Shopping day

Today was my shopping day. Now, on the whole I don’t particularly enjoy grocery shopping – it is one more thing to fit in to an already busy week. My local independent supermarket does a pretty good job of having an interesting range of quality products, which helps a little bit, but on the whole, it is just one more job to get done.

I do however, enjoy my visit to the butcher and today was no different. So what is the difference? What does my local butcher provide that I can’t find elsewhere?

Sense of connection and trust

My butcher is more than just a place to buy meat. My butcher and I are on first name terms. We share all sorts of stories and local news. As with many other of their customers, I have shared in the roller coaster ride that he and his wife have been on over the past 6 months when their son was born 14 weeks premature. In turn, I share with him what is happening in the apple and pear industry and find points of common interest. He always has a slice of fritz on hand for my children if I have them in tow. I do not know him outside of the butcher’s shop, but have a real sense of connection with him which helps to build a sense of trust.

Knowledge and trust

My butcher tells me all about the meat he sells, where it comes from and what is good at different times of the year. He gives me good, reliable advice on the best way to prepare different cuts of meat. In return, he often asks me for feedback on what he is selling. He genuinely wants to make sure that he is delivering the best possible quality, so he listens to his customers. Today he wanted to know if I was happy with the taste of the sirloin steak I have been buying recently as we move into winter pastures and the appearance of the local grass-fed beef changes. I could gladly report that it is still eating well and I now have a greater appreciation of the impact of changing seasons on meat quality. He is open about his product and as a result, I trust it.

Quality and trust

He consistently supplies a very good quality product and if on the extremely rare occasion I am not happy with something, I know that I can give feedback and he will go out of his way to supply me with something better next time. I don’t even think about buying my meat elsewhere as I can trust him to deliver a great product every time.

So what can the food and agriculture industry learn from this? What can we do to build that sense of connection with the consumer? How can we share our knowledge with them? How can we make sure we deliver a quality product and build in a feedback loop to make sure we know when we are going wrong?

These are not new questions and there is no one simple answer. However I am sure that I am not the only consumer that is fed up with the sterility of the shopping aisles. I certainly understand the draw to places like the central market and farmers markets, where there is atmosphere and vibrancy. It doesn’t however, particularly suit my life at the moment to drive 30 minutes or more for my regular shop and it doesn’t suit me to always shop when the markets are open. I love the convenience of being able to shop locally at a time that suits me and supermarkets (and my local butcher) provide most of what I need. It is a fact of life that supermarkets provide food for the vast majority of our population and will continue to do so. But I believe there is something really key missing – the sense of the food that we are buying being more than just a commodity, the sense of knowledge about our food and its seasonality, the sense of connection to where it is grown and in turn, a sense of trust.

At a recent apple orchard open day, many parents reported to me that they brought their children along to show them where their food comes from. Parents and children alike relished the experience to be able to wander an orchard, pick fruit directly from the tree and soak up their surroundings – smells, sounds, sights and flavours combined to form long lasting and tangible memories.

IMG_3862It is not possible or practical to take all shopping experiences back to the source of production. However, imagine the impact if some of that experience could somehow be brought into the shops and retail outlets in exciting and creative ways! Here lies a challenge for our industry!

Harvest delights

I’ve written before about the joys of an orchard during autumn. As I was jogging down our valley yesterday evening, I was hit with a warm rush of air laden with the scent of ripening fruit and all my senses were overwhelmed at once by what lay around me. I was reminded once again of just how lucky I am to be a part of this life and this industry and to live in such a beautiful part of the world. I am compelled once again to try and share the experience.

Harvest on an apple orchard in the Adelaide Hills goes on for several months, beginning in the warm days at the end of summer and stretching right through to the very end of autumn. Different varieties ripen progressively over time, making the orchard a patchwork of colours, flavours and smells.

Picking of the first main variety here, Gala, is nearly finished. This is a deliciously sweet apple that to me has flavours that have been soaked up in the warm summer sunshine. It tastes of summer!

IMG_3647An orchard is a hive of activity during harvest; with a sense of busyness but also of care and camaraderie rather than rush; gangs of workers hand picking the fruit into picking bags, then gently emptying into storage bins. Every bit of care is taken to ensure the fruit is handled as gently as possible, looking after the fruit and also protecting the buds that are forming next year’s crop. Workers from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities make for fascinating conversations that ensure a long day of manual labour is never dull. Long standing friendships are often formed with people from all around the world.

