How to become an organic farmer…part one

The day we received this certificate was a very exciting day!

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Our first Certified Organic Certificate of Registration, issued in 2010

It was the end of a long process, that officially started in early 2007 when we applied to NASAA for organic certification, but in fact had begun several years earlier. But we’re starting at the end…let’s go back to the beginning.

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Planting the new apple orchard,2004

A series of events of unexpected events led to Merv (Katie’s dad) deciding to sell the family farm in 1998. Letting the farm leave the family suddenly seemed like a really bad idea, and so we put up our hands to come home and take over the farm.

Both of us had had farm experience; Katie grew up on the family farm (the whole family moved here from another farm down the road when she was 8), and though Hugh was a city boy by birth, he quickly gravitated to the country as a young man, and spent time working on and managing farms in Western Australia and Saudi Arabia. But neither of us had planned a career path that involved farming, and were doing entirely different things at the time. It was definitely a dramatic career change for both of us.

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Hugh and Merv digging up the trees from the nursery to plant the new peach block

Thankfully Merv was happy not to sell, but to let us take over, and stay on to teach us the ropes. The first 3 years were essentially an apprenticeship, as we learned the ropes of farming in the way he’d always done it. Luckily, Merv has always been an innovative farmer (he was one of the first in the district to install drip irrigation, and to start the now common practice of fruit thinning), so while he taught us the (chemical) methods he’d learned and always used, he was also supportive of us taking the farm in a new, organic direction—as long as we thought we could make a go of it!

Our first, tentative steps towards organics were not the result of an ideological standpoint at all. We just didn’t like using chemicals, especially some of the nastier, broad-spectrum insecticides (which kill whatever they hit). It felt wrong, so we stopped using them, replacing them with ‘softer’ chemical alternatives—at that point we still couldn’t imagine farming without chemicals. The ideology came later, as we learned more, were exposed to new ideas, did some training, and put what we were learning into practice.

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Learning about soil

Noticing the changes that happened in the orchard when we removed broad-spectrum insecticides was probably the first significant shift in our consciousness. When we realised that woolly aphid (normally a bad pest in apple orchards) had completely disappeared from our orchards, while all our neighbours still had it, the first little penny dropped and we began to understand that by interfering in the natural ecosystem with chemicals, maybe we were doing more harm than good (it sounds pretty incredible now that this was a revelation to us, but it’s the truth!).

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Selling “spray-free” fruit at an early Farmers Market, 2006

But it was still a long road from there. Even as we gradually thought more about becoming organic, and kept dropping more chemicals from our farming practices, we still had huge barriers to overcome (mostly in our minds) before we could seriously contemplate going all the way. We were coming from a fear-based position where chemicals were problem-solvers, and we couldn’t imagine how we were going to cope with the onslaught of problems we would be faced with if we stopped using them!  How would we cope with all those pests ruining our fruit, all those weeds ruining our beautiful bare orchard floor, and how on earth would the trees get their nutrition, if we weren’t allowed to use fertilisers??? It all seemed too hard, and too scary.

There were two big things that happened next that helped us make the decision to apply for organic certification. The first was Hugh going to a talk called “Farming as if it mattered” by an inspiring American scientist called Arden Andersen, in February 2006. This really opened our eyes, and started us on a path of education, reading and training, that completely changed the way we think, and laid the scientific foundations for the way we farm today.

We learned about soil biology, natural fertility,  making compost tea, and disease and weed management. Between 2005 and 2010 particularly, we did lots of training, learned masses, and really got switched on (finally) to the importance of soil.

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Hugh at a sustainable farming course, 2009

We also did courses on irrigation, cherry growing, whole farm planning, sustainable farming practices, calculating our carbon footprint, climate change strategies, carbon farming and permaculture, as well as doing lots and lots of field trips. It was a huge and exciting learning curve, and we continue to be committed to ongoing training or education every year.

