As featured in One Farm Day … stories from beyond the farm gate, October 30, 2012
Story and images by Sophie Hansen.
‘To be an orchardist,’ says Greg Brooke-Kelly, ‘it helps to be tenacious and not too wrapped up in the idea of the dream harvest.’
Greg is pretty well qualified to give advice on this agricultural industry – he grew up on an orchard and for the last 40 years has run his own.
‘Over a 10 year period you may have one or two great seasons,’ he says, ‘five or six will be average and there might be one or two disasters. I have found that it helps not to have all your eggs in the one basket so here we grow a good mix of stone-fruit from cherries to peaches, nectarines, plums and prunes.’
Greg’s father Noel came to the Maimaru area just north of Young in 1957. He purchased a farm that was to become the family’s home and orchard and while it did have a small prune orchard, the farm was mostly used for grazing sheep so Noel quickly added cherries, peaches and nectarines and the whole family was involved in the orchard’s seasonal work load.
Twenty-five years later Greg went out on his own and purchased a small 30-acre orchard called Elsinore. It was just down the road from the family farm but destined to evolve into something quite different.
‘While I grew up on a traditional, commercial orchard, I guess I always felt uncomfortable using chemicals,’ Greg says. ‘But it wasn’t until I bought Elsinore that I really started to look into organics as the way forward for me.’ Being organic has enabled Greg to tap into a niche market that can handle smaller volumes of fruit and appreciates quality, especially flavour and texture.
These days, Elsinore is home to over 2000 fruit trees and 25 varieties and the farm supplies fruit from November (cherries) right through to April (plums). From old-school Santa Rosa plums to red haven peaches, van and lapin cherries and the rare and fragrant white Fragar peach; this orchard is sustaining a range of rare and interesting fruit trees. ‘Because we are a small operation, we can farm varieties that might not suit bigger commercial orchards,’ Greg says.
Visit Elsinore in Spring, and the landscape is a pale patchwork of pink and white blossoms. Orchards seem to cover the entire valley.
This area just north of Young has been producing fruit on a commercial scale since the 1870s. But it wasn’t until after WWI that the orchard industry really took wings. Greg explains how the Returned Soldiers Settlement Act handed over parcels of land to discharged soldiers to start up small farms, and that many of these were designated to be fruit orchards exactly where Greg and his family is farming now.
‘The climate in our region is well suited to orchards,’ Greg says, ‘we are on the western edge of the south-west slopes so have higher rainfall zone and cold winters which are important for bud setting.’
Having seen the ups and downs of fruit growing during his childhood, Greg now runs his business with a more holisitic approach. Shortly after establishing his own orchard, Greg invested in a small commercial fruit dryer and twenty years later is still drying much of his crop.
Now Greg sells not only fresh-picked produce, but a range of preserved fruit from dried cherries coated in rich Belgian chocolate to sulphur-free peach and plum halves of bright, intense flavour and dried prunes which are sent off to become paste and then used in gourmet food products.
‘Our dried fruit is different to the mass-produced alternative because it isn’t treated with any chemicals at all, and because we control the entire process ourselves, we can pick at full ripeness to give maximum flavour and quality.’
The drying side of Greg’s business means that even if the cherries split from too much rain or the fruit sustains the odd harmless blemish, he can dry them, preserve their flavour and send them off to a grateful market. ‘I can generally salvage something even from the most disastrous harvest,’ he says.
‘It’s a huge satisfaction for me seeing how many happy customers we have. People who appreciate the quality of our fruit, fresh and dry, keep coming back for more and are prepared to pay a fair price for it,’ Greg says.
While the orchard work falls pretty much entirely on Greg’s shoulders, he does have a constant stream of WWOOF-ers (World wide opportunities on organic farms) come and go, particularly during harvest. ‘They are a huge help to me,’ Greg says, ‘and it’s great to meet so many interesting people from around the world. I am generally a sole operator here so its nice to have company while you work!’
With the cherry harvest set to kick off in just a couple of weeks, it’s the quiet before the storm and Greg is working on thinning the fruit out on his peach and nectarine trees and keeping the grass down. Otherwise it’s a quiet and steady road towards harvest.
So far it’s not looking too bad. There has been a bit of frost damage to the plums, peaches and nectarines but overall, Greg is optimistic for a good year. ‘What we don’t want right now is a hailstorm or prolonged rain event. For now it’s simply a matter of keeping your fingers crossed!’