IMG_3632During picking season, the low, gentle tones of tractor engines and the hum of trucks provides a background noise that is not intrusive, but acts as a reminder of the constant activity. Tractors with fork lifts keep bins close to pickers and full bins are transported as soon as possible to cool rooms, where the fruit is cooled straight away to maintain its quality. Trucks are constantly on the move, transporting fruit bins between properties and packing sheds.

At the moment the days are still quite long and warm, but they are quickly drawing in and the nights are developing a cool, crisp chill that signals the arrival of autumn. Dust hangs in the air during the day from the dry tracks, while in the cool of the morning, the thick, green grass within the orchard is laden with dew. In the shadows under the trees, the sun’s rays may not reach the ground for much of the day, creating cool pockets of air that contrast with the surrounding warmth.

Conditions over the coming weeks will change quite quickly. The harvested trees will soon begin the process of senescence and the leaves will begin to develop a golden hue. Discarded fruit will begin to ferment on the ground in the damp conditions, creating beautiful smells.

IMG_3262In the meantime, as the weather changes along with the leaves, so the next varieties will mature and ripen. The juicy, yet tart flavours of the very traditional Australian variety, Granny Smith …..

IMG_3152The juicy, sweetness of a crisp, crunchy Fuji, with it’s unique purplish skin ……

IMG_3523And as the growing season draws to a close, the sweet yet acidic flavours of the much loved Pink Lady gradually develop in a complex balance that reflects a perfect combination of warm and cool autumn weather conditions over the long period of maturation.

IMG_3235The sensations of an orchard during harvest period are all consuming and difficult to capture adequately in words and pictures alone. If you can have one experience in life, spending time in a fruit production area is one well worth considering. And I mean a real amount of time. Enough time to meander, relax and truly absorb. Enough time to experience the changing weather patterns. Enough time to soak it all up!

Celebrating a true Aussie Christmas

Our two boys are at that wondrous age (4 and a half and nearly 7) where Christmas is a magical event. The excitement of putting up the decorations and the Christmas tree, the countdown to Christmas that at that age seems to last forever (still 8 more sleeps to go), the sharing of special food and treats, and of course, the wonder and mystery of Santa and the gifts that he brings.

The joy of Christmas was put into a whole new perspective today when my four and a half year old loudly piped up with the statement to a few of his friends that “sometimes Santa gets his presents from China because he is too busy to make them all himself!”

My friend and I rolled around in laughter at his instinctive comedic timing, acerbic wit and insight beyond his years; but as we dried our tears I was also struck with a sense of sadness. My child’s experience of Christmas is partially consumed by the inevitable cheap, plastic toys made for pittance in a country where labour standards are far lower than ours. My husband and I take full responsibility for meeting their demands, and as Christmas rolls ever nearer, undoubtedly the Christmas stockings will again this year be partially filled with light sabers and plastic figurines.

However, it has made me take stock and think about whether this is really the kind of Christmas experience I want our family to have. I know for sure that for me Christmas is much more than presents. It is about sharing with family and friends. It is about a celebration that is largely expressed through food that is prepared and cooked with love. Good, wholesome food shared around the table with laughter. For many, it is the one time of year when the family get together and all contribute. We take the time to prepare and take care to ensure that all have plenty to eat. We bake special treats, we take time and reflect.

So the one thing that I am going to make sure of this year is that the food that we share does not reflect the toys that find their way into the Christmas stockings. I will not be serving cheap, imported ham that we end up eating for weeks on end. Instead, I will buy a smaller, carefully smoked local ham packed with real flavour. I will take the care to source produce from local farmers and growers, who are all busy working hard at this time of year; barely with time to stop for Christmas. My Christmas this year will be a celebration of what is near and dear to me – local, Australian produce prepared and served with love, affection.

Merry Christmas to all!

Cherries on the tree

Its blooming time for quality fruit

Regular readers of my blog will know that I do not particularly enjoy our cold winters. However as spring envelops us, the weather warms up and the sun’s rays soak into my skin and prise something open from within. My heart feels somehow warmer and I feel invigorated and alive.

