We – Hugh and Katie Finlay – draw on over 15 years’ experience as orchardists at our farm, Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, to bring you the Grow Great Fruit Program, the farm-proven system for home fruit growers.
Since we came home to the farm in 1998, we’ve seen some pretty wild conditions—from drought to flood and everything in between—so we have learnt HEAPS about growing fruit in a wide variety of conditions.
Nestled at the foot of Mt Alexander in Harcourt, our farm is planted like an old fashioned “garden” (the early name for an orchard) with small plantings of more than 90 varieties, providing an extended season of fresh fruit off the tree for almost 6 months.
With a combination of careful planning, looking after the trees well, appropriate storage, and a range of preserving techniques…
“our farm is a working demonstration of how to keep your family supplied with home grown organic fruit all year round.”
We use organic growing methods – and teach them – not only because it’s better for everyone’s health, but because we’re acutely aware of how fast the climate is changing, and we want our farm to be part of the solution, not part of the problem! (read below to find out more about our Sustainability Plan)
As well as our background in farming, and experience running our own farm, we regularly do more training to learn new stuff—we reckon it’s important to stay up-to-date and keep increasing our skills, so we can keep adapting quickly!
Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens is a family-run business, and we also value the 50 years-plus of fruit growing experience from Merv (Katie’s Dad), even though he’s retired since we branched out on our own (pun intended) and took the farm in the new direction of organic certification and biological farming methods. (“Retirement” means these days Merv only runs the tree nursery for the farm, does a bit of pruning, grows all the farm vegies and generally watches our backs. Oh, and he runs his own farm – that’s a farmer’s retirement!).
Our experience and training
Hugh’s farming experience started on a cattle station in Western Australia (which he ended up managing), followed by a stint as a supervisor on a broadacre wheat farm in Saudi Arabia. Travelling around the world for fun turned into 16 years as a writer and editor for Lonely Planet, an exotic lifestyle he eventually gave up to return to his farming roots and settle down in Harcourt.
Since coming back to the land, the training Hugh’s done has significantly steered MAFG towards its current path of organics and biological management:
- “Monitor and manage soils” and “Pest, disease and weed management” units of the Diploma of Agriculture in Organic Farming, Organic Agriculture Association/Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE.
- Sustainable and Biological Farming Course with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
- “True Fertility Compost Tea Course” and “Microscope Course”, with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Institute
- “Compost & Compost Tea Workshop”, with Paul Taylor, Woodend
- “Irrigation Management Course”, Department of Natural Resources and Sunraysia TAFE
- “Cherry Short Course”, Department of Primary Industries, Shepparton
- “Soil and Agronomy Workshop”, Dr Arden Andersen PhD DO FS
- “Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine
Hugh’s a self-confessed soil and microbe nerd, and spends a fair bit of time looking down a microscope! His jobs on the farm are many and varied, but include:
- Nutrition—making compost tea brews, looking after the worms (his babies), soil testing, leaf testing, fertigation and foliar sprays
- Irrigation—keeping the pumps and irrigation systems in top condition, monitoring soil moisture, deciding when and how much to water the trees
- Pest and disease control—predicting the weather and putting on preventive organic sprays at exactly the right time!
- Weed control
- Machinery fix-it guy
- IT and website fix-it guy
Katie’s a third-generation orchardist and grew up on the farm, but bolted to the city after school and mis-spent a good deal of her youth getting a Bachelor of Science at Monash Uni (which as it turns out gave her a solid grounding in botany and genetics that came in very handy when she came home to the farm 15 years later).
Since coming home Katie’s also done a fair bit of training—in slightly different areas to Hugh—that has helped shaped the direction of the farm.
- “Permaculture Design Certificate” with Cydonia Permaculture
- “Permaculture Certificate 3” with Cydonia Permaculture and Eltham College
- “Soil and Agronomy Workshop” with Dr Arden Anderson PhD DO FS
- “Footprints to Sustainability” course taught by Jane Knight
- “Biodynamic Field Day”, Daylesford
- “Environmental Best Management Practice on Farms”, Department of Primary Industries, Castlemaine
- “Holistic Management” with Kirk Gadzia, Woodend
- “Soil Microbes for Healthy Soil & Improved Vineyard Quality, Department of Primary Industries, Knoxfield
- “Carbon Farming 101”, Carbon Farmers of Australia
- “Carbon Farmers of Australia conference”, Dubbo
We find it works best for us to divide up the jobs according to our main areas of interest (we both have more fun that way), which sees Katie spending most of her days managing the trees, and looking after the fruit all the way from picking to marketing.
