So, it’s been raining…

You’ve probably noticed we’re in the middle of a La Niña – it’s been a bit hard to ignore! The last time we had this much water running on the farm was 11 years ago, in the 2010/11 season. That year the big dam overflowed so hard it had a current running through it for weeks. Then we had minor flooding in 2015. Last spring was pretty wet, and this year there’s no sign yet that things are easing yet – it’s raining as I write this.

It’s now completely obvious that “1-in-100-year” events are happening much more often.

We’re fine and very glad we live and farm on the side of a hill. Things could be so much worse, and we’re thinking of the communities north of us in Echuca, Swan Hill, Rochester, Kerang, Lismore, and many places in between. Hundreds of farms and houses have flooded and communities have been cut off for weeks. And of course, a number of people have lost their lives.

Yet in Australia, we’re relatively well off. This year flooding in Pakistan has killed almost 1,500 people, and more than a million have been displaced. There have been severe floods with millions affected in Colombia, Gabon, Indonesia, Chad, the Philippines, Venezuala, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Mexico, Cambodia, South Sudan, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Thailand, and Ghana – and that was just in October!

We’re grateful that we’re safe and fairly well-resourced. But extreme seasons like this definitely have an impact on food production, and if you’re not a farmer it can be hard to know what’s really going on.

So we thought we’d share the impact of this very wet spring on your local food supply, from the perspective of one farm.

Cows walking along the river/driveway

The dairy (by Tess)

Even though the constant rain has made it hard to stay positive, I’m becoming more and more aware of how lucky I am in the dairy this season. For me, it’s about managing the logistic of it being wet, not how to deal with loss.

The cows are mostly fine in the wet except for Quartz who hobbles around with her sore feet which I am constantly trimming and poulticing.

The paddocks are sodden, with an inch of water sitting on most areas. This means that it is very difficult to manage the herd without causing damage to the soil as they pug up boggy areas.

The mobile milking parlour is becoming less mobile as the locations I can find to park it where the cows can come to be milked, the calves can spend the night and I can drive to every morning are seriously limited to the side of the road/track.

I was on the phone a lot last week talking to other producers who I work with and it made me really appreciate my situation. So many stories of farmers spending all their time fixing fences due to trees and flood waters, farmers not being able to drive onto the paddocks to plant or harvest crops, crops stunted by the lack of heat, fungal infections, or completely wiped out by flood waters. There are some tough times ahead.

Yet driving out to collect our grain from Burrum Biodynamics last week we crossed over Bells Swamp, usually only recognisable as a swamp because of the dry red gums. This year it has burst into life, with water, growth, birds, and insects everywhere. It’s a good reminder that it’s us humans and our systems that are struggling the most, much of the natural world is thriving.

The market garden – Gung Hoe Growers (by Mel)

After having two previously cooler and wetter spring/summers I thought I knew what we were up for. However after watching my fellow grower friends live through full La Nina on the southeast coast of NSW for the last 2 years, when the rain didn’t stop I got in touch. Get another off-farm job was their immediate suggestion and a list of crops to not grow alongside a list that they had seen do well in the relentless wet, boggy conditions.

So I was fortunate enough to be able to (hopefully) find shifts at a local winery for events and had the most interesting experience working on a wedding whilst watching the weather radar come through with a front spotted with red (the heaviest) dots. Here we were, warm and dry (very grateful for rooves and that we live in a place where buildings are pretty good) whilst I was watching the weather outside pummel the crops, drown the garlic, wash away seeds, cause root rot and fungal disease and stunted growth due to water logging and the much much cooler weather. This year our spring crops either didn’t grow or died.

As a small business with not much buffer, we can’t really afford months and months of no crops as well as paying wages (hence my third job).

We have been unable to get onto the field to prep beds for planting due to how wet its been and have to take the moments of dryish and sun to do what we need to. Unfortunately, this has meant a lot more hoeing (tilling) than we’d planned for, but we’ve done our best to keep it at a minimum.

This was our year to see what was possible, what we could do, the team and I, but I think I’ve accepted the fact that seasonality is becoming ever more a myth and this is the new future of farming. With no capital, we are unable to invest in the infrastructure we need to protect ourselves from the growing extremes and unknown.

To say this season has been a rollercoaster doesn’t really express the stress and fear and emotional toll it is taking. Ever grateful for our Gung Hoe team on site and the background support who make it possible to turn up every day

If there was ever a time to support your local producers, and plant some food in your own backyard, it’s now. Everyone across the board has been affected and I expect to see food chain disruptions in the following months.