This is mirrored in my surroundings. At this time of year, no matter which window I look out, I can see a mass of white apple blossom, contrasted against the lush, green of tender new growth. I find myself in an almost constant state of distraction, drawn to gaze out at the breathtaking beauty with a sense of wonderment and respect.

I find that I cannot adequately put into words the magnificent performance that the orchard puts forward at this time of year, so I will try to show it in pictures instead.

This is one of the many views from our house. The trees at the front are a young block out in full bloom.20131005_092655….. shown more closely here………..20131005_155711The look of the blossom up close varies slightly between varieties, but when the flowers first appear they show a pink tip, before opening out to form a white flower with 5 perfect petals.20131001_115643Which shows as a mass of white within the block itself.20131005_155942Fruit trees rely on pollination to occur in order for fruit to form. Most apple varieties require cross pollination with different varieties. Some of this happens with wind, but insects, in particular bees, play a vital role. Walking through the orchard on a warm day the senses truly become alive with the beautiful sights, scents and also the gentle hum of bees. Much of the pollination happens with European bees. european beeAlthough native bees also play a rolenative beeSometimes bees are introduced to provide more certainty with pollination. Here are some hives brought in to assist with the pollination of cherry trees.20131005_160525After a fairly wet winter, all our water storages are also full in preparation for the summer ahead. Careful water management is absolutely critical to sustainable fruit production and every drop of water is precious.20131005_160427 20131005_161148 20131005_163018In the late afternoon sun, the orchard is being mowed to return the precious organic matter to the soil and keep the tree rows accessible. It is a long-weekend when many people are resting, but on an orchard, spring is a very busy time of year.20131005_161836While these pictures cannot adequately capture the true sights, sounds and smells of spring on an orchard they do perhaps provide a small snapshot of my constant source of distraction. Every day my view changes subtly as everything rapidly comes to life after a cold, wet winter and with it, I feel like I am coming to life too!

Wintry weeks

There is no doubt that winter in the Adelaide Hills can be cold and wet – well at least cold and wet by Australian standards! Most hills residents tend to take on hibernation traits, keeping indoors where possible, huddling by a roaring fire or wrapped up in bed early to try and keep warm. It would be fair to say that I am definitely a winter hermit, feeling every ounce of cold to the centre of my bones!

As I sit here on the sofa, sip on my hot chocolate and throw another log on the fire, I gaze out through the window and watch the apple pruners at work in the orchard. There is little conversation happening, with the workers deep in concentration, thinking about where to make the next cut and deep in their own thoughts. The steam that gusts from their mouths with each breath is a giveaway to the iciness of the air. I can just about feel the pain in their fingers with the cold air cutting through their gloves.

Despite this, their movements are fluid and the trees that they are working on gradually transform from a craggy, messy form into a neat and beautiful shape. Every tree is different and unique, but there is a lovely orderliness to a well pruned orchard. And despite the grey skies and dull light, there is something beautiful about the shapes formed by the bare wood. Devoid of leaves, the trees form their own sculptures. 20120724_162927

Thick, lush green grass carpets the orchard floor and provides a rich contrast to the grey wood. Clear flowing water gurgles along the creeks and native ducks abound the dams that are now replenished after good winter rains. For this, I am grateful for the long, dreary days of rain.

Even from my view through the window, I can also see the buds on the branches beginning to swell, showing that spring is not too far away. It is these buds that will form the life of the orchard in the coming months, turning into flowers and leaves. It is these buds that carry the full potential of each tree to produce fruit. It is because of these buds that I am grateful for the long cold spell, as these chill hours are crucial for fruit development in the coming season.

It is also why the pruners are concentrating so hard, striving to get the balance of bud numbers to tree structure right, which will make the difference of a successful season. It is also why the pruners toil for long hours through the dark, cold days of winter, through rain and hail. Every tree gets their individual attention, often more than once.

With spring just around the corner and the promise of warmer weather, I am content to keep warm inside and be thankful for all that winter does bring.

Embracing change

The self propelled robot navigates its way along a row of fruit trees, constantly checking its location to ensure its wheels are placed to within a few centimetres precision of where it needs to be. It takes many thousands of images and measurements of the tree canopy in a split second, assessing fruit quality, colour, size and ripeness. Based on the information collected, it harvests only fruit that is at perfect colour and ripeness. The fruit that is picked by the robot is then once again photographed several times. Blemished fruit is separated out. A wealth of information is collected by the robot about each individual piece of fruit, down to which individual bud on which branch on which tree it was picked from. This information is compiled and analysed to adjust future management decisions.

