“Grain growers way of life” by Karen Baines (SA)

A great story about farming life seen through the eyes of a grain grower, as posted on Ausagventures. Well worth sharing!

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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.

From palynology to farming

Today I visited an inspiring family in the small region of Cudlee Creek, nestled within the heart of the Adelaide Hills.

It was a stunning winter’s day, with crisp, clear blue skies highlighting the last of the yellow leaves hanging onto the fruit trees, contrasting with the deep green grass on the steep hills surrounding the fertile valleys of their orchard. As I drove along a muddy track past the stone walls and cold stores to the old farm house, I felt an immediate sense of history. Which is really no surprise, as the Hannafords are fifth generation apple growers, who first settled in South Australia in the 1830’s.

I met with Carey, who together with her husband Matt and two young boys, despite the long family history of farming, only took up farming seven years ago. I wanted to hear Carey’s story of how she has embraced the farming lifestyle and how she and Matt are now now passionate about growing high quality, premium apples.

We settled into our comfortable lounge chairs looking out over the orchard and cradling a warming cup of tea, with the children happily playing in the background, Carey shared with me their story.

Matt’s father had retired from the farm some years ago and after it being leased out for several years, it had gradually declined. Matt was a qualified mechanic working long hours for little pay and Carey was a successful geologist/palynologist, working in a highly specialised field in the oil and gas industry, using fossils, pollen and microplankton to age rocks and map  oil fields. They decided that it was time for them to make a life change and take on the farm.

Carey said “we both felt we’re coming back no matter what; we couldn’t bear to see it sold after all these generations, so decided to keep it going. But the great thing was, we came onto the farm by choice.”

The farm itself consists of 11 hectares of intensive apple orchard and approximately 100 hectares of grazing land and forest. It is one of the last surviving orchards within the Cudlee Creek area, which was once a thriving orchard district.

Like many apple growing families, Carey and Matt still draw in an off-farm income, with Carey working part time as a palynologist. This has enabled them to invest heavily in the much-needed upgrading of the orchard and still have a steady income to pay the household bills.

I am instantly struck by their passionate desire to make improvements. Between them when they took on the farm they set down a five year plan to turn things around. Carey said “we thought when we came back into the farm we would be happy if we could earn one wage from the farm to begin with. What we found that if we had to live off that wage we couldn’t re-invest in the business. Things have changed so much in the last 15 years that we had to make a huge investment in new trellising systems and so on. We wanted to be able to invest up front and get as much upgraded as we could in one go. We wanted to make a real go of it. There was a lot of things that needed changing. The cold rooms needed upgrading. Some of the older trees were nearly 100 years old. So that was why I kept working off-farm.”

“Every year we marked aside big things to invest in. Some of those investments have paid off within the first year but other upgrades were a big expense, such as the cold rooms and replanting orchard. So now we have a new five year plan, and have made a few more changes as well.”

When Carey is not peering down microscopes or looking after her young children, she is out helping Matt in the orchard. Carey said “there are jobs that often require two people, where I try and help out. We are trying to minimise the amount of paid labour to keep costs down. I have still got to learn how to do a lot of things. During picking season I was able to drive the forklift. One of the big things was that I could do was dip the fruit and keep an eye on the kids at the same time, and next year once they are both at school I will be able to help out shifting bins around, although I need a bit more practice with the back forks!”

Carey is obviously excited about her life on the orchard. She shared “I enjoy the lifestyle on the orchard – I just can’t imagine going back to living in the city and working 9 to 5 now.”

“We have changed so much to the orchard. We have invested so much money and time into the orchard. It has been an exciting challenge converting to the new ways of growing and try and improve yields and get the size and quality right. It is a great challenge to try and see if we can make it work.”

“Trying to juggle all the issues such as minimising labour costs and maximising output with the land and water we have available is a rewarding challenge. Seeing if we can use advances in technology and better knowledge of growing techniques to see if we can be competitive. It is interesting puzzling over those things, and despite the tough times you do get the rewards as well.”

We take a pause as the children come in to share their excitement over a great story they had invented, I reflected that I was in the presence of an extremely intelligent woman who is highly skilled in her off-farm work, but who also pours her heart and soul into the farm. The children wander off again to their magical world of imagination and Carey continues.

“The other big positive is the lifestyle for the kids growing up here. Out here there are so many fun things and really, really good learnings – I love the way they can just go outside and play in so much room, and the way they have learned so much about the environment and farming, just from being with us.”

