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!

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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.

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?

 

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.