Katie’s jobs on the farm are as many and varied as Hugh’s, and include:
- Pruning—5,000 trees and 4 different tree training systems means this is a big job every year
- Fruit picking—choosing the right time to pick each of our 90 varieties, supervising pickers and wwoofers, making sure the fruit reaches the shed (and the markets) in perfect condition
- Packing and marketing—fruit is graded and packed to suit the market for which it’s destined (wholesale, online or farmers market)
- Thinning to manage crop load and quality
- Orchard hygiene—an important defence against disease
- Pest and disease control—preventive tape, netting, pheromones etc.
- Orchard planning—keeping tabs on what new varieties are needed, grafting and pollinisers
Other Farm-y Stuff
We started the process of getting certified organic with NASAA in 2008. Being certified organic means everything we do (and everything we use on our farm) must comply with the Australian Organic Standards. We’re audited once a year by a NASAA officer, who has the legal right to look at EVERYTHING we do, including all our bookwork and procedures. We wholeheartedly support organic certification, and love that it’s such a rigorous process, because we think that gives you – the consumer – the confidence that we actually are doing everything the right way, and not just saying that we are. It’s too easy for people to say they’re organic when what they mean is spray-free, or almost spray-free. When you’re shopping, if someone is claiming to be organic – ask them who they’re certified with, and if they’re not, ask them why not!
Being certified organic means (amongst other things) that no artificial fertilisers are used on the farm. We rely instead on natural fertility (you know, the sort that fed the entire human race before about 1920 when superphospate was invented, and our soils were ruined!). Natural fertility relies on using compost, compost tea and other forms or organic matter to create healthy soil, full of microbes that provide the trees with nutrients.
We’ve also set aside 4.5 hectares of the farm as a revegetation zone, creating a wildlife corridor from the Mt Alexander Regional Park (which borders the farm on the eastern side) through to remnant vegetation on the western side. The zone has been planted with local species, and is slowly being restored to its original condition.
In many ways, the farm still looks as it would have 100 years ago. The property was owned by W.L. Williams and sons, who began planting orchard in the 1880s. By 1909 they had an orchard or ‘garden’ (hence the farm name) of 60 acres, making them Harcourt’s largest fruit growers. They successfully grew apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears and cherries – as we still do today!
Sustainability and resilience come from diversity, and this principle is applied constantly to all parts of our business. So, rather than growing a monoculture of just one type of fruit (which is very vulnerable to environmental conditions), we grow 7 types of fruit, and more than 90 varieties, with more added every year. (The house garden has another 20 or so varieties including nuts and citrus, but these are just to add to the diversity of their own food supply rather than for commercial sale). Growing lots of varieties spreads the risk, reduces disease pressure, improves food security by providing fresh fruit off the tree for almost half the year, spreads the workload and costs, and makes sure the fruit is picked, sold and eaten while it’s fresh.
The diversity principle is also applied to everything else, including for example:
- markets – pick-your-own, wholesale, online and Farmers Markets
- water sources – irrigation (Coliban Water), on-farm storage and increasing the amount of organic matter to store more water in the soil
- income – on-farm (fruit, trees), online (Grow Great Fruit training products) and off-farm (Hugh’s alternative income)
- sources of organic matter – compost, manure, worm food, humates, seaweed and other soil additives come from multiple sources to ensure adequate nutrients are returned to the soil
- biodiversity – we encourage as many different types of birds, insects, arthropods and microbes as possible by having as many different types of plants as possible
We’ve documented every aspect of the business, including our carbon-neutral status, in a Sustainability Plan which includes:
* the principles that guide the business
* strategy and goals
* challenges to sustainable practice
* summary of carbon emissions & sequestration
* key performance indicators including production, profit and satisfaction
* marketing and transport analysis
* pest, disease and environmental conditions review
* water and soil management
You’re welcome to read the whole plan – click on this link to go to Farmnotes and eBooks in the shop to download it for free.
(Of course as soon as you produce any sort of business document it needs updating, so we aim to update the Sustainability Plan every two years, but being human, and busy, it can take a bit longer than that…)
We are both involved with the local scene in all sorts of ways—because it’s so much more fun and interesting than going it alone! Plus it adds to the resilience of our business, as well as helping to build an active community.
Crowd at the Applefest enjoying the ferret races
Some of the things we’re doing at the moment include Hugh’s membership of Coliban Water’s Harcourt Water Services Committee and the La Larr Ba Gauwa Harcourt Mountain Bike Trails Committee of Management, and both of us are members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers Association (of which Katie was Secretary for 10 years, and is now the Community Liaison Officer). Katie’s on the board of the Maldon & District Community Bank,m and the Melbourne Farmers Market Association. She’s also passionate about the Growing Abundance project—a food relocalisation project based in Castlemaine (and not only because it involves lots of cake!) Katie’s also involved each year in the local Harcourt Applefest, a celebration of our district’s long association with the mighty apple.