“Also working for yourself. It would be really hard to go back to working a 9-5 job. Having the freedom to control what you want to do. That is one thing that Matt is really enjoying too. Coming back here, he is just loving it, because he is in control of what he wants to do. He has ideas of how he wants to change things and he can try it.”

As we wander outside to enjoy some rare winter sunshine in this beautiful part of the world, Carey shares with me “I’m excited to see where the Australian apple industry will go in the future. There have been massive changes in the last 10 years. I would like to think that we can be leaders in a high quality, “greener” product, trustworthy for quality. I think we can really do that well. There is a demand for fruit that is safe and healthy and there is opportunity to capture that market. Apples aren’t going to go away, there will just be different challenges and because of the different wage situations and living costs here, the main way we can succeed is through the better use of technology. Like how Germany has managed to thrive. I think we will still be here in twenty years!”.

As I load my children back into the car and negotiate my way back up the muddy track, taking in the beautiful surroundings, I can’t help but think that with families like the Hannafords, our food future is indeed in safe hands!

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The real cost of perfect food

According to the recently released National Food Plan, it is estimated that a whopping 30 to 50 per cent of all food produced on the planet is not eaten. In Australia, on average each person generates roughly 360 kilograms of food waste every year.

These figures are staggering. In order to feed an ever growing population, we cannot just continue to strive for greater production efficiencies without ignoring the issue of food waste.

There are various reasons for food wastage that occur. For many of us, food that goes off in our refrigerator before we get to eat it or left-overs from restaurants that get discarded are the obvious ones.

However a significant degree of waste is also occurring as a by-product of our seemingly insatiable demand for fresh produce that looks perfect, has consistent eating quality and is of perfect size and colour. Much of this waste is not even taken into account in the quoted figures above!

Fresh produce that does not meet a required specification is often discarded before it even leaves the field. Perfectly good food is rejected for a minor blemish or for being the wrong colour, size or shape.

Further, growers are having to go to extraordinary lengths to produce this “perfect” produce; investing heavily in complex growing systems and fighting a battle they can never win completely to iron out the “imperfections” of nature. It takes a lot of effort and costs a lot of money to grow the perfect piece of fruit and vegetable. It takes even more effort to grow an entire field of exactly the same perfect fruit or vegetables.

I would like to share the story of how Australia’s apple growers are tackling this challenge.

Right now as we move into winter, apple growers around the country are beginning a year-long challenge of fruit production. They are taking care of post-harvest nutrition to ensure that the trees have plenty of reserves as they go into dormancy. They are also beginning the process of winter pruning, which goes on for many months. Every single tree in an orchard is pruned by hand. Pruning is a complex science and also an art form that sets down the shape of the tree for the coming year, its vigour and how many pieces of fruit will be carried by each tree. Every tree may be pruned several times over to achieve the desired result. It is one of the most fundamental processes in a commercial apple orchard, but also one of the most labour intensive. 20120724_162910Modern orchards are planted at very high tree densities and dwarfing rootstocks to enable greater control over tree vigour and allow for pruning trees to a shape that allows for even light distribution throughout the canopy. This is critical in achieving even colour distribution and fruit ripening.

The amount of fruit that each tree carries directly affects the size of the fruit. So this is a key consideration in all orchard activities. For example, growers strive to grow a Pink Lady apple of a 75 mm diameter, because this has been shown to be the size of apple that consumers are looking for. Apples significantly bigger or smaller than this just won’t sell as well.

As we head into spring and the first blossoms appear, some growers may also consider a process of root pruning, where the tree roots are gently ripped to reduce tree vigour and improve consistency of yields from one year to the next. Bee hives are introduced into orchards to assist with pollination. Good pollination is critical in achieving target yields and the target number of fruit per tree.20121001_102029

Then growers assess the numbers of flowers and viable fruit buds. On many trees, various methods of fruit thinning are then required to reduce the crop load. This is usually achieved through a mixture of chemical applications of plant hormones to induce some shedding, followed up by hand thinning. This is another manual process that occurs during spring, where excess fruit is individually picked off each tree and thrown onto the ground.20121025_165448Through the season, growers then continually monitor and assess the growth of their trees as well as the size of the fruit. Often, growers will go through and do a summer prune to remove excess canopy that is shading the fruit – another manual process.

Growers also closely monitor pests and diseases and use integrated pest management techniques to minimise any damage to fruit. In the heat of summer, sunscreen may even be applied in periods of extreme heat to minimise the effects of fruit sunburn (a special food-safe fruit sunscreen)! Often extremely expensive netting structures are used to avoid damage from birds.