Robotic fruit picker

Image of robot used by Salah Sukkarieh, professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney

The supermarket shelves consist of fresh produce of colours, forms, shapes, sizes and tastes like we have never seen before. There is also food that has been produced by 3D printers, made to a precise formula to provide specific nutritional needs and more consistently than ever before possible to meet pre-determined flavour profiles.

Fresh produce is no longer just grown in rural areas. It is also grown in cities, in specially built warehouses, on city walls and rooftops, in closed loop systems that use recycled city water.

Consumers can scan a printed QR code on their fruit or vegetables to get nutritional information, recipe ideas and information on where the produce came from and how it was grown. This is matched against their individual taste preferences, determined by brain scans to provide suggestions on what they should purchase.

Am I talking science fiction, a future that our children may experience many years down the track? Absolutely not! This is picture that is almost a reality now and will more than likely occur within the next ten to twenty years.

Robotic technology is advanced and already exists in many arenas. Scientists tell us that we will quite possibly have commercial robotic apple harvesters within 10 years. Advanced breeding programs mean we are seeing a range of new and exciting fruit and vegetable cultivars coming onto the market at a rate never seen before. 3D printing is a reality and NASA is already creating food for the space program using that technology. Vertical farms and warehouse farms are already a reality.

These changes described alone may sound sterile and surreal, and like any change may invoke feelings of fear and trepidation. But these innovations will not replace our existing food system. Instead, they will add many new layers of complexity, richness and excitement to our food and serve to bring about different ways of producing food. Food will continue to remain at the centre piece of our social fabric and bring great pleasure and enjoyment.

Just as we have been innovating since the beginning of mankind, so we will continue to innovate. Australian agriculture continues to lead the way in innovation, steeped in a history of resourcefulness and incredible adaptability. Our modern farmers have to adapt and change their practices at a very rapid pace to stay competitive. They are constantly seeking to improve their management and find new tools to not only take care of our fragile landscapes, but also improve them, all the while seeking to provide safe and healthy food.

The modern farmer is a far cry from the stereotypical and sometimes patronizing images that often bombard our television screens and magazines. They are, in every sense of the word, professionals, going about doing their jobs to the very best of their ability. It is because of their constant innovation that our farming practices have evolved and that the quality and choice of food available to us today is greater than ever before.

We are spoilt for diversity in choice of how our food has been produced and the types of foods that are available to us. This is only a reality through innovation in all kinds of farming systems. As an industry, we are also fortunate to be able to provide a wide range of opportunities for enthusiastic individuals seeking innovation and diversity.

No matter what our food choices are, we can all be grateful for innovation.

Value of food

Weekends are a special time for me. On weekends life slows down enough that I have time to be creative with food. During the week my main priority is ensuring that my family’s nutritional needs are being met, generally with quick and easy meals. But on weekends, I take great pleasure in cooking at least one special meal for my family, where I take time to plan and source the freshest of ingredients. For me, the meal becomes the centre-point of my day. Often my children will help me with the preparation and the process itself is just as important as the finished product. It all culminates in a wonderful sharing of food, conversation, love and sense of togetherness and belonging.

Today’s special meal will be home made pasta served with slow braised pork belly. I have browned the pork, sauted seasonal vegetables and now it is gently simmering on the stove top in a flavoursome broth of red wine and stock. As the dish gradually develops its rich flavours and the meat slowly tenderises, I take time to reflect on my own personal food values and what it is I look for when I go shopping.

20130713_130740-1Primarily, the food I buy has to taste good. If I have an unpleasant eating experience, I will tend not to repurchase. Secondly, it has to fit within my food budget.I do allow extra money to spend on quality produce, but I have to make sure that I have enough money left over to pay all the other bills. I am sure these are qualities shared by most.

I also take great pleasure in sourcing local produce where possible. There are a range of reasons why this is important to me. I have a much greater sense of connection to food that is produced locally, because I can see the fruit hanging on the trees or the animals grazing in the paddocks and I can relate to what I am eating. Further, by buying local I know that I am supporting local businesses, infrastructure and people, which in turn contributes to a much more vibrant and healthy society for my family to live in. It also helps to secure our future. I also can’t see the sense in growing food locally and sending it half way around the world only to import the same product to serve our own needs. What a waste of energy!

