Thursday, 10 December 2015

What do you do when you have too many apples?

The short answer is, you “thin” them!  Thinning is surely the most important, and also the most labour intensive, job we have to do here on Our Mates’ Farm.  Apple trees have a tendency to over-produce fruit, and without thinning you can have a lot of small apples one year, and then none the following year as the tree struggles to recover from such a heavy crop.  It can also lead to limbs breaking under the weight during one of these “on years”.  In a conventional (i.e. non-organic) orchard there are thinning sprays you can use, and in a wider sense apples are one of the most heavily sprayed crops there is.  However in an organic orchard, the options for spray thinning are not really effective, leaving only real one choice: thin by hand.

To most people this job appears to be quite a drudge, taking thousands upon thousands of tiny apples off the trees, however I love it.  It gives me a chance to see what is happening at the micro level.  What insects are in the trees?  Is there any damage on the fruit from black spot, caterpillars, moths, frost, sunburn?  And the best part is that I can take any fruit that is damaged off the trees, leaving behind the perfect fruit with plenty of space and sunshine to grow into, with a bigger share of nutrients from the tree to fuel it.  So don't be put off by the photos of damaged fruit below, they are just there so you can see what we see.  Rest assured our crop will not look anything like this come harvest.

To get there we will spend the next few months thinning our way through our Galas and then our Fujis.  The other varieties seem to be cropping a little lighter this year so we will leave them for last, if we get to them at all.  We have some help, and of course we have other things to do in between like summer pruning and mowing, but it promises to be a wonderful summer up close and personal with these beautiful apple trees.

Thinning is about turning this....

...into this!

We get to see life at this level

Our lovely neighbours Peter (behind the tree) and Ellen helping us thin as part of their Certificate II in Horticulture

This is what frost damage looks like

The dreaded black spot, but there isn't much of this (it took me two weeks of searching to find this cracking example)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Mother Nature is cracking the whip!

It has been a hectic time for us here on Our Mates’ Farm.  We have spent the last few months frantically ticking things off our to-do list, and I think October was our record for the most things achieved on the whiteboard in a month.

The driver behind the manic nature of our work schedule has been Mother Nature herself, with everything just bursting with energy and growth.  All that pruning you didn’t get to over winter?  Here comes another burst of new growth to shade the interior of those trees.  A heavy day of rain?  You better get on that tractor and put a spray out because you can bet apple scab spores will be parachuting onto your new leaves.

Those heavy winds aren’t a problem until your grafts are covered with leaves and you remember that not all of them are clipped to the trellis wire.

“Honey, can you remember when Barry the boar was in with the sows?”  “Hmmm, let me check the note, oh crap, it was just under 4 months ago, we had better get ready for piglets!”

Piglets?  We now have 20!

Blackbutt and Spot

So it has been more than a little crazy this spring, and it promises not to slow.  We have a lot of fruit set on our Galas, and while you can’t put more fruit on if you don’t have it, we have our work cut out to thin the apples down to a reasonable number that the trees can support, while at the same time growing the apples to a decent size.  We hope to have a good crop, and it is looking like our pest control measures have improved in leaps and bounds since last year.  There is no doubt that the new equipment we purchased, paired with close observation, traps and some incredible mentoring by Neil Fuller at Surges Bay and Andrew Smith at R&R Smith has helped no end in this regard.

Lots of fruit this season
The grafts that we put on last year were astonishing in their growth, and are full of promise for the coming season.  They will need a lot of care, but being around new trees fills you with such hope and energy it doesn’t feel like work.

This year's grafts doing their best to catch up with last year's!

Finally, our polytunnel is bearing crop after crop of food for our table.  We had forgotten what it was like to grow our own veges, and having the polytunnel and garden beds has reminded us that THIS is why we wanted land in the first place.  It has been a salve for my soul after those long days of work trying to keep up with Mother Nature in the orchard.

The polytunnel is pumping out food

The ingredients for today's lunch, with a couple of our eggs and Trev's goat milk fetta, heaven!

But enough of that guff, here are some more photos from this spring.  Also compare the orchard photos to the ones in the previous post, truly amazing!

Getting a spray on

The orchard looking flush with growth

We spent 3 days cutting up and curing a couple of our pigs

I spent a bit of time finishing the deck play area for Julian

Speaking of spring growth, look at this little fella go!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

What a difference a year makes

It is a magical time of year

Last year about this time, our first employee had just walked off the job.  After a month of work he sent us an abusive email and never came back.  We had just started a spring spraying regime with little understanding of the scale of the challenge 12 hectares of orchard would present, we had grafted two blocks of trees and our builder was contemplating building our house.  It was a tough time, and although Julian was a wonderful motivation, there were times when I seriously thought about walking away from the idea of horticulture altogether.  It wasn’t that we couldn’t do it.  It was that as things stood we couldn’t do it well, and while we try not to let perfect be the enemy of good, we knew that we couldn't even manage to get to "not shit".

Twelve months on and that employee leaving meant we had enough capital to buy a new tractor and sprayer, we have downsized the orchard significantly with more downsizing to come, our grafts are looking sensational, we have grafted more, and we are living in our very own farm house.  It is amazing the change that has occurred on our farm and in our lives.  We have a clearer vision of where we are going, and how we are going to get there.

It starts off with growing fewer apples, but growing them better.  It introduces expanded plans for more livestock.  It becomes a farm that we can run ourselves, without having to rely on employees, except for the labour intensive work of thinning and picking the apples.  It ends as a place where we can share our passion with other people - those interested in horticulture, food, experiences and the importance of these things in our families and community.

