Animals and fruit trees

Do you have animals around your fruit trees?

We’d never grazed animals in the orchard before (apart from the ones we don’t want, like kangaroos, rabbits and hares), until Tess Sellar joined us here at the farm and brought her lovely dairy cows.

Tess and Ant (who now runs the orchard on the farm) have been experimenting with grazing the cows in various orchards.

In winter when there are no leaves on the tree it’s wildly successful, with the cows making good use of the feed (saving Ant having to mow), leaving behind lots of fertiliser, and only causing minimal damage to the trees.

Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser
Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser

However in summer they quickly discovered that it’s a different story when the trees have leaves – turns out cows absolutely LOVE fruit tree leaves.

One of Tess' cows munching down on an apricot tree
One of Tess’ cows munching down on an apricot tree

If you can get the logistics right to get the benefits without the damage, fruit trees and grazing animals are a natural mix, and in fact have a long tradition of being farmed together.

But it’s a very uncommon practice in modern orchards, and so we’ve been glad to be part of the ANOO network (the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) to learn from the experience of other small-scale organic orchardists – because that’s exactly the experience we can then bring to you to try out in your backyards/small farms.

Within the ANOO network there are growers using sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and geese in their orchard, and every year it’s a hot topic of conversation at the conference.

Here’s a couple of things we’ve learned so far.

Phil Marriot has been grazing Shropshire sheep in his organic orchard. Phil finds that using the Shroppies to control the weeds under his trees brings great benefits – keeping the grass short and thereby helping to put more carbon into the soil, providing free nutrition for the trees delivered exactly where it’s needed, helping to control pests and diseases, cleaning up waste fruit from the ground, and of course converting waste (grass, fruit) into useful products like meat and wool.

Sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Shropshire sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Photo: Phil Marriot

While generally happy with the benefits, Phil warns that large animals will routinely eat the bottom metre or so of the foliage from both his cherry and lemon trees (as you can in the photo above).

He’s also spent a few years building up a herd of quiet, well-behaved animals that get to go in the orchard – any naughty ones are immediately banished, before they can spread their bad habits to their buddies.

Matthew Tack from Our Mates Farm in Tassie runs Wiltshire Horn sheep under his apple trees, and returned from a trip away to find this damage (below).

Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk. Photo: Matthew Tac
Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk.
Photo: Matthew Tack

Matthew and his wife Coreen are big fans of using animals with fruit trees, but warn of the dangers of letting the animals run short on minerals. The sheep were left in an area that they thought would have been big enough to feed them for 2 weeks.

“It goes to show how important minerals are! These trees fortunately are well established and should recover. Most of this damage is from last year’s wethers.”

One of the other big issues with keeping animals with fruit trees is protecting them from predators – but more on that in another blog.

If you’re interested in having animals around your fruit trees, we wrote Fruit Tree Care for Animal Lovers just for you! It will guide you through the pros and cons of including various animals and helps you figure out which will suit you best.

The co-op gets newsletter-y

(NOTE: The interview from Mossy Willow Farm from South Coast Victoria quoted in this blog has a language warning.)

This time last year Ant, Tess, Mel, Sas, Katie and Hugh were sitting around a table covered with food and pens, papers, ideas, coffee, tea, cake…we had a lot of ‘meetings’ going on and amidst growing and selling we were all pretty tired.

SO why were we having bloody meetings? We were committing to gather to nut out together what the ‘Harcourt Farming Co-op’ even was, let alone it’s name (that came way later!).  It involved figuring out a little bit of a vision, if we even needed to be a co-op or if we just leased separately off Katie and Hugh, our values as a combined team; so many things! 

Mel, Scally, Ziggy and Sas going having a wild ride
Mel, Scally, Ziggy and Sas having a wild ride

When you start something new you have no idea what you’re doing, how to do it and what it will become…ha!  A year on and we are slowly starting to combine forces (enterprises) in a way that enables us to do things in the same vein as ‘many hands make light work’.  We are starting closed loop systems and figuring out how we can make separate businesses make best use of being members of a co-operative.

Tessa's cows devouring Gung Hoe vegie scraps
Tessa’s cows devouring Gung Hoe vegie scraps

Logistical things such as marketing, branding and financial things aside there are many more layers to who and what is evolving up on the hill.  
As all young farmers the accessibility to land is something that none of us really had.  Unable to purchase ‘land’ is a very common sticking point for people wanting to become farmers who do not have links to family land.  Setting up the co-op has involved each business having their own lease with Katie and Hugh, so basically we all pay for what we use.  The amount of land, the amount of water, the amount of electricity. 

"We as a society have forgotten that a farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist." Wendell Berry quote
Quote by Wendell Berry

We are in the stages of completing the ‘hub infrastructure’ which involves a Gung Hoe packing shed, tool shed, lunch room/office area, bathroom and laundry; thanks to a Regional Development Victoria grant Katie and Hugh applied for and received last year, under the Food Source Victoria funding. 

Katie explaining the Harcourt Organic Fruit Tree Nursery at our open day
Katie explaining the Harcourt Organic Fruit Tree Nursery at our open day

For us Hoes who have been sharing a shed for 4 years (and for Katie, Hugh and now Ant who use it primarily for packing and sorting tonnes of fruit) the idea of a space where we can do invoicing work or having a shared meal is brilliant!  It’s important to take breaks, but can be hard to when everyone around is working hard!

Tess cooling down on a hot day with her icecream phone
Tess cooling down on a hot day with her icecream phone

Which moves me onto the next point, which for me (Mel) is one of the most poignant…having other people around on the farm means we are building a community of small scale farmers all working together to support one another and look after the land on which we grow. 

Tess builds soil with rotating herds and a mobile dairy unit; Gung Hoe build soil with plant rotations, organic matter, green manures; Ant uses compost teas on the fruit trees, slashes to keep the grasses in their growth cycle which sequesters more carbon and he is experimenting with grazing poultry through the rows; the heritage nursery is keeping alive old varieties whilst Grow Great Fruit is Katie and Hugh’s online business that assists home growers to make a difference to their patch of dirt wherever they may be.

Being surrounded by people who are busy creating a better world in the way they know how is inspiring.  To me that is one of the standouts of this bunch of young and old farmers on the hill. 

Katie’s Dad, Merv, lends a hand weeding, packing fruit and admiring the cows…the farm family continues to grow with weekly volunteers and all the different workers coming on to hook up electricals, build the creamery, and visiting the farm shop.

What we are aiming to create is a way in which the entire property can be productive and regenerative and feed the farmers who are looking after and learning the land; with food, with community, with good systems which support the humans and keep them in the game as well as feeding the heart and soul.

(had to get a lil hippy in there ;))

Quote from interview with Mossy Willow Farm, South Coast Victoria
Quote from interview with Mossy Willow Farm, South Coast Victoria

If you want to keep abreast of all that’s happening in one place, each business is taking turns to write a monthly newsletter…this is how you can walk, laugh, cry, party, eat and learn with us! You can sign up for the HOFC newsletter by clicking this link (and we won’t bombard you with emails, we promise!)

Thankyou for all the support out there for what we are trying to build … you’re part of it too!!

Grow well in all the ways!

Mel (one of the dirty hoes)