The bush has been resounding with life and vibrancy however and I am so aware of life brimming in other areas that aren’t the market garden. Making sure I keep that in sight also keeps the scales more balanced.

Thea Foster (friend/volunteer), Blossom (Year 10 work experience), Mel, Alison Hanley (Saltgrass podcast), and GHG employees Clauds, Pip (at rear), and Will

The orchard (by Meg from The Orchard Keepers)

This wet & wild weather has meant bogged tractors, a plethora of fungal diseases on the stonefruit, low pollination (bees only like to visit on sunny days!), hail damage, wet toes, and lots of jobs we just can’t do until it dries out.

As we look across the orchard, we see a whole lot of trees under stress due to the wet weather. 

We are about to lose an entire block of peach and nectarine trees, and some cherries too. Apricots are struggling and many of our plums will be hail damaged. Despite our best care, and support from Katie and Hugh, overall, we are looking at a low yield for this season.

On the upside, there have been stunning rainbows, loads of lovely beneficial clover coming up under the fruit trees, and we certainly have not had to irrigate yet!

Because of all this, we have made the difficult decision to cancel all of our weekly box CSA subscriptions for this season. In ordinary circumstances under a CSA model, our members would be with us through ups and downs and if we were 10 years in and they had tasted our apricots before, we might ask them to hang in there with us. But with the existing pressures of the season, the additional pressure of filling boxes was going to be too much for our team. We know for many of you that participating in the CSA represents a large outlay for your household budget and feel that the state of the crop this season is too much risk to pass on to our members. We’ll be selling fruit locally and in Coburg over the summer instead, and offering a lighter ‘Friends and Lovers of the Orchard Keepers’ or “FLO(C)K” subscription that will include two boxes throughout the season and access to our events.

Build your connection to the orchard and with us 

We have some summer workshops coming up for any keen home orchardist (discounted prices for CSA members). If you are laboring over fruit trees in your own home, you might like to consider honing your skills and coming along. 

Baby fig trees washed out on the day we got 100mm of rain

Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery (by Katie)

We made the mistake of weeding before the day we got 100mm of rain. Bad idea. Our nursery rows run north-south downhill, and without the ground cover of the weeds, the topsoil just got washed down the hill and deep gullies formed alongside the young trees and seedlings that we’ve planted in the last couple of months.

We lost a few trees but were able to find most of them at the bottom of the hill and replant them. We had to scrounge topsoil from between the rows to fill in the gullies, so the whole nursery looks a bit messy – and it’s annoying that there’s so much soil at the bottom of the hill where we don’t want it!

Losing topsoil meant we also lost organic matter and nutrients, which we’ll now have to replace. We do this anyway – we usually weed, then compost, and then mulch, but we didn’t have time to do the composting and mulching before the rain. If we had, or if we’d left the weeds in place until after the worst of the weather, the soil probably would have had enough protection.

We’ve also now dug proper drainage ditches around the nursery to direct the runoff around the nursery, rather than through it. We’ve learned a lot this season about how to cope with a super-wet spring, but we’d rather not go through another one for a while!

Water pouring off our place through the neighbour’s orchard

The property

Our soil here at Harcourt is famous for its variability. We have topsoil in some places, clay in others, and massive granite boulders that make their presence felt in orchards and paddocks. This year our normally dry creek is running a banker and the dams have been overflowing for weeks. The soil is unstable. Trees have fallen over, sometimes onto fences.

Hugh and his SES buddies clearing a fallen tree from the driveway

Springs are popping up in paddocks and creating car-swallowing holes in the driveway. We used to have just a couple of trips up and down the driveway every day. Now with the co-op on the farm, we might have 20 cars coming and going in a day.

The constant rain and extra traffic mean the driveway has washed out. This has made it hard for our people to get to work, and impossible for customers to come and pick up their produce. Kind neighbours have lent us their shed as a temporary pick-up point, and some of our farmers are having to do deliveries.

One of the many natural spring/sink holes of slop – positioned right in the driveway

Getting through

Lost crops, dead fruit trees, and cows with sore feet. More work, more worry, and fears about the future – that pretty much sums up the negative impact of this weather pattern for everyone on our farm.

For you – our lovely customers and supporters – that translates into less food we can offer you this season. The responsibility of not growing as much food as we’d like weighs heavily on our co-op members.

But it’s just a season! And even though we’ve had some losses, our diversity has pulled us through again, and we’re still on track to produce plenty of food.

Thanks for your support, not just for us but for every farmer that’s going through this wet, wet season.