"Early pink" as the flowers start to emerge

The plan will change, plans always do, and it will be a long road which has bumps on the way.  We will have days where a pig dies (like today), where we lose lambs (like last month), and where it hurts and we doubt ourselves.  But we will do it, and as we go along the road we will share both our wins and our losses with you.  This isn’t about showing the perfect, it’s giving you a chance to share in the reality.  We hope you want to come along for the ride.

Here come the flowers

Getting rid of this.... we can take better care of this.

You have to know what gives you energy, and looking at these is what does it for me
12 months on, and the grafts are little trees...

...with fruit buds on a few!

The rhubarb is flowering, just looking at our new vege garden gets me excited for the year ahead.

As regular readers know, we drop the occasional bombshell in at the end of our blog posts just to see who is reading them.  In that spirit we would like to announce that Coreen is pregnant again.  How did we find time to make THAT happen?

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Winter is coming.... except it's already here!

Well, my romantic notion that winter is supposed to be a time of rest was proved total bunk last year, and this year is driving the scale of my misjudgement home.

Most of our apples had been picked by the end of April, however we ran out of bins just before we finished, and had to wait for some more to become available before we could pick more.  When we finally got our act together we counted up our total harvest: 428 bins.  We still have a few last Fujis hanging on for our pigs and for the possums and birds, but to pick that many bins was an epic effort, and our first “true” harvest.  We didn’t get the clean fruit we wanted, but we learned a lot, and are in a much better position for this coming season.

We did quite a bit of building after the season finished, closing in a workshop area for our tools and providing some cover for the new machinery.  It was a lengthy project, and while at times I thought we would never get it finished, we now have somewhere to work when the weather turns bad, and I feel better having our tools locked up at night.

Room for the tractor and sprayer

Shane and I build a polytunnel for growing some serious veges this coming season
 Our little farm house was substantially finished in May, so we pushed the button and moved in.  There are still a few things outstanding on it, but it has been a cozy refuge through winter, and I look forward to a time when I can do quite a bit more sitting and reading in the study.  It is a house that was designed for our lifestyle, from the first through to the last.  We have a big mudroom to leave our muddy boots and coats (any Tasmanian will tell you this is a necessity), a cool storeroom for making cider and storing prosciutto, a pantry for all our preserves and jams, a big bathroom with under-floor heating, an open-plan kitchen and living room, a study/library and most importantly, lots of insulation and a cracking wood stove.  We just need to get a big farmhouse table and then we will take a few photos and put them up here.

Our little house

My birthday rolled around in July, and in my honour Willie Smiths put on a 3-day Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest, complete with 50 top notch food providers, cracking live music and fire, fire and more fire.  To put it in perspective they had Dan shooting a flaming arrow into a massive burning man built on a pontoon on a dam!  OK, they may not have put it on for my birthday, but with so many of our friends joining us there it felt like the best party you could have.  It was up there with my 30th birthday, when 30 of us took over the basement of a London Cuban bar and played table soccer and drank ice cold cervezas all night.  This year I really missed our London friends, but they are scattered all over the globe (and Sydney) with kids, so catching up with them will have to wait for another time.

Our 4th of July BBQ bonfire

Dan fires up his arrow...

....and the Burning Man is underway!

Shortly after the Mid-Winter Festival, we were privileged enough to host the inaugural Australian Network of Organic Orchardists conference here in the Huon Valley.  We had two days of discussions, and it was brilliant to see people from all over take different approaches to solving the same problems.  The network is going to become a great place for the exchange of information, ideas and assistance, and we are so happy to be involved.  We were really impressed with the enthusiasm, grit and sheer entrepreneurial spirit evident in this diverse group of individuals. In the afternoons of both days we toured orchards in the valley, including Neil Fuller’s at Surges Bay, Andrew Smith’s at Grove, and mortifyingly, ours!  We really didn’t think we had anything to contribute, just 2 years into what will be a VERY long project, however fellow growers seemed to be interested in our experiment with sheep and livestock in the orchard.  I hope that as we improve the functioning of our orchard with our animals there will be more things that we can contribute to the group.

Neil helps Shane and I press some apples for our very own cider experiment
The work in the orchard has continued apace, with clearing of trees and preparing for next season our top priority.  That said we have had some time to finally get our pigs mated, with farrowing planned for September/October.  It has been too long since we had piglets!

The sickly looking trees that we are removing

We mulch them where we can...

...and burn them if we can't.

Barry meets the girls

The recent rain meant the pigs eradicated their grass super-quick.... we gave them dream shelters in the bush!
Finally, the weather has really been turning it on for us this winter.  Our apple trees are sure to get their required chilling hours to bloom this year, we have had some really cold bursts, with one Antarctic storm bringing snow!  It was amazing to walk around the orchard as the snow came down, I should have taken photos, but left my phone in the house in my eagerness to be outside in the middle of it all.  The rain followed shortly after and we had streams popping up everywhere, it was like being a kid again, putting on the gumboots and walking around to see where the water was running.  Today it has been sunny, warm, and I am working in shirtsleeves.  It is another special day when we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but the Huon Valley in Tasmania.

A crunchy start to the day

The start of the snowfall

Here it comes!

The orchard looks magical

Just another incredible day in the Huon Valley on Our Mates' Farm

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The boy

This blog not only serves as a record of us starting our farming life, but allows our distant friends and family to see what is going on in our lives, including the lad.  So for those who have been feeling in the dark about what he is up to (and that he has now had his THIRD haircut), here are some photos.  He has cut eight teeth and is pulling himself up on things and taking his first tottering steps.  For those who find kids a little creepy (like us), stay tuned for the next exciting instalment in our farming life, when more animals are sure to meet (meat!) their end.

Out visiting

My little whacked-out DJ

Loving the apples

When do I get to drive?

The teeth just starting to come

A break from picking for a picnic

Rocking the foam goatee