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Field trip to Davo’s worm farm, 2010

But back to the other big thing that happened to let us make the leap to organics. Our neighbour and organic mentor, Ross Forrester, the only other organic orchardist in our district, gave us his old swing-arm slasher, thereby solving the one problem we hadn’t been able to wrap our heads around—weed control. We’d come around to the idea of the value of having plants in the orchard rather than bare soil, but we knew we still needed to keep the height of the weeds down, and we only had a slasher that was pulled after the tractor, leaving long weeds in the tree lines, where we didn’t want them.

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The swing-arm slasher Ross gave us

On a side note, unfortunately Ross and his wife Jenny have left the organics industry, one of many farming families to stop farming as a result of the drought. They were experienced organic growers and lovely people, and we were sad to lose one of the few organic mentors we’ve had, before or since (they’re very happily in a non-farming business now). We were lucky they were still in business at the right time to help us out, because as you can see from the photo, the slasher we got from Ross had an extra blade on a swinging arm on the left-hand side side that mowed right under and around the trees, and solved our last problem (or so we thought). There didn’t seem to be any more barriers….

Our side-arm slasher today, a much more modern version of the one Ross Forrester gave us.

And so finally we applied to NASAA for certification in mid-2007, had our first inspection, soil tests and fruit tests in late 2007, and received our first ever Certificate of Registration in January 2008 confirming that we had passed the tests, and were officially In Conversion to organic production.

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Our pre-certification certificate from NASAA, issued in 2008

Next time…the million mistakes we made, and how to avoid them!

Bugs on fruit trees

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In an organic orchard, having lots of bugs and spiders around is a great sign that you’re doing something right. Here’s a few photos of some of the myriad species we find in our orchards.

Traditionally, bugs on fruit trees have a bad name, because they might be eating the fruit or damaging the trees, and of course some of them do. That’s why chemical orchards spray insecticides – to kill off the insects that are damaging the crop, like codling moth, pear and cherry slug, earwigs, light brown apple moth and aphids, just to name a few.

earwig and earwig damage on castlebrite apricot

Unfortunately, the chemicals also kill bugs that are doing the much more important job of controlling the insects that do the damage! The end result? You’ve removed all the predators that kill the bad bugs, leaving plenty of opportunity for the bugs you don’t want to get out of control.

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One of the principles we farm by is diversity – in all things! It’s a basic permaculture principle, to minimise risks and create a more resilient system. So for example, we have more than one water source (dam, soil storage and irrigation channel), we have more than one market (wholesale, farmers markets and online), and we grow as many different types of fruit as possible (90 varieties so far, and still adding).

In the natural world this principle holds even more true. Rather than try to control nature (talk about fighting a losing battle!), we do everything we can to encourage biodiversity, and let them sort it out themselves.

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That might seem like a very relaxed approach, but it’s based on a few scientific facts.

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For a start, trees that are growing in healthy soil that provides them with complete nutrition are less likely to attract the sort of bugs that like to eat fruit – amazing but true! All we have to do is keep providing the conditions that favour healthy soil microbes, ie lots of organic matter (from a diverse range of sources), enough water, oxygen (ie make sure the soil isn’t compacted), good plant cover, and recharge the soil every now and then with a dose of microbes, to make sure the populations are thriving and diverse.

butterfly on grapefruit tree

Insect communities have evolved together over millions of years, and have highly sophisticated and complex ways of interacting and keeping each other in check. While we know a lot about pest insects and predators, there’s much more we don’t know, and we risk upsetting the natural balance every time we interfere.

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On our farm we mostly take a physical, and very specific, approach to prevention of pest and disease damage. This sticky tape around the trunk of cherry trees is a great way of stopping earwigs eating the cherries (it also works really well in stopping garden weevils eating nectarines). We use something called pheromone mating disruption to prevent codling moths breeding in our orchard – it’s doesn’t kill them or interfere with the food chain, but it keeps them out of our apples!