Closer to harvest, if fruit size is a problem growers will adjust their water and nutrient management accordingly, and also may consider a second hand-thinning. Many growers also roll out a reflective matting onto the ground surface that helps reflect light into the lower canopy and improve evenness of fruit colour.IMG_3027

At harvest, all picking is done by hand, to ensure fruit is not bruised or damaged. At this point, any obviously blemished, pale, misshapen or poorly sized fruit is discarded straight onto the ground. Fruit is picked at the correct ripeness for its storage needs, then immediately cooled as quickly as possible to ensure it is maintained at optimum freshness. IMG_3057IMG_3044 Fruit that is identified to be at risk of not storing well will be sold straight away. Fruit that is to be stored for longer will be kept in high tech cool rooms where gas levels and moisture levels are controlled to ensure maximum fruit quality after storage.

At the point of packing, growers have to aim for at least a 90% pack out rate. This means that at least 90% of the fruit they supply to the pack house will be sold as first grade fruit. As much as possible of this fruit needs to be of the optimum size range to get the best returns. Any lower pack out rate, or if they get the sizing wrong, they will be losing money. The returns on second grade fruit going to juice or processing just aren’t enough to tip this balance.20130130_092730All their activities throughout the year are targeted towards providing a product that is deemed in demand by the general consumer. What is referred to in industry as the “mars bar fruit” – something that looks and eats exactly the same every time, no matter what part of the tree or orchard it comes from.

This story is not unique to the apple industry. It is across all fresh fruit and vegetable production.

So the question becomes is all this effort and in-field wastage really necessary? Further more, by the very essence of demanding consistency of product, are we as a result creating a more mediocre eating experience? Are we providing a consistently good product, but missing out on the surprise experiences that occur through natural variability and complexity.

Are we jeopardizing the very variability that is essential to natural order and life? Are we missing the chance natural genetic mutations that may provide new opportunities for further exciting eating experiences?

What are your thoughts? What do you look for when you go to buy your fruit and vegetables?

 

How those three small steps are changing my purchasing habits for the better

In my blog Three things we can all do to make a difference I challenged myself to make three small changes when I go shopping to try and make a difference to my purchasing habits.

I set myself the task of:

  1. Checking the labels on at least three different items to make sure my choices were locally grown and produced.
  2. Asking a shopkeeper if I couldn’t find a local option or wasn’t sure of the labeling.
  3. Sharing with my friends and social media networks about fabulous local brands

Now into the third week of this challenge, I am really pleased to say that I am gradually changing my habits and I feel great about it.

I am discovering new things about what is and isn’t available and am making conscious decisions about what I am buying. Looking and taking notice is starting to become a habit, rather than a chore.

On the weekend just gone I set about preparing for our Sunday afternoon ritual of enjoying home made wood oven pizzas. I ventured into the local independent supermarket and sourced some wonderful, local ingredients. I found a superb artisan wood smoked prosciutto that was no more expensive than any of the commercial imported brands. This went beautifully with some fresh South Australian La Casa Del Formaggio Bocconcini and Lucia’s Fine Foods olives, and the finely sliced Red Anjou pear from Paracombe was a highlight!

The enjoyment of sharing wonderful, freshly prepared food with family was particularly special because I knew that by and large, everything we were eating was grown, made and produced by an Australian farmer and food company. Even more special was the fact that most of it was produced within a 50 km radius of our home.

However I am also making some discoveries on this journey. I now know that most packaged ham is made from local and imported ingredients (don’t ask me why). I now know that a large percentage of fruit juices are made from 100% imported juice concentrate and diluted with Australian water to show a label of made from imported and local ingredients.

I also have a much greater appreciation of just how confusing our labeling systems are and how many discrepancies there are in the standards. Often labels will not even show if a product is made and/or grown in Australia.

I was in the Adelaide Central Markets on Saturday morning, an icon of Adelaide renowned for its atmosphere and range of produce. I was astounded to see that in a market where many shoppers go specifically to source local produce, there was no enforcement of country of origin labeling. Californian cherries were proudly on display front and centre of one stall with no indication whatsoever that they were imported. The only giveaway to the discerning eye were the few loose, empty boxes that they had arrived in strewn under the stall.

I also know that I need to work on raising my voice further, because instead of questioning the stallholder I walked away under the excuse that I was in a hurry.

So my journey of change continues. As I grow in confidence that what I am doing is making a difference, I am more determined than ever to share my story and encourage everyone to join me. So if you are prepared to join me in this challenge, let’s raise our voices together and help spread the word!

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