Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Autumn’s bounty

When last I had a moment to write an entry for this blog, we were starting two straight months of hectic activity, both on the farm front and the personal front.  Well we have now welcomed Rachel Li Qi into our little family, and the apples have been harvested.  While we have both been reasonably active on social media, like Instagram and Facebook, I thought it was time for a quick recap for our blog readers.

First, the apples, and we had a better harvest this year.  We picked fewer bins of apples overall, however the bins we did pick were of a higher quality.  We had a great group of pickers, and they responded to our requirements for clean fruit marvellously.  Particular thanks is owed to Kerrin, Sommer and Gemma.  The best fruit we picked has yet to be packed, and is currently in controlled atmosphere cool storage.  We have high hopes that when it is packed it will yield us a good return for our year’s efforts, however we won’t really know until it happens.

Picking underway!
Some beautiful Galas this year
And therein lies the rub for most apple growers.  You pick your fruit, put it in storage, but you don’t know how much money you will make until it is sold, which could be 8 to 10 months from picking.  Which means you could be just about to pick your next crop before you get paid for your last one.  It certainly makes cash flow management a challenge.  Of course the situation is worse for dairy farmers, who may be asked to pay back part of what they have already been paid if the processor doesn’t realise the profit that they hope to, but it is a challenging prospect nonetheless.  I wonder at what point the risk in the whole food chain got pushed back down to farmers?  Was it sudden or was it a gradual process?  Surely if the big supermarkets want apples they should buy them and then pay to store them until they can sell them right?  At what point did farmers say, “yes, we will store them for you and bear the risks in case you change your mind or reduce your price down the line”?  We are lucky that Willie Smiths recognises this and helps us manage these cashflow challenges, and we do grow some apples for juice and cider which provides a short term cash return.  However perhaps it will give you something to think about when you are next buying fruit or milk!

Picking during some of the nicest days of the year
Some of our cider apples destined for Willie Smiths
The last load of the apple season leaves the farm
In other farm news, we have finished 12 pigs and taken them to the abattoir, with another 7 to go.  The first group were disappointing in average weight, however the second group a fortnight later were significantly better.  Perhaps it was the additional apples we fed them in the interim, or it could be that some of the first group were from the youngest litter?

They love apples!
We were also very grateful to receive a loan of Neil’s awesome apple mill and juice press, which enabled us to press almost 240 litres of our own apple juice, for making into cider.  We used a few cider apples as well and it will be interesting to see how our cider experiments come out.  It gives me even more motivation to grow great cider apples when I imagine how good the cider they make could eventually be.  Now just to wait 6 months for the fermentation to finish…

Pressing juice for home cider experimentation!
More capital was invested into the business this autumn, in the form of a second hand forklift (which we really needed after last year’s hiring debacle) and a coolroom to allow us to store some of our own apples here on the farm for farmgate and market sales.  The farmgate stall did quite well before the recent bout of cooler rainy weather arrived, and tourist traffic up Arve Road slowed somewhat.  I only regret that I didn’t build it and get it out there sooner!  As is so often the case, I had a perfect ideal of what I wanted the stall to look like and where I wanted it to be in my mind, and this got in the way of actually getting started.  The signs that Suzy sent us look great and I am happy we have taken the first step.

The new forklift
Bringing in the cool room
Grading apples by hand for the stall
The farmgate stall
We have also been upskilling a little, with this coming Saturday being the final day in the NRMSouth small farm planning workshop series.  It has been a great course, given us lots of food for thought, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with a bit of land trying to maximise their results from it.
Gerard at one of the NRM South small farm planning workshops
The presence of our parents as baby sitters has also allowed us to attend a few social gatherings as well as host a few of our own.  We have been luck enough to go to the launch of Willie Smiths’ new still, Matthew Evans’ 50th birthday, and Ruth and Darren’s end of season party.  Hopefully there will be many more of these to get us through those long winter nights.

Pig on a spit for Chinese New Year
Matthew's awesome birthday cake by Michelle, delicious!
The beginning of "bottling season" back in February, it has only just finished!
And finally, of course the most important news, Rachel’s arrival.  I have been running around telling everyone who will listen the story, so I may as well share it here.  I was at the NRM South workshop for the day, and when I came home afterwards Coreen casually mentioned that we should perhaps head to the hospital soon.  I asked if I had time for a shower, and I was told that was fine, and then Cor had a shower too.  However when she asked her Dad if we had time to stay for dinner (her mum was cooking Hainanese chicken rice, a favourite), he lost patience with our cavalier attitudes and told us to hurry up and get to the hospital!  Lucky he did too, because when we got there I found out that Coreen had been having contractions since the morning (!), when she was moving the cows (!!), and that she wanted to get the jobs done first (she is a farm girl this one!).  And of course, within a couple of hours of us arriving at the hospital little Rachel joined us.  She had a full head of hair (as usual) and was a couple ounces heavier than Julian was, at 8lbs 6oz.  She has settled into life well, and Julian is being a great big brother.  Having Cor’s parents here to help at first and then my Mum after that was fantastic, and gave us time to adapt to the new routine with our little one.