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So the first rule of preventing pests and diseases on your fruit trees is – DON’T PANIC! Be still and watch for a while, try to figure out what’s going on, and assess whether they are actually doing any damage to your trees or fruit before you come up with a plan of action. Our first responsibility as gardeners is to do no damage to the environment, and that includes our beautiful bugs!

spined predatory shield bug

Eeek – hail!

Yesterday it hailed just down the road from our farm, luckily not at our place, but too close for comfort! And there’s more predicted today, and for later in the week. Eeek!!

Hail is a fruit growers’ nightmare. It can do untold damage to fruit in a short space of time, and has been responsible for the ‘wipe-out’ of whole crops many times before. Here’s what our neighbour’s place looked like after a hailstorm a few years ago.

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and this is how big the hail stones were right outside our door in a storm last year…just like little rocks, being hurled out of the sky onto our fruit. No wonder we worry, right?

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Here’s a selection of some hail-damaged apples at maturity, to give you an idea of how bad it can be…

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Hmm, not very attractive. But there’s no sense complaining, or worrying, is there? It’s one of those things we have no control over. Or…do we?

Here’s what some apples looked like just after a hail storm. You can see the little marks on them, that grow into the bigger deformities as the apple grows.

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Being an organic farm, we do all our thinning by hand (as opposed to the chemicals used on chemical orchards to do the same job). It costs us more in labour to thin by hand, but apart from the benefits to the environment (and our health!) of not using the chemicals, it also lets us manage hail (or other) damage by choosing the most damaged ones to remove. This way we can at least produce the least damaged crop as possible.

Because of the very unpredictable nature of growing fruit, we have a Risk Management Strategy (it’s so important, it even has its own capitals!). We reckon that we might not have any control over the weather, but we’ve got plenty of control over how we plan before the bad stuff happens, and how we respond, after the bad stuff happens.

For us, risk management is all about diversity. We reckon the more diverse our farm is, in every possible way, the more we can spread the risk.

So, for example, we grow 7 types of fruit (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears), and more than 90 varieties, and we add more varieties every year. In all our years of growing, through every dire weather event we’ve experienced (drought, hail, flood, bird plagues, a fire at the local coolstores, heat waves, incessant rain, storms, grasshopper plagues…do you need us to go on?) we have NEVER been completely wiped out. Some years we’ve lost all the apricots, or all the plums, or most of the apples and a few pears and some of the peaches…but never everything all at once.

Because we grow many different types of fruit, they are all at different stages of development in spring, and will therefore be affected differently by any given weather event (except something catastrophic, like fire). If we do get a hail storm this week, the apricots will be really vulnerable because a lot of them are already thinned, they are already quite large, and they are pretty exposed because the leaf cover develops after the fruit. The apples, on the other hand, are still flowering and therefore very protected, and the pears are tiny, and would be hard to hit with a hail stone, and they both have good leaf cover!

If we go back to the hail damaged apples from a few years ago, when we managed to turn a severely damaged crop into a moderately damaged crop by hand thinning, next we had to decide how and where to sell the fruit. We were obviously not going to get fantastic prices if we sent less than perfect fruit to the wholesale market, but we didn’t have to take much of a cut by selling them at Farmers Markets, because we could explain to our customers in person why there’s a mark on the skin, and how it barely affects the quality of the fruit under the skin. Farmers Markets also give us a good chance to sell our second grade fruit at a reasonable price, because we have lots of customers who appreciate a bargain!

We also have an online market, and because we can accurately describe the fruit, we can get a fair price for each grade of  fruit, because people know exactly what they’re getting! Diversity of markets is a blessing in situations like this!

We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t control the weather, but in the end we’re grateful, because it has meant we’ve had to get real about managing our risk, and these days we feel a bit more secure, knowing we’re doing everything we can to take matters into our own hands! (But we’d still rather we didn’t have a hail storm, so keep your fingers crossed for us…)