Fruits of Labour
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD CORNISH
The apple crop in Harcourt is ripening nicely. The long, warm March, while a headache to many farmers, has allowed the 2018 crop to flourish without the added burden of humidity-loving fungus and mildews. “It’s been one of best years for us,” says Katie Finlay. She and her husband Hugh have a mixed fruit orchard of just under 5ha planted in the granitic soil of the Harcourt Valley. Called Mount Alexander Fruit Garden, it is centred around the old weatherboard farmhouse and hand-hewn timber outbuildings. The abrupt slopes of Mount Alexander, its summit crowned with great outcrops of granite rocks, looms close by.
She and Hugh take us through their newly planted apple orchard. Some are old eating varieties such as Snow – a smaller apple with French heritage, a pink-red skin and snow-white flesh. They run through the names of some of the other varieties they have planted: a mix of old apple varieties with names like Geeveston Fanny and Peasgood Nonesuch. These are varieties that were once common across the orchards of Harcourt but haven’t been grown for generations. “Our farm has been an apple orchard since the gold rush,” says Katie. Although gold was discovered in nearby Barkers Creek in the early 1850s, Harcourt stood outside the Mount Alexander goldfields. Local farmers grew in prosperity by growing fruit and vegetables for the miners of the gold boom. Apple growing continued and thrived with the arrival of a water channel built to siphon water from the Coliban River to sluice gold bearing soil at Specimen Creek in 1881.
The old open concrete irrigation channel that was built over a hundred years ago could lose almost 50% of its water through evaporation or leakage. It was recently replaced with a new underground pipe. Despite more water security Katie and Hugh, who bought the property from Katies parents in 1991, are doing their best to conserve water. What is very interesting is that unlike other growers who graft their fruit onto dwarf stock, the Finlays are grafting their varieties onto rootstock they themselves have planted from seed. “Rootstock planted from seed produces a larger tree,” explains Katie. “A larger tree with deeper roots,” adds Hugh. They explain that modern apples grown on dwarf rootstock have shallower roots, relying more on drip irrigation and the artificial fertilisers dissolved in the water for their nutrient. Fruit trees grown on apple seed stock send their roots deep down foraging for water in the soil and gaining mineral nutrient from deeper in the soil profile. The apples grown on these trees have a different flavour – a sense of terroir as it were. The trees are also larger and taller trees that, although more difficult to harvest, create avenues and a microclimate under the foliage. “We need to make the most of the water,” says Katie. “Because with this changing climate it is not getting any wetter,” adds Hugh.
Hugh and Katie produce 140 different varieties of fruit from November with the first of the cherries, through the stone fruit of summer, the plums of autumn and the apples and pears that take them through until May. They do not store their fruit under controlled atmosphere and so are selling their fruit freshly picked from the tree. They have a popular following at Farmers Markets around Central Victoria and across Melbourne including: Wesley Hill; Castlemaine; Bendigo; Coburg; Carlton and Alphington.
Their farm gate is open for fresh fruit sales at 69 Danns Rd, Harcourt Wed-Fri from 10am to 4pm from November until the end of April.