Rachel Li Qi Tack

So that is it from us for now.  I hope to have more time to blog as autumn’s rains set in, but until then stay tuned to Our Mates’ Farm on Facebook and Instagram.  Check out the pics below for more family photos.  WARNING: photos of kids and family, look away now if this sort of thing offends you!




Julian comes face to face with another Tasmanian devil
He is a tough apple critic

Showing Aunty Bee and her friends around the farm

Lovely family photo
The little fella supervising

Our little terrors

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Weather

Howdy folks, another day of rain showers and a perfect chance to do a quick blog update while those apples keep growing.

One of the comments we hear a lot about Tasmania is that it must be cold, due to it being so far south.  Actually as the climate is dominated by the surrounding ocean it is a lot more temperate than much of the Australian mainland.  As a result we don't have the big swings from minus 5 degrees Celcius (23F) in winter to 40 plus (104F) in summer.  Sure, we can occasionally get below 0, and we may have a day approaching 40 once in a blue moon, but for the most part the temperatures inhabit a nice range in the middle, cool at night, nice in the day.  And if you get one of those glorious clear winter days where it is cold (say 10 degrees Celcius) and sunny, well let's just say it is a wonderful time to be alive and outside.

Anyway, don't take my word for it, check out our personal weather station on the internet here!  It is right here on the farm and is a valuable tool for our farm management.  So any time of the day or night, you can take a look and see for yourself how great the weather is on Our Mates' Farm.

How long will the "dog days" of summer last?

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The calm before the storm

Well it is a slightly rainy day, the first one we have had in a few months, and the ground, farmers and firefighters need it.  However this post is not about the storms currently bringing much needed relief to the majority of our dry state.  Instead it is about the much bigger storm about to descend upon our little farm.  In 4 weeks, we will start picking, a process which will last about 2 months.  In 8 weeks, we have our second baby due.  If you have done the numbers you will note this puts the new arrival right smack-bang in the middle of the harvest.  Yes, yes, dear reader, it was poor planning on the part of yours truly, however we are so happy to be having a sibling for Julian I personally don’t care if it wants to be born in the middle of a hurricane.

It will make the picking even more of a challenge than usual, but we will have Coreen’s parents here to help with Julian and some friends to help with the farm while it is going on.  We are right in the midst of planning our picking, organising a forklift, our workers, our farm gate stall, plus our storage options.  The thinning has gone very well, the apples are still growing, and so far our disease issues have been at manageable levels.  With every passing day we start to believe that this season we will be able to harvest a sizeable crop of beautiful apples.

And the baby, well, that will happen when it happens.  Given how quick Julian’s delivery was, I just hope I can get Cor to the hospital in time and that I am not catching it on the side of the road or at the top of Vince’s saddle on the way to Hobart!

So for now, paradoxically, there isn’t that much to do.  Sure, there is planning and organising, there is irrigation to run and always more thinning that can be gone over.  We also have a good opportunity to get some quality play time in with Julian before the new arrival, but knowing what’s ahead this feels very much like the calm before the storm.

We had a day out with Ruth and Darren - Julian checks out Darren's sculpture at Home Hill Winery


 A wonderful Christmas Eve get-together with the neighbours on the deck

Pick your own blueberries at Kris and Jilly's Twelvetrees Farm...

...followed by pick your own cherries at Dave and Melissa's Clifton Farm!

What Christmas would be complete without pork of some description (or speck for that matter!)?

Big enough to wean....

...into the pig taxi...

...and into their new paddock.





I had a few days off to go to Sydney to catch up with Mark

A wonderful time staying with Scott, Sarah and Zach in Manly.  Can't wait to bring Cor and Julian next time.



A visit from our kindred spirits, Shane and Julz, award-winning pig farmers from Backfatters in Ingham.  They came, they helped.  A lot.  We ate and drank.   A lot.

A pregnant Coreen modelling her overalls and tractor driving prowess

We have been eating very well!

The polytunnel has been turning out the food....

... and it's hard to keep up!

Though it has attracted some unsavoury characters too.

I built our first ever farm stall, it just needs a money box and a coat of paint!

I'm too handsome for this shirt

The family before the storm....

Thursday, 10 December 2015

What do you do when you have too many apples?

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

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

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

Thinning is about turning this....

...into this!

We get to see life at this level

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

This is what frost damage looks like

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

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Mother Nature is cracking the whip!

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

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

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

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

Piglets?  We now have 20!

Blackbutt and Spot

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

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

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

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

The polytunnel is pumping out food

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


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



Getting a spray on

The orchard looking flush with growth

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

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

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