I embrace the concept of seasonality, enjoying the variation of food between seasons and savouring the diversity of flavours and dishes. I love the hearty, rich dishes dishes in winter that lend themselves to winter vegetables and look forward in anticipation to the delightful array of fresh fruits and salads in summer time. Sometimes going without something for a while makes it that much more special.

If buying local isn’t possible, I like to ensure it is at least made and grown in Australia. I have a much greater sense of trust in food that is Australian and on a macro scale, it feels worthwhile to support the broader community in which I live.

However, I also understand that not everyone shares the same food values that I do. For some people, affordability is key. For others, access to a key ingredient at any time of the year, whether or not in season locally, is a great thing. Many people just want to ensure that their food needs are met in the most convenient, affordable way possible. Some will not eat meat, choose organic options or have specific dietary restrictions. That doesn’t make their values any less worthy than mine. In fact, that contributes to the rich diversity of our culture and who we are.

In our society, we are incredibly lucky to have so much choice and consistent access to high quality food, to the point that our food supply is more often than not taken for granted. I take great pleasure in sharing information about where our food comes from, because I would like consumers to continue to be able to make choices about their food based on a real understanding, not just heresay. I feel that it is important that collectively we continue to recognise the diversity in people’s requirements and ensure that our food choices are not taken away from us.

As consumers, we don’t want to allow these choices be taken away from us by large suppliers who want to dictate market terms. As suppliers, we want to ensure we continue to meet all the different market needs.

This certainly is food for further thought as I start preparing the pasta. What are your food values? What drives your decisions when making purchases?

20130713_161933 20130713_180010….. and by the way, the meal was worth the wait and loved by everyone!

The humble elite

It was beautiful, clear winter’s day. Deep blue skies and golden rays of sunshine a rare treat for mid-winter in the Adelaide Hills. A perfect day to be outside working in the orchard; getting those much needed winter jobs done before the next rain front moved in.

One could excuse the room full of apple growers for being restless and impatient, for wanting to be outside getting on with their work, for thinking of the countless things that needed doing while the weather was kind. But this was not the case. There was a calm air of expectation. Thirty five of South Australia’s leading growers gathered together to listen and learn.

The presenter was from northern Italy, talking about a new way of mechanised pruning and tree training. A method that would require growers to change and adjust. The audience was captivated, listening carefully to every word, questioning and demanding to know more, analysing how this technique may be applied to their own orchards. They were not fearful of change; rather embracing the opportunity to view their own practices from a different view point. A planned 20 minute presentation turned into a 90 minute conversation and could easily have gone for longer. Probing questions delved deep to the heart of the topic with a clear desire to discover the key learnings.

The session moved on to a case study of one of the leading growers in the district. His performance in the season just gone was world’s best. He openly shared with the group how he achieved these results and how he still felt he could do better again. He was humble, not boastful. Considered and meticulous in his approach and almost embarrassed of the attention.

As we moved out into the orchard to see his best performing blocks, it became obvious that the other growers were not jealous or resentful of his success. Rather, they were proud of his success and were eager to learn from him. This was no group of slouches either. This was a group of very successful apple growers in their own right, all at the top of their game, but all seeking constant improvement.

I stood back from the group and observed the interactions. The orchard owner demonstrated his pruning techniques and it was masterful to watch. His cuts were fast and precise, with hundreds of considerations made in a split second. The group followed his movements closely, anticipating every cut. Occasionally he would pause to think and the group would provide input, engaging in gentle yet clearly passionate discussion around the subtle nuances of the task at hand.

It was very apparent that I was in the company of a highly professional, skilled group of people. There were no big egos, just an overwhelming passion for what they do and a deep desire to constantly improve and learn; to stay ahead of their game. I was struck by their unassuming manner, with no individual thinking that what he or she was doing was anything special. In their minds, what they do is just what they do and no more.

