the new climate conditions.

And it’s not all bad news. It’s important to remember that there are already people farming successfully in hotter and drier climates than ours, so we can learn a lot by what they’re already doing.

Plus we can work on protecting our land from the elements by creating microclimates (e.g. windbreaks and shelter belts) as we explain in our Home Orchard Design short course, establish year-round perennial groundcovers so there’s no bare soil to blow away, create the most bio-complex agro-ecological system possible on our farm and work on creating our own renewable energy systems.

Hugh working on soil improvement
Hugh working on soil improvement

But mainly we need to continue the work we’re all passionate about, which is improving our soil, because the more carbon we can store in the soil the more rainfall we can capture and store, and the more resilience we (and our crops and animals) have against drought, flood, storms, frost and pests and diseases.

As always, everything comes back to the soil!

To fertilise or not to fertilise?

Crabapple flowers and leaves in spring
Crabapple flowers and leaves in spring

When your fruit trees start to flower, and produce leaves and then fruit in early spring, they’re using nutrients they stored away in their buds and bark back last autumn.

But it’s a pretty limited supply, and as soon as their roots are active, they’ll also start to draw nutrients up through their roots.

A young fruit tree with roots exposed
A young fruit tree with roots exposed

So, do you need to add fertiliser to the soil so they have enough nutrition available?

Well, no … but yes.

Sorry, confused? The organic way to grow fruit is called the Natural Fertility System. It’s the system that evolved millions of years ago without any human intervention, so it works with nature rather than against it.

A pile of woody compost with a pH kit
A pile of woody compost with a pH kit

Soil is one of our favourite topics, and we support home gardeners with a bunch of different short courses (we’d love to see fertilisers disappear off the shelves of garden shops!), but probably the best place to start the soil journey is Is My Soil Healthy?

Turns out that the addition of man-made, artificial fertilisers (which are soluble nutrients) – though they seem to give good results – actually works against this principle.

Hugh checking the temperature of the compost pile at Rodale Institute of organic research
Hugh checking the temperature of the compost pile at Rodale Institute of organic research

Rather than supporting the populations of microbes, artificial fertilisers kill microbes, upset the delicate balance in the soil and actually destroy the Natural Fertility System. And guess what? That means you become dependent on the fertilisers for nutrition for your crops

This explains how the great promise of the “green revolution” (when nitrogen fertilisers started to be mass produced) turned out to be a trap for farmers and gardeners all over the world. The ensuing collapse of the Natural Fertility is one of the root causes behind the devastation we’re now seeing in agricultural systems and ecosystems globally.

But staying away from fertilisers (and other chemicals) doesn’t mean we don’t add anything to the soil.

To keep our fruit trees happy and healthy, our job is to make sure that all the required nutrients need are present, and then to provide the right conditions to favour the populations of healthy soil microbes so they can do what they’re good at, which is converting nutrients into a plant-available form (and eating each other!).

Fruit trees mulched with straw in spring
Fruit trees mulched with straw in spring

So what to add?

Basically any organic matter, and from a variety of sources if possible. This might include:

  • compost
  • worm castings
  • wood ash
  • rock dust
  • wood chips
  • straw

Basically, if something used to be alive, it’s organic matter!

Fear and suspicion of insects

Almost every week, one of our Grow Great Fruit members gets in touch saying something along the lines of “help, there’s a bug on my fruit tree!”

Back before we were certified organic we took a different approach to insects, treating them mostly with fear and suspicion, and we aimed to eradicate them, mainly with terrible toxic sprays.

We didn’t understand just how much damage we were doing, and it was an important part of our journey to learn to appreciate them.

A cicada on a fruit tree
A cicada on a fruit tree

There are so many hundreds of thousands of different insects that identifying a specific bug can be difficult (particularly as we’re fruit growers, not entomologists).

A macadamia flower with insects (look carefully...)
A macadamia flower with insects (look carefully…)

This is a close-up of a macadamia flower from our macadamia tree, and if you look closely there are 3 different insects hiding in there (admittedly, the one in the middle is very hard to see!).

We use one key factor as our guide to how we respond to any insects in the orchard – do we have evidence that they’re damaging either the fruit or the trees?

A caterpillar on an apricot
A caterpillar on an apricot

We reckon it’s so important to learn how to really LOOK at your fruit trees (rather than have a knee-jerk reaction to seeing bugs on them) that we’ve written a short course called “Learn to Diagnose Your Fruit Trees“.

If your monitoring shows that yes, the insects are doing damage, then the next step is to get to know as much about the insect as possible, particularly its life cycle, looking for a weak point where you can interfere in such a way as to stop the damage occurring, and this is one of the strategies we explain in the next course that’s relevant to the topic, Protect Fruit Trees from Pesky Pests.

We take this approach because it would be a huge challenge to try to learn about every insect in the garden, their interactions and whether they’re pests or predators.

Insects, birds, plants and even the microbes in the soil have complex relationships that we’ll never begin to understand in our lifetime, but what we’ve observed over many years is that as long as there is lots of diversity in the garden, populations tend to keep each other in check and become more balanced over time.  

Fabulous green bug
Fabulous green bug

Our experience on the farm has been that as long as we encourage LOTS of biodiversity, and take measures to protect our fruit without interfering with nature too much, we usually manage to live in harmony with all the critters in our orchard.

We prefer this to the “scorched earth” approach of killing everything that moves because, honestly, it’s very easy to do more harm than good once you start killing things in the garden.