“The longer we do it the less we do”
Graeme Schultz is a third generation apple orchardist from Forest Range in South Australia. Graeme and his wife Fiona were interested in healthy food and living for a long time prior to becoming certified Organic by NASAA, and they tried many techniques for organic or reduced chemical growing on the family property, before they eventually developed the confidence to make the conversion on their current property. Graeme has always said that this period of experimentation was very important before he could decide to convert. He says “I was not prepared to commit 100% until I was confident that we had all the answers necessary to make a go of it. Basically I was not prepared to gamble everything that the family had developed over three generations of heritage”.
Graeme did maintain an open mind to organic options and experimented with new technologies. He says “as a conventional grower we marketed insecticide free fruit, we adopted pheromone use for control of codling moth early and we used only organic fertilisers, such as poultry manure and clover.”
Graeme and Fiona then purchased a certified organic property nearby. This was not as easy a start as might be imagined, as the property contained many old and run-down trees and the old and new owners had a very different approach to both growing and marketing apples.
Graeme stresses the need to have answers before making the plunge. He says “I knew about apples, but I could not necessarily grow other produce organically - you must know what you are doing”.
The original organic property of 27 hectares includes some bushland and a large dam. About half of the old orchard was pushed and replanted with nearly 6,000 new trees. Graeme says “trees need to be healthy and this is too hard to achieve with old and diseased trees”. The varieties chosen were Abbas. Gala, Jonathon, Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji and Pink Lady.
The new trees required a great deal of work under Graeme’s growing regime. They were all mulched by hand, although Graeme has now developed a mower that mows and lays flat all the grass. He says “this is the basis of our system. We grow grass to build mulch. We tried importing pea straw but we brought in too many problems with the straw. Now we encourage the grasses. The main cost is water, as it takes a lot to keep the grasses growing through the summer.”
Graeme says “we use different mowing options early and later in the season”. Graeme likes to cut tall grass with a hay-cutting action in the spring so that it will lay down flat. If you do not shred or mulch the grass at this stage it will last longer as a protective cover for the soil, and reduce water loss. In this form the mulch will protect and encourage soil organisms and surface dwelling insects too, and the mulch will be incorporated slowly into the soil while being transformed into humus from beneath.
Graeme found that other mowers mulch the grass down to a small size and it disappears too quickly, although he will use a ‘Perfect” mower if necessary later in the season. The mower has a retractable wheel that rides around trees, and allows the mower to work close up to the tree.
Flowers thrive between the apple trees
Lots of strawberry clover has been sown under the trees, but the grasses are all volunteers.
Graeme also spent long hours with the brushcutter, around new trees and within the tree row. He says “we find that this is the best method to preserve the row of mulch down the tree line.” We discuss at this point the skill and satisfaction which comes from hours of careful use of this tool, cutting so that the grass falls evenly and retains its length on the ground. Despite the satisfaction, doing this over 6,000 new trees was a daunting job. However Graeme is happy with the result. He still uses a brush-cutter as necessary in the orchard.
Now Graeme has the benefit of three generations of apple growing, ten years of early experimenting and a decade of successful organic growing. He says “We find the longer we are doing it, the less we do. We have now built up the system so we can tend towards letting things go and feel they balance out. Others will spray at the first sign of a problem but we can’t do that in organics. Anyway, the conventional growers will never know what might have happened without the sprays.”
“Each year as the trees get older and we get more confidence in the orchard ecosystem, we think we have made up any lost ground on conventional orchards. For instance, a pond that looked very murky when we first arrived has benefited greatly from the reeds we allowed to survive. We may well have sprayed them out, if this property had not been certified, but they have evolved a very natural reed bed system that has cleaned up the water. This water seems down through a serious of ponds before it goes into our main dam.”
Graeme uses a soil consultant, Bryan Mcleod, who applies the Albrecht method. His soil has high magnesium and low calcium, so they use lime and gypsum, and a little boron. He says “we are not forever chasing fertilizers. Sometimes we find low boron, but the next soil tests may say we have adequate boron. Only one block has ever had phosphate. This was previously a neglected orchard adjacent to the original land, now farmed by the Schultz family. Graeme says “we also use a little meat meal, really to grow the grass rather than feed the tree”. He continues, “we find that mulching the grass is the best value for us. Composting is good too, but our problem is a suitable site for large scale composting, which takes up space.” Graeme said “nature works in very large tonnages for compost” and “we like to let nature in to compost the grass under the trees.”
He says “we also use some seaweed and fish emulsion in small quantities” and “we try to use good science to target fertility and assist the natural recycling process rather than using large quantities of products”.
Graeme and Fiona’s son Carey has recently joined the family enterprise, adding a new generation of drive and new ideas to the business.
“Our main prevention is to get the leaves composted down as quickly as possible. On Carey’s block he has raked them into rows and used a vacuum machine to carry them to a compost heap. On the rest of the property we have mainly raked them into rows to compost. They combine well with grass to compost, and we turn them with a bobcat.”
“We believe that the cooperation with conventional growers is very useful. For instance we used the isomates early in their development in trials, but that tool would not have been developed for organic growers alone.” This system has eliminated codling moth entirely from most areas of the orchard.
“We are also members of a weather monitoring scheme, which lets us identify when trees are susceptible to fungus. It means we do not use unnecessary protective sprays.” (This is important to reduce resistance accumulation and leaf burn.)
“We avoid the ‘them versus us’ attitude. We go to local meetings, pick up some useful ideas and ignore the rubbish.”
“If the industry is to grow and progress, many growers will have to come from the conventional ranks. We don’t believe that we have to compromise standards, but we can cooperate.”
Graeme has also used one application of winter oil for woolly aphid, but feels this may not be necessary again. He says “we believe in balance but there are still many interactions which we don’t understand”.
Graeme and Fiona have recently exported granny smiths to Malaysia and a local retailer does send small quantities of apples to Asia, but Graeme is happier to supply local markets, doubting the sustainability of “flying perfect granny smiths to Asia so that rich people can have apple juice”. He says “it does not agree with our social conscience to freight food so far, so we pefer to encourage Australian stores.”
Some apples also go to interstate wholesalers.
Graeme uses returnable plastic crates, which he believes are more eco-friendly that disposable boxes, and protect the flavour of fruit better.
Graeme concludes “we are still learning to do less. We don’t believe in too much interference, such as GMO. We think of the promoters of GMO as equivalent to the original settlers who cut down the trees around here. They thought they were doing good but from our perspective it was a crime to take so much and so carelessly. But stringybarks can come back, but with GMOs we are not certain they can ever be contained once let loose.”
“A neighbour had patch of apples he was going to convert to organic, and the soil test showed up DDT, which he had only ever used once in the orchard. The remnant of that chemical application is still there twenty years later. We know that if we give nature time, it will heal itself, and even the DDT residues in that apple orchard, although present, are now locked up and not getting into the fruit. I fear that GMOs will prove to be just not removable, and self-propagating, and therefore have more severe impact than the chemical farming system”.