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.

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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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Reflections of an apple orchard in Autumn

One thing that farmers are often overlooked for is their deep affinity for the land. A farmer has an intrinsic sense of appreciation for the physical landscapes around them and never takes them for granted.

I am fortunate to live on an apple orchard and every single day I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am. No matter how stressed or unhappy I may be after a particularly difficult day, a walk around the property has an incredibly calming effect. It never ceases to amaze me how often my breath is taken away by the beauty of my surroundings.

cropped-img_0838.jpgAutumn in the heart of apple growing country is in particular a very special time of year. It is the time when the long toils of the year come to fruition, when the fruit ripens and is harvested. It is a hive of activity!

The sounds of autumn here are listening to the low rumble of tractors shifting bins of apples, the clank of ladders and the gentle chatter of pickers in the orchard. It is the growl of trucks carrying bins of fruit to be packed or stored, with a steady line of trucks heading to the cool stores well into the evening. It also means very long working days as growers start at first light, pick all day, then work to get bins out for the next day and put fruit away late into the night,

IMG_3050Autumn is also when the night temperatures drop, with cold, crisp mornings followed by clear, sunny days. The cool nights and warm sunshine combine to bring out the best possible colours and flavours in the fruit. The cold morning air and hint of frost or dew on the ground takes your breath away when you take the first few steps outside, then invigorates your body. Before long, the sun creeps up over the horizon and gradually warms you through. Then as the sun plummets over the horizon again at the end of the day, so does the temperature, ready to begin the cycle again.

Autumn in an orchard is also a brilliant display of colour, with leaves changing to a kaleidoscope of yellows after the fruit has been harvested. By late afternoon, the dusty air filters the sunshine to a golden yellow, reflecting off the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees and the dry grassy paddocks nearby, contrasting with the deep greens of the orchard grass and the brilliant pinks and reds of the fruit still ripening on the trees.

100_2457In an apple orchard, Autumn is also characterized by the sweet smell of ripe fruit on the trees and in the cool rooms, and discarded fruit fermenting on the orchard floor. The smells of autumn in an apple orchard are divine!

But the greatest joy of all is biting into a crisp, sweet, juicy apple that has been freshly picked from the tree. Savouring the loud crunch resonating through your ears, the intense flavours and magnificent juiciness.

As harvest draws to a close and winter approaches, now is the time where apple growers take stock, review their activities for the year and consider the commercial gains or losses of their enterprise. However it is also a time to pause and be grateful for having the privilege to be caretakers of this amazing corner of the world and to provide fresh, healthy food to our communities.