It was a humbling yet inspiring moment for me. Perhaps it is time we put some of these amazing food producers on a pedestal in the same way that we do with the other great professions. I am certainly grateful for the amazing job they do and feel blessed that I get to work with them every day.IMG_3346

Deciding our food future

Driving around my local district at this time of year, bulldozers, chainsaws and tractors are a common sight, as growers push out under-performing blocks of trees, ready for reworking. I decided to find out more about why there is a constant program of re-planting fruit trees in a district that is renowned for its high quality fruit production. If the fruit trees in this area are so good, why do growers constantly need to change and improve?

It turns out that long gone is the romantic image of expansive orchards of widely spaced, large, gnarled and twisted 100 year old apple trees. They are now just a nostalgic memory evident only in historical archives and shared reminiscences. The modern orchard consists of younger, high performing trees planted closely together with their growth carefully managed for optimum performance. Further,at any one time, up to 10% of an orchard can be out of production being reworked for new varieties.IMG_3317

The performance of every block within a modern orchard is intensely scrutinized every year. Blocks that are not returning a profit are either pushed out or earmarked for future reworking. This can be a difficult, emotional decision for a grower to make, as they have poured their heart and soul into getting each orchard block to perform to its optimum. But the reality is, they have to take a step back and assess their business performance with the same careful scrutiny as any other business manager.

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make, however, is which variety to plant next. This is a big question, as it will take many years for the results of this decision to become apparent. In an apple orchard, it takes about 7 years from planting for a commercial block of trees to yield a return on investment. Establishment costs are significant, with a large up-front cash injection required.

In any successful business, there is a certain element of risk taking. Decisions made now can impact on the success or failure of the business for many years to come. Educated best-guesses made on all the market data available at the time can quickly unravel when market conditions change. This element of risk, however, is no more apparent than in modern perennial horticulture (fruit and nut tree cropping).

As consumers, we are spoiled for choice in a wide range of fresh produce. Tastes and demands are fickle, and there is constant competition for shelf space in supermarkets. What can one day be a much loved variety can soon become a product that sits on the shelf, unwanted. In addition, fresh produce has to fight against a plethora of snack foods that are backed by massive marketing budgets, drawing in shoppers an array of exciting promises.

Our plant scientists are working hard to breed new varieties that stand out from the crowd and provide a new taste sensation or point of difference. There is also a demand for varieties that keep for longer and are more pest and disease tolerant or use less water. This breeding process is achieved through cross pollination of existing varieties. Once the cross pollination process begins, it takes years to gradually select the more promising varieties, followed by several more years of field trials until the cream of the crop rises to the top.

From the start of a breeding program until a new variety is commercialized can take at least ten years. With lots of exciting new varieties coming into the market place, only some are destined for success, while others will invariably fail. The much loved Pink Lady® apple is truly an Australian success story, coming from Western Australia and now in high demand right around the globe.

Even before the grower has begun to push out a block of trees, they have to have made the decision two years earlier what variety they wish to plant. They put the order in with a nursery for how many trees that want of what variety grafted onto what rootstock.

When making this critical decision a grower is faced with a range of choices. A tough decision to make 2 years prior to planting and a further 7 years after that until the trees are in full production!

Do they stick with an existing, well known variety that, while is a known quantity now, may be out of favour in a volatile market place in 9 years time? Do do they opt for a newer variety that may either be a total success or a complete failure? Does the variety have sufficient volume of plantings to have critical mass in the market place? Is it well supported by a strong marketing and promotions package and how much will it cost to buy-in to that scheme?

No matter how much homework they do, at some point, a grower has to take a deep breath and muster up all the courage of their convictions to commit to a decision. Once the trees are ordered from the nursery, cultivated and planted into the ground, they will again pour their hearts and souls for the next five to seven years into doing the best they possibly can to get the trees to grow and yield quality fruit.

It is only once the trees are producing commercial quantities of fruit that are being packed, stored and sold that they will be able to take stock on that vital decision made many years earlier. It is inevitable that sometimes that decision will prove to have been the wrong one and growers will have to write off all that hard work and start again. But more often than not, through years of experience and careful consideration, the decision will be a good one. This is one of the most rewarding moments in a grower’s life, when years of preparation and toil result in the production of a high quality, profitable crop that consumers enjoy! The culmination of nearly 20 years of development.

The next time I bite into a fresh piece of fruit, I will be giving considerably more thought to the many years of its evolution and perhaps not taking it quite so much for granted.