Helping out on the farm

We—Penny Kothe and Paul McKinnon—are former owners of Caroola Farm,  in the NSW Southern Tablelands, and we’ve been helping out at Tellurian Fruit Gardens for the past month (which is really exciting, as our farm was the first farm Ant ever worked on). We sold our farm at the end of 2018 and are on the road helping those in need in rural and regional areas – follow us at www.facebook.com/loadsofrs/ 

What is LoadsOfR’s? “Rural, regional, remote, relief, respite, on the road” – seriously, loads of R words we can use and we could not pick just one or two…” says Penny.

To both of us, regional and rural areas are about community, building community and keeping community. “We have driven through too many small towns in our travels where the shops are empty and the street devoid of people,” says Paul. Our future plans are to travel Australia and help those in rural areas in any way we can.

We have varied backgrounds, but most recently running Caroola Farm, a certified organic farm based on permaculture and holistic management principles in the NSW Southern Tablelands farming small numbers of sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, market gardening, fruit orchard and preserves. We also have a huge range of business skills from finance through to marketing and customer service along with experience in repairs, equipment, maintenance and small building projects.

Paul and Ant sorting plums

Since arriving in mid February, we have been helping with picking, packing, preserving and pruning fruit, packing the CSA boxes for Ant at Tellurian Fruit Gardens.

Penny preparing fruit for preserving

But we certainly got more than we bargained for, as the property is home to a variety of other enterprises under the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op banner.

Katie pruning apricots trees

It’s been really exciting for us to see another property, albeit set up differently, running a market garden, fruit enterprise, setting up a micro dairy, producing fruit trees and online education, we think this is the future of small-scale farming and it’s great to see a model being implemented.

Paul picking Amber Jewel plums

Apart from helping with Tellurian Fruit Gardens we’ve watched the Gung Hoe Growers plant, water, harvest and weed their vegetables for their CSA members and restaurants.

Mel planting in the Gung Hoe patch (with Scally supervising)

We’ve gone and watched Tess milk her beloved cows, and Oli helping finalise the dairy.

Tess and Roberta at the mobile milking parlour

Merv and Katie have given us an insight into fruit tree budding and grafting, and we’re excited to see the variety of online courses that Katie and Hugh have to offer under Grow Great Fruit.

We were fortunate enough to be invited to Thanksgiving Dinner which happened to be our last evening at the farm—shared meals are a really fantastic way to build community.

Shared meal – good company

Being at Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op has been an absolute pleasure and inspiration, and we look forward to seeing how the collective grows and flourishes into the future.

Penny and Paul

Almond harvest time

Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened
Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened

Apart from all the fruits that are grown commercially in the orchards on our farm, we also have a pretty big garden, with a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, including 8 almonds (2 each of 4 different varieties) under net.

We’re big fans of nut trees in gardens, particularly if you’re trying to build a permaculture (which stands for “permanent agriculture”) system. We’ve written about them before here and you can find out more about how to create a permaculture system here.

Almonds ready to harvest - the husks have opened and started to dry
Almonds ready to harvest – the husks have opened and started to dry

You can tell when they’re ripe because the husks open up, as you can see above, exposing the shell underneath (and the almond nut is inside the shell).

This week we started picking them, because some of them had started opening up. The other indication they’re ready is that some are on the ground, but we don’t want too many on the ground because in past years we’ve found they’re a pain to find in the grass, because we usually let it grow quite long underneath the almond trees.

Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!
Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!

This year we learned from previous year’s pain, and cut the grass a few weeks before harvest, which made the process much easier!

After we’ve picked, we remove the husks before we store the nuts, and then we shell them as we need them through the year as they stay much fresher in the shell.

Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts
Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts

Now that the trees are mature, 8 trees supply us with enough nuts for eating all year, plus we grind some into meal and use them in cooking as well.

Our small almond block is planted in 2 rows, with 2 trees each of 4 different varieties. Like so many other well-meaning but vague gardeners, we lost the tags, so we don’t know which variety is which! (This is one of the things we caution against in our Grow Great Fruit program — so do as we say, not as we do!)

Variety 1 in our almond block

Normally we pick the whole crop together, but this year we’ve kept the different varieties separate, and will attempt to identify them. As you can see from the photos of the first 3 varieties we’ve picked, they’re all quite different. Variety 1 has a very papery shell (which suggests it might be Canadian Papershell).

Variety 2 in our almond block

We planted pollinisers together, so variety 2 must be either Ne Plus Ultra, Mission or IXL. Ne Plus Ultra has very large kernels, and as you can see from the photo (the sunnies are there to give a size comparison between varieties), #2 is much smaller than #1, so that rules out Ne Plus Ultra. It’s more likely to be Mission, which yields relatively small kernels. Other options include Johnsons Prolific or IXL.

Variety 3 in our almond block

Varieties #3 and #4 were also pollinisers for each other, so the likelihood is that they are Brandes Jordan and Chellaston, but we have no idea which is which! Oh well, they’re all delicious, so it doesn’t really matter, though it’s going to leave me forever curious…

A beautiful almond flower at sunset
A beautiful almond flower at sunset

Bush food heaven

On our recent trip to Gippsland, we spent a marvelous afternoon at Peppermint Ridge Farm in Tynong North, having a tour of their native food garden and enjoying an amazing lunch. It was one of the highlights of our trip.

Katie and Hugh in the native food garden
Katie and Hugh in the native food garden

Julie Weatherhead and her husband Anthony Hooper started establishing their first native food polyculture experimental garden on their property in 1997, and since then have trialed over 60 species.

Anthony Hooper sharing his knowledge about Australian native food plants
Anthony Hooper sharing his knowledge about Australian native food plants

Anthony gave us a very knowledgeable tour of their established gardens that feature many of the species that have proved to be the hardiest and most useful for home gardens.

On tour of the bush food garden at Peppermint Ridge Farm
On tour of the bush food garden at Peppermint Ridge Farm

They’re understandably protective of their garden, so we were asked not to sample any fruit or touch the plants unnecessarily as we were walking around, as several of them are quite sensitive and the fruits are likely to drop if they’re handled on the tree. As fruit growers, we could totally appreciate the request — but the plants were all so tempting it was very hard to resist!

One of the beautiful native food plants with fruit
One of the beautiful native food plants with fruit

Luckily Anthony supplied us with plenty of leaves to smell (and taste) as we went, as well as providing delicious tea that was brewed from fresh leaves as we were taking our tour.

After the tour we moved into the gorgeous farm cafe, which is the original Nar Nar Goon North Primary School building dating back to 1929, that has been relocated to the farm to be used as an educational space, and now cafe.

Hugh waiting for his native food lunch at Peppermint Ridge Farm cafe
Hugh waiting for his native food lunch at Peppermint Ridge Farm cafe

And what a lunch! We were too busy enjoying the food to take photos of it, but we did get a couple of shots of the menu to share with you, because it was such an interesting use of bush foods. Warrigal greens pesto was a revelation, as was mountain pepper spiced butter, and the finger lime curd tart with strawberry gum cream was mouthwateringly good. In fact, most of the dishes were a revelation, and all beautifully prepared.

The menu from the "Tour and Taste" lunch at Peppermint Ridge Farm
The menu from the “Tour and Taste” lunch at Peppermint Ridge Farm

Field trips are full of surprises and never disappoint — we’ve never failed to bring home at least one new idea for own farm. It might seem a bit strange, but one of the things we noticed was the public toilet.

The cleverly designed and pleasant composting toilet at Peppermint Ridge Farm
The cleverly designed and pleasant composting toilet at Peppermint Ridge Farm

It was a composting toilet of clever design and execution. Beautifully clean, easy to access for people of all abilities, not at all smelly, and spacious enough inside for two toilets and a separate urinal! We’ll be including a toilet as part of the Hub project we’re currently building, so we were impressed by seeing how well it can be done.

The cost of farming on the environment
The cost of farming on the environment

We particularly loved how Julie and Anthony have thoughtfully used the space inside the bathroom to tell the story of the land, and the way that farming and changing land use have taken a huge toll on biodiversity and the environment — a great way of educating the public by stealth!

We were also asked not to take photos of the fabulous information boards they’ve created for each of the native plants. Again, it was hard to resist but we could see their point, so instead we bought (and have since avidly read) a copy of Julie’s fabulous book, Australian Native Food Harvest (which you can buy here through their website).

Katie with her precious copy of Australian Native Food Harvest
Katie with her precious copy of Australian Native Food Harvest

Julie wrote the book in 1996 as the culmination of 20 years’ experience growing and cooking native foods, and it gives detailed information about the 20 best plants they’ve selected as being appropriate to grow in home gardens in subtropical, temperate and cool climates, as well as interesting sections on garden designs, and lots of delicious recipes.

Julie Weatherhead, author of Australian Native Food Harvest
Julie Weatherhead, author of Australian Native Food Harvest

They include some we already grow (e.g., Warrigal greens, finger lime) or had considered growing (e.g., lemon myrtle, yam daisy), quite a few that were new to us or we’d assumed would only grow in tropical climates (e.g., mountain pepper, anise myrtle, muntries, native thyme, Illawarra plum, Davidson’s plum, native ginger) and some plants we’d just never thought of as bush food (e.g., strawberry gum, vanilla lily and chocolate lily).

One of the new things we learned was how incredibly healthy some of these native foods are. For example, mountain pepper leaves have 9.3 times more antioxidants, 4.7 times more vitamin E, 10 times more vitamin A and 12 times more calcium than blueberries (which are often used as the standard for comparison).

Many native foods share these same characteristics of having very high levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals than many of the “super foods” that have been popularised, and yet to a large degree they’re still ignored in most Western diets.

We came away feeling more inspired than ever to include these under-appreciated and underutilised native food plants in the ever-expanding biodiversity of our farm.

The week after we visited, a massive bush fire in Gippsland threatened the property, burning right up to the fence, so we were relieved to hear that Julie, Anthony, their family and their farm survived the ordeal. Many others and much of the beautiful remnant Gippsland bush weren’t so lucky, so our thoughts go out to everyone who’s been affected either this season or in